breathing new life into
the willcox of aiken GEOFF AND SHANNON ELLIS RECREATE THE HOTEL’S GRANDUER OF THE PAST and welcome in the community
Shuttered for decades and then operated in a stuffy style the locals shunned, new ownership and management have restored The Willcox hotel and restaurant to the lively center of fun and good taste in Aiken, for which it was originally famed in the first half of the 20th century. Owner Geoff Ellis (with his wife Shannon) spent many summers growing up in Aiken. He says he had his eye on The Willcox and The Restaurant at The Willcox since he was a student in New Orleans, working in restaurants while at Tulane University. New Orleans was where Geoff learned to work hard and make it fun. “I always had a vision of what The Willcox was to Aiken and what it should be,” says Geoff. Geoff already had a nearly two-decade odyssey of opening fine restaurants across the United States and, by the end of 2008, he and his wife, Shannon, owned two thriving restaurants in New Zealand. After some very long-distance arrangements, the Ellises opened The Restaurant at The Willcox in September 2009 and the energy of the place ramped up from there. The couple brought their master chef and bar manager from New Zealand, hired local staff and trained them in their style of great personal service with an emphasis on having fun. Tina McCarthy, the general manager of the hotel, had already instituted a Tuesday piano pub night and a Thursday jazz night, both of which became popular, starting a fresh buzz around town.
In a short time, the Ellis’ have accomplished their goal of making The Willcox ‘the living room of the community.’ ECO CONSCIOUS
Within three months of buying the restaurant, the opportunity to buy the hotel presented itself. Geoff and Shannon became the owners of The Willcox at 11:50 p.m., on Dec. 31, 2009. Today, there is always something fun happening at The Willcox Hotel. Julliard Jazz Ensemble played a free concert in the lobby in March, filling the huge room with fans. For the recent Celebrity Waiter fundraising night for The Children’s Place, the staff turned The Willcox into a cruise ship with ports of call and great food, stopping in the Caribbean, New Zealand, Germany and China. And the fun goes on with that kind of imagination. Geoff, Shannon and Tina take pains to dispel the old snobby – and expensive – image The Willcox earned in times past. Geoff regularly wears blue jeans while greeting guests for dinner and never dons a tie. While both Shannon and Tina are elegant women, they are also down to earth and make guests feel welcome within moments. In a short time, the Ellises have accomplished their goal of making The Willcox ‘the living room of the community.’ There is no better place to bring friends for dinner or to have an informal meeting by the fireplaces in the lobby. The Spa at The Willcox has been dramatically upgraded with the addition of the Dermalogica skin care line. During the warm months, Just Breathe Studio conducts yoga, Tai Chi and water aerobics in and around the beautiful pool area.
While working every day to excel in business, Geoff and Shannon also share a devotion to the environment. Despite significant expense, they accomplished an extraordinary recognition shortly after their anniversary as the hotel’s owners – garnering the highest “Green Hospitality” rating offered by the state of South Carolina. The South Carolina Green Hospitality Alliance presents a “One Palmetto” designation to restaurants and hotels that verify outstanding compliance in energy conservation, recycling and other environmental areas. “Two Palmetto” means the business has taken the challenge to a higher level and “Three Palmetto” is the state’s top level of recognition. At the beginning of this year, there were only three hotels in the state, all backed by corporations, that had earned Three Palmetto recognition and there were no restaurants that had reached that lofty status.
On February 1, representatives of the Alliance presented Geoff and Shannon with Three Palmetto recognition for the hotel and Three Palmetto recognition for The Restaurant at The Willcox. The combined recognition makes The Willcox the only Six Palmetto establishment in the state.
Fun, But Elegant
Guest rooms at the Willcox are comfortable retreats, luxuriously appointed – each with its own character. All rooms are quiet with high ceilings, crown moldings and restful, cloudsoft beds blanketed in cool, clean linen and down pillows. When ready to greet the day, the staff is ready to point you in the right directions; virtually all of Aiken’s many charms are within walking distance of the hotel. In the first half of the 20th century, The Willcox was the center of the high society Winter Colony who came to Aiken from across the country to play their outdoor games from October through March: polo, fox hunting, court tennis, golf, racquetball, croquet and more. Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Whitneys mingled with Fred Astaire, Gene Kelley, Bing Crosby and high-ranking American politicians and European nobility – all in the name of fun. Talk about high-ranking, how about both Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt and Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill for your guest list? The Restaurant at The Willcox has re-earned its fabled reputation as the finest dining experience in town, and now that comes with competitive pricing for those of us who are not millionaires or movie stars. The restaurant is exquisitely appointed, but guests are also invited to dine poolside, in the library, on the back patio, in the sports pub or even in the magnificent dark hardwood lobby. Aiken still deserves its century-old reputation as a party town. There is some kind of festival — lobster racing is big here — horse show, polo match, art exhibition, musical event or wine tasting going on every week. Everything about The Willcox echoes classic times accompanied with the most modern services. Combined with all it has to offer, it makes a great one-tank getaway. The Willcox hotel is located at 100 Colleton Ave. SW, in Aiken, S.C.. For more information, call 803.648.1898 or visit THEWILLCOX.COM. by STEPHEN DELANEY HALE photos courtesy of THE WILLCOX
vergelive.com | community driven news | May 18, 2011 13