Elliot Nelson: Full Speed Ahead
By EMILY RAMSEY
TRAILBLAZER: Elliot Nelson sits in his office in the East Village. After opening McNellie’s 10 years ago, Nelson went on to open a number of establishments in downtown Tulsa and played a key role in initiating downtown’s development. He has also expanded his businesses into South Tulsa and Oklahoma City.
Little did Elliot Nelson know what he was starting when he opened his first venture in downtown Tulsa a decade ago. McNellie’s will celebrate its 10-year anniversary on March 11. Back then, Nelson began to blaze a trail that few were willing to follow at the time.
“The first couple years were rough,” he admits. “It didn’t always look like it (McNellie’s) was going to make it.”
But make it, it did.
The entrepreneur went on to open a number of successful businesses in downtown Tulsa before expanding his brand into South Tulsa and Oklahoma City—not a story that the Union graduate would have foreseen as he headed off to college years earlier.
A fourth-generation Tulsan, Elliot attended the University of Notre Dame and, instead of planning to return to his hometown after graduation, saw himself moving to a larger metropolitan area, like New York City or Chicago, he says.
Yet, sentiment got the best of him.
“I would meet different people who had this preconceived notion of what Tulsa is,” he says. “I love Tulsa, and I felt like these people have no idea what Tulsa is about.”
So, instead of deserting his home, as many of his former classmates had done, “I thought, ‘Maybe I should go back and help make Tulsa a better place.’”
His decision to open McNellie’s was the first step in reflecting the philosophy that Nelson endeavors to follow with every business he creates: find an area in need of a rebirth and with an untapped market. “That’s what’s most fun for me, to go in and build a project that makes an area better,” he says.
That was no closer to the truth than in Tulsa’s downtown.
“In other cities, you’d see restaurants filled around 5:00 with people in business suits and ties having a drink,” he says. Not so in Tulsa. “So many people are working downtown, and there was nowhere to drink after work, absolutely no place.”
A place in need of a rebirth and with an untapped market.
The pub opened in 2004. Nelson later reopened The Colony in 2006—”the first bar my father ever went to”—followed by the opening of El Guapo’s, its Mexican food concept inspired by its rooftop area, The Tavern, in response to the need for an upscale downtown establishment, and Fassler Hall—”I took one look at the interior and said, ‘This should be a beer hall,’” among other businesses.
As downtown Tulsa’s amount of restaurants grew, Nelson’s interest in opening new establishments shifted to Oklahoma City and South Tulsa.
He opened McNellie’s in Oklahoma City’s midtown area. “We looked at Oklahoma City and asked, ‘What part of downtown looks like it needs the most help?’” he says.
McNellie’s South City in Tulsa came about for a similar reason. “Even with everything in South Tulsa, I would still have people tell me that they had nowhere to go for a beer for happy hour,” he says, “so we listened to the people.”
Yokozuna will soon open at 91st Street and Yale Avenue. Nelson also plans to bring El Guapo’s to South Tulsa and expand Fassler Hall and the Dust Bowl into Oklahoma City.
Apparently, Nelson doesn’t tire easily. Even with three young children, he has more projects in the works.
Another reason for his company’s growth—the McNellie’s Group—is his desire to provide for his employees, he says. “We have employees who have grown and need a place to expand their careers. I want to create places for them to grow.”
One of his upcoming projects takes that responsibility a bit further: “The idea came because a lot of my employees can’t afford to live downtown,” says Nelson. He expects to break ground in the spring on two apartment projects, Hartford Commons, near 3rd Street and Greenwood Avenue, and the Coliseum, at 7th Street and Elgin Avenue. Rent at the Coliseum will start at $550 and Hartford Commons at $800.
Nelson is particularly looking forward to an upcoming project that has yet to be announced in Tulsa. “You’ll know it when you see it,” he says.
In the meantime, Nelson gets daily joy from seeing the fruits of his labor, whether that’s witnessing his employees’ advancements or sharing in the activity at his businesses.
“Especially on a bad day, I enjoy going into one of my restaurants, seeing people talking and enjoying themselves, hearing the ambient noise of the restaurant,” he says. “That’s the stuff that keeps me going.”