By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
GREAT RESTAURATEUR: Billy Bayouth in front of his successful restaurant, which he has operated in downtown Tulsa since the early 1980s.
ROSSY GILLE for GTR Newspapers
Familiarity breeds content.
Few things in downtown Tulsa are as familiar as Billy’s On the Square.
Even fewer things breed the contentment of savoring Billy’s signature Theta burger.
For 32 years, Billy Bayouth, along with his loyal and unwavering staff, has been downtown Tulsa’s lunch-time port-of-call.
Billy’s has been creating burgers on opposite sides of Bartlett Square since the days when Main Street was a pedestrian mall.
First in the Sinclair Building, now in the Mayo Building, Billy’s on the Square has made fewer moves than City Hall.
Billy’s has been more of a consistent presence at Fifth and Main streets than Bartlett Square itself.
While Bartlett Square has transitioned from landmark fountain to dry hole, from traffic impediment to light show, Billy’s has remained a gastronomic force of nature.
Comfortable and inviting, Billy’s offers the best seat in Tulsa for noontime people watching.
Billy’s window to the world might be surpassed only by its kitchen offerings, always under the watchful eye and practiced hand of Bayouth himself.
Menu favorites include nonesuch onion rings, charburgers, chicken sandwiches and Caesar’s salads. And then there is the fall staple of Billy’s blue-ribbon chili.
Yet for all the dining-room experiences and the one-of-a-kind location, Billy’s On the Square has earned its reputation as a downtown landmark for one undeniable reason: the effervescent Billy Bayouth.
He is part of a widely known, highly respected family invested in the retail and service industry of greater Tulsa.
Bayouths have for years been involved in businesses such as clothing and food, entertainment and insurance.
Billy Bayouth, now 65, became arguably the most prominent link on the family’s food chain, though it might not have been in his original plan.
A graduate of Jenks High School, he earned a degree in marketing and management from Northeastern Oklahoma State University. Cooking Theta burgers was not on his career menu, despite his mother, Josephine, operating King Sol’s diner in Jenks during his formative years.
“I didn’t learn enough there to know anything,” he said.
Fresh out of college in 1974, he was encouraged by a family member to take a management position with a popular pizza restaurant in Tulsa’s London Square shopping center, My Pi.
It was a fortuitous alignment.
During his five years with My Pi, Bayouth went from restaurant novice to restaurant impresario. He met his wife-to-be there. He forged working relationships with individuals that would last for decades to come.
Additionally, his time at My Pi provided the impetus for Bayouth and his brother, Sol, to join longtime family friend Nick Samara in opening Hamburger Haven near 71st Street and Lewis Avenue in 1979.
“Nick had the experience, and Sol and I helped manage Hamburger Haven,” Bayouth said.
From that wellhead sprang the hamburger legacies of brothers Billy and Sol Bayouth.
Samara was emerging as a restaurateur of note, following in the footsteps of his father, Mike. Nick Samara made his presence felt in the operations of Pepper’s Grill and Cantina, Big Mike’s hamburger emporium and Celebrity Restaurant.
Sol eventually opened Pee Wee’s Burgers and, later, Sol’s Grill while taking part in an upscale entertainment venue, Tulsa Bandstand.
Sol was no stranger to the entertainment scene. He served as assistant manager at the Copa Club within the Hilton Hotel in Tulsa when cousin Jon Bayouth was manager. Sol later emerged as maître d when Jon opened the iconic Ziegfield’s nightclub.
Along the same time, Billy was applying all the experience he gained from Hamburger Haven, building and opening Pee Wee’s Burger Express just before settling into downtown Tulsa in 1984. In the late ‘80s, he expanded with a second Billy’s at 51st Street and Yale Avenue.
Nick Samara, he said, helped put down the foundation for Billy’s On the Square.
“Nick taught me a lot. How to do onion rings. How to do Caesar’s salad,” Bayouth said.
“I could never have done Billy’s without the experience from Hamburger Haven.”
Bayouth entered the downtown market during the infamous downturn of oil fortunes of the early ‘80s.
Even after signing a lease for ground-level space within the Sinclair Building, southeast corner of Bartlett Square, Bayouth was forced to endure a series of roadblocks.
Due to a mixup in contracts, the space was not available. The space went to a computer store. He reluctantly agreed to a second-story space, but then had to wait some six months before stairway access could be completed.
When Billy’s On the Square eventually opened in the Sinclair Building, the last remaining operator-controlled elevator in downtown was still in service from the lobby to the second floor.
With his location in the heart of the Mayfest throngs, Bayouth flourished in the spring and Billy’s became a festival staple to this day.
In 2001, while unable to agree on a new Sinclair lease, Bayouth landed the vacant ground-floor space in the Mayo Building diagonally across Bartlett Square, on the northwest corner.
Bayouth completed the move in less than a week.
Within seven years, the Center opened within walking distance from Billy’s and a new light was illuminating the downtown landscape.
Bayouth was among the first to secure a vendor’s permit for food sales within the facility. The result: a de facto Billy’s On the .
As in other Bayouth ventures, the stars were in perfect alignment. Billy’s On the Square operates from 10:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. weekdays. Most events are scheduled at night.
Bayouth can work both sites. Some of his staff also does double duty. He has a roster of experienced helpers to complete the staff needed at the .
Bayouth points with pride to his number of long-term employees.
He and his wife, Anita, have worked side by side at Billy’s since 1984. So, too, have Stephanie Stewart, Anita’s sister, and Donald Compton and Mark Rector. Maurice Barnett joined the roster in 1985.
Most have ties with Bayouth dating back to My Pi.
Bartlett Square, Bayouth said, “has always been one of the best locations in town.”
Yet the key, he said, to the success of Billy’s has been “experienced, good help.”
In addition to the aforementioned six, Bayouth counts nine-year veteran Ollie Carbin as part of the Billy’s team with 200 years of Theta burger experience. All in one little square of downtown Tulsa.
Bayouth has no trouble placing the estimate of sales of Billy’s burgers at “3 million plus.”
And he sees no slowdown.
Instead, he sees an uptick.
Talking of increased downtown traffic, due to a rise in condo and apartment residents, Bayouth is giving considerable thought to expanding the hours of Billy’s.
“It’s coming,” he said.
“There is a possibility of sometime late summer that we might start experimenting with some night business,” he said.
Just as downtown Tulsa recovered and prospered after the oil bust of the ‘80s, Billy’s On the Square will be adjusting to the new and improved residential environment.
Billy’s On the Square once was called a shining star in the gloomy days of downtown Tulsa.
That star remains just as bright as ever.