Finally, a drink with Billy!
I thought it was called ten shots with you?
That works. What’s the story behind our ‘Billy’s Beerita’?
I took a three year program at Harvard Business School and after studying for so long I’d go to this little Mexican joint. One day I didn’t know if I wanted a margarita or a beer and the guy was like, “Just do both, man!” and he poured beer in my margarita. There are a lot of things happening in the mixologist space where they are adding ginger beer or some sort of bubbly topper and I love it. If you want more beer, you just lift the bottle up.
What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about you?
That I have it easy. That I was given what I have. I don’t think people understand what I did to get here. I think there’s a misconception about my values. What makes this company and these places work is not me, it’s everyone on the team. Sunda has 150 team players, I’m just one. I work my ass off but so does everyone on my team; every chef, every waiter, every busboy, every host.
Your job is to always be out and about in the scene. How often are you actually drinking?
I choose wisely when I drink. The secret is that rarely when you see me out I’m actually drinking real liquor but tonight is a night where I’m full-blown drinking. I’ll feel bad that the entire world will be partying on Saturday and Sunday for St. Patrick’s Day while I’ll be working a 20-hour shift, so tonight’s my night. That being said, me being happy, outgoing and entertaining has nothing to do with liquor.
Do you have a day where you turn everything off?
Sundays and maybe a piece of Mondays. But I can’t sleep in, so I still]wake up right at 7 or 8. I’ll check to make sure my world is intact, if brunch is off the ground at Sunda, how the places did the night before and see if the company needs me then I’ll just put it all aside. I’ll bust out a huge breakfast immediately and pass out for an hour or two then do a brunch at Rockit or Sunda and veg out, watch movies and be surrounded by family. My mom is from the Philippine Islands so it’s in our culture for 20 or 30 people to get together with lots of babies and food everywhere.
At what age did you realize you had a knack for networking?
When I was 19 I started as the doorman for the best club I’ve ever seen in this city called Shelter. It was this really amazing club — Madonna, Prince, Duran Duran, Studio 54 . I became a relationship-building freak, that is where I got my start. I was just shaking everyone’s hand as they came in, saying goodbye and making sure everyone was having an amazing experiences. At the time, I had nothing and was just trying to get my name out there. I wasn’t the biggest guy or the coolest guy, I would just make sure people were happy. Even if I couldn’t let them in that night I would figure out how to get their number and bring them back on another night when I could take care of them. People began to remember who I was and soon owners from other venues started offering me positions to come to their place. They thought all of the people I was taking care of would come follow me to wherever I was at so that made me become a promoter. Then at 22 I opened up my own place.
How does a 19-year-old get a job in a Chicago nightclub?
It just so happened around that time people were starting to sue bar owners for their security beating people up when they threw them out of the place. Owners began hiring security guards with martial arts training. I had grown up in martial arts and had got pulled in that way. We wouldn’t hurt people we would just lock them up and take them out, all non-violence.
What do you think you had that every other doorman in the city didn’t?
I truly cared about the people who walked up. I wanted to know who they were and how to make them happy. I didn’t go to school for it, I didn’t learn from a mentor. I literally started with just learning how to take care of people and that’s really what hospitality is all about. You’re just zeroing in on what people want and figuring out a way, as hard as it is, to deliver above and beyond what everyone else is doing.
Did you throw house parties in high school?
No, I had to work throughout school! I didn’t get to do all of that stuff. I had some pretty rough breaks. My dad got sick early on and I was put on the street to take care of my family so I didn’t get to hang out with people much.
Some great parties have gone down at the Underground. What’s the recipe for a successful night?
Diversity in personalities. You need some friction, you need traction and you need some things that don’t fit in a good way, meaning they intrigue people to learn more and to look one way or the other. I think people don’t drink for much cheaper in a more comfortable environment on their couch because they want to be visually entertained so a successful night needs people to be of all sorts, it needs to be a mix.
It seems impossible to find you without a hat on.
When I was a kid I was poor as sh-t. I wore jeans and t-shirts. I still do! This shirt is from a thrift store, I never change. When I was 21 I graduated college and wanted to go to law school but had no money and life was not so good. I knew if I went to law school I’d have to work a lot and I wanted to live my dream so I dropped everything with not much money and spent all of my money on a ticket to Thailand. I lived in a Buddhist temple and I trained in martial arts everyday for 5 months. I became skinny and shredded and they shaved my head. I came back totally dark with a shaved head and when I came home it was the hottest summer of all time so I thought I’d just stick with the shaved head. Back then people weren’t shaving their head, it was like me and Michael Jordan. With that and the hats, people started to recognize me and it became my identity.
You’ve recently become a father. Do you want your son to follow in your footsteps?
No, I want him to do whatever he wants. I don’t care what he does. I’ve learned the benefits of hard work and education from being in a place where you can’t afford school and almost having to drop out. Those are things I almost wouldn’t have been able to do without hard work. Hard work in my world means a lot of preparation and meeting amazing people. I do think intensely about that, how do I make him make other people feel happy and good about themselves after they interact with him? How can he have that insight and that drive to make him want to do that? I want to empower him so much with love and support that he can make those choices.
Do you and your wife want more kids?
I’d like two or three more. The whole process is amazing, every moment. There is something new everyday. Everyday I’m freaking out.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
My dad used to ingrain in my head, “Make sure people know, like and trust you.” It’s easy to say but it’s really hard to get people to know you, then to get them to like you and then for them to really trust you. Even trusting that when they come to Sunda or Rockit they are going to get a certain kind of meal or service or respect, that’s the trust part.
Do you ever see yourself scaling back your involvement in your restaurants and clubs?
I would like to but only because they don’t need me. There are a lot of things I want to do. I’ve been doing a lot of TV and movies when they come to town and I get small parts. I want to bring more movies to Chicago.
How often are you able to step back and reflect on your success?
Every Sunday. I grew up in Lincoln Park and would walk around the lagoon by the zoo. I still go there to think about my situation back in the day and reflect and be thankful.
I’m an old school person. I like Run D.M.C.
What would your last meal be?
It would be traditional Filipino barbecue; a mix of barbecue pork, lumpia and pancit noodles. I don’t eat it all of the time but it makes me melt. My lola, which is my grandma, would make that.
If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?
It would be my grandpa from the Philippines. It’s a third world country and he worked his way up to become an attorney. He always worked really hard and raised a huge family and was well respected in his community. He died when I was two and I’d just want him to know it all worked out.
Photography by Neal Agustin
Did you enjoy this feature? Subscribe to our newsletter and never miss a drink, we promise we’ll never spam you!