When Bill Irvin was at Green Mountain College in Vermont, he hosted keg parties in fields near the campus. But these weren’t typical student get-togethers. Irvin loaded kegs, cups and ice into a Ford Bronco, made a bonfire and charged $3 a cup.
The pay-to-sip policy wasn’t the only sign that Irvin would become a restaurateur. On weekend mornings, he dug through the trash for crushed beer cans, and with the deposit money, he visited a nearby restaurant.
“What should I order?” he asked the bartender, pointing to the wine list. He collected tips with the same zeal that he gathered cans, and his palate quickly moved beyond Sutter Home and Boone’s Farm. “I learned that burgundy wasn’t just a color—it was a place in France,” he quips.
Today, Irvin is co-owner of both the critically acclaimed Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar in Brandywine Hundred and Waterman’s Crab House in Rock Hall, Maryland. His newest venture is the elegant Brandywine Restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilmington.
The establishments’ chefs receive the lion’s share of media attention, which is fine by Irvin. “Without them, I don’t have a restaurant,” he notes.
But frequent patrons know that the dapper restaurateur with the magnetic grin is the Energizer Bunny behind the operations. Not even his father’s dissuasion, a learning disability or a heart attack can slow him down.
An early appreciation for the good life
The oldest of three children, Irvin grew up in Monkton, Maryland, near My Lady’s Manor, an area known for horse farms, stately homes and fox hunts on the conserved countryside.
At age 6, Irvin took his first cooking lesson in a retail store’s kitchen. “I was the only boy,” he recalls. He liked it more than Junior Cotillion, the dance classes that were a rite of passage in his friend circle.
Irvin’s teachers called him lazy and inattentive. In truth, he had dyslexia. His parents sent him to Jemicy School, which specializes in language-based learning differences. Since Jemicy did not have a high school, Irvin’s father—a banker—and a Jemicy teacher started the Chesapeake Learning Center at West Nottingham Academy, a boarding and day school. “It was wonderful,” Irvin says. “I can’t thank the world enough for what my parents did for me and what they sacrificed.”
“I was thrilled by what wine can sell for,” he says. “I was blown away.” As a young adult, he paid $700 for a case of the first release of 1986 Mouton Rothschild. “Now you could probably sell a bottle for $4,000,” he says.
Betting on Baltimore
Irvin became a Rémy Cointreau salesman and educator. “It was so much fun,” he recalls. “You drink and get paid for it—how great is that?” After a presentation on Louis VIII, Steve de Castro of Big Steaks Management offered Irvin a job. The salesman said no; it was too many hours. But de Castro, who owned Ruth’s Chris franchises, made an offer Irvin couldn’t refuse.
Irvin later moved from Big Steaks to the rapidly expanding Phillips Seafood Restaurant. “We were going bananas,” Irvin says. “We were opening in Atlantic City. We had a South Carolina location. We had all these airports. We were going nuts.”
Then came the Great Recession; Irvin lost his job.
He and some friends revamped a few restaurants and started Kooper’s Chowhound Burger, a trendsetting food truck. Irvin and Patrick Russell also had Kooper’s Tavern and Slainte in Fells Point. By 2015, Irvin owned Falafelicious, a concept he loved, and by 2017, he was a partner in Avenue Kitchen & Bar in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood.
Irvin and his partners even owned a bed-and-breakfast—briefly. “You never make any money,” Irvin notes. Indeed, he was already going against his father’s advice: “The quickest way to lose your dad’s million dollars is to open a restaurant,” the successful banker told his son.
Yet, for the most part, Irvin had a solid batting average in Baltimore. So, what brought him to Wilmington? Love.
A fresh start
Irvin took his friends’ advice three years after his divorce and tried a dating app. His first match was a hit. However, Sheri Stump, a commercial executive with extensive pharmaceutical industry experience, lives in Delaware.
Fortunately, Irvin fell in love with the woman and the Brandywine Valley. “He gets what we love about Wilmington and northern Delaware—the heritage of the families who established Chateau Country and its architecture, history and verdant countryside,” says Robert Lhulier, Irvin’s business partner at Snuff Mill. “When people show up to dine, he makes the connection between names and faces. Bam! You are now friends with Bill Irvin.”
Irvin assimilated quickly in a town that rarely welcomes out-of-town restaurateurs. It helps that Irvin’s hometown is not so different from Greenville and southern Chester County’s horse country. Plus, this is a man who dressed like Alex P. Keaton of Family Ties in high school and can still rock a sportscoat. He is at home at society functions, and his Facebook banner is of a fox hunt.
But Irvin doesn’t carry a whiff of pretension—far from it. “During my time at Snuff, I always knew when Bill was present,” says Andrew Cini, the chef de cuisine at The Brandywine Restaurant. “He greeted me at the door with a bellowing, ‘Good morning, young man!’”
Initially, Irvin pictured a burger and butcher shop in the small space in Independence Mall. Irvin shared his vision with David Govatos, owner of the wine store Swigg in the same center. The shop owner jumped on board. Finding a chef who would butcher meat initially proved challenging. Then, the partners thought of Lhulier, who had a successful personal chef operation but was willing to take a chance.
In 2021, Snuff Mill Restaurant, Butchery & Wine Bar was born. Yes, there’s a burger, but there are also high-end steaks, oysters, caviar and “civilized” lunch service. Reservations became the hottest tickets in town.
Eye on the prize
Irvin was riding high on Snuff Mill’s success when his genes pressed pause. It was only a matter of time, his mother had warned him; heart disease runs in the family. In 1970, his grandfather collapsed on the family’s front porch, clutching his chest. He died while Irvin’s mother called for an ambulance. Her brother had a heart attack, and so did Irvin’s brother. Despite being fit and running 3 miles a day, Irvin had blockages that required multiple stents.
In short order, Irvin was back at work, greeting guests with an ear-to-ear smile and eyes that twinkle behind his blocky black-frame glasses. The experience hadn’t made him slow down. It just reminded him that he should get his will and other papers in order.
His newest venture, The Brandywine Restaurant, reflects his interests. The mascot, a fox wearing glasses, is on the menu and custom napkins. The Columbia 1905 salad is an homage to the Columbia Restaurant in Florida, which created the dish in the 1970s. Irvin is a fan of the sophisticated Rat Pack days, and many dishes—steak Diane, beef Wellington—are midcentury throwbacks.
The wallpaper, covered with cranes, also has a Miami vibe, and many managers wear kelly green jackets that resemble those at Augusta National Golf Club. The dining room had the whiff of success even while the shiny ceiling paint was drying, and like Snuff Mill, the size ensures that securing a reservation is a prize.
Irvin and Lhulier bought out Govatos at Snuff Mill, and Lhulier is a consultant—not a partner—at The Brandywine. Irvin confidently predicts there will be up to 10 restaurants in the family by 2025. A third is already moving forward and might top 5,000 square feet.
It’s a rapid growth plan, but the banker’s son will never lose sight of the bottom line. Nor will he forget that it takes a village to create a restaurant.
“We overdeliver the hospitality and the quality of the food,” he says. “Every day is about taking care of people, and it’s what I love. It gives me pleasure.”