J. Gilligan’s Bar and Grill
400 E. Abram St.
There’s a reason the owner of Gilligan’s Bar and Grill, Randy Ford, has become the most identifiable restaurateur in Arlington, downtown savant and the emerging king of the transportation shuttle business – specifically vans to and from events at AT&T Stadium or Globe Life Park.
The reason? Ford credits – or maybe blames, or maybe it’s a 50-50 deal — high-notes songstress Dolly Parton.
With a still-moist inky business degree from the University of Texas at Arlington on the wall, Ford seemed well on his way in the mid-1970s to realizing his dream of becoming a big-time concert promoter, having cashed in on bringing mainstream sellout music acts like Asleep at the Wheel and the Gatlin Brothers to Panther Hall on Fort Worth’s near Eastside.
Then along came Dolly.
“She had gigs at Wichita Falls, then Oklahoma City, but needed a Friday night in-betweener,” Ford recalls. “I jumped at the chance to book her at Panther Hall.”
Events happened so fast, however, that Ford didn’t have time to rev up promotion efforts. When costs were subtracted from ticket sales, he lost a smidge more than $5,000 – a much bigger number back in the ‘70s than it would seem today. It was disheartening. Also, life changing. Also, pocket emptying.
“I was only 25 but knew right then that my wallet just wasn’t deep enough to be in the concert promotion business,” recollects Ford, now 69. “At the least I was slightly smart enough to know I needed an occupational realignment.”
Always entrepreneurial, Ford opened a barbecue restaurant in Euless and a downtown night spot in Arlington, the Mine Shaft, which would eventually be flattened to make room for a new City Hall.
“The barbecue place enjoyed booming lunch business, but not many customers showed up at night,” Ford said. “The Mine Shaft packed them nightly with young musicians like Ray Wylie Hubbard and David Allen Coe playing for what they’d make from a tip jar, but it stayed mostly empty during the day.”
In an “ah ha” moment, Ford realized he needed a business that had both day and night traffic, and he decided to stick with a geography he knew: Arlington and UTA. He bought a fading downtown restaurant – the Flying Dutchman – on East Abram Street, the idea being to cater to the downtown crowd in the day, UTA students and faculty at night.
“I knew it was a gamble, so decided to keep my day job selling medical supplies,” Ford said. “My UTA buddy John Gilligan (a former point guard on the Mavericks’ basketball team, now deceased) had just graduated and when I asked him what plans he had, he said he had no idea, so he became the manager and restaurant namesake. My strategy was that he would run the place and I would come by once a week to pick up the money.”
Happily for Ford, that didn’t work. Short on downtown amenities, Arlingtonites packed the place right away as it attracted downtowners and college types both day and night. Gilligan’s will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, making it the oldest continuously run restaurant under a single owner in the city. Along the way Ford continually expanded the restaurant and bar until it now occupies most of the block, in the process becoming headquarters for assorted team fans, reunions, birthdays and festivals that can close off the entire block.
“We’ve done well, but you notice I’m still wearing a green Gilligan’s apron,” Ford said at a recent interview in the restaurant, though that’s more a point of work ethic than necessity.
The restaurant was successful before the Dallas Cowboys showed up – the stadium is a mile away as the crow flies, its roof visible from the parking lot. But its presence has definitely changed the Gilligan’s dynamic.
“Somebody asked me if I was going to run shuttles, about which I said I knew nothing,” Ford recalls. “But we tried it for a college game featuring Oklahoma and took a few more than a hundred people. Now it can be more than a thousand people for a game or concert. Who knew?”
At eight bucks per round trip with free parking, the cost and convenience is a steal, Gilligan’s enjoying only a slight profit.
“But that’s a lot of people buying cheeseburgers, Irish nachos – his signature dish – and beer,” Ford said. “So, if you ask me if I’m a big Jerry World fan, I’ll say, ‘You better believe it.’”
O.K. Carter is a former editor and publisher of the Arlington Citizen-Journal and was also Arlington publisher and columnist for the Star-Telegram and founding editor of Arlington Today Magazine. He’s the author of the definitive book on Arlington’s colorful history, Caddos, Cotton and Cowboys: Essays on Arlington.