Every now and again, a car slowly circles the Riggs Partners parking lot. Nothing’s afoot. It’s just a confused soul trying to understand why there’s a massive WECO sign but no shred of the popular bottle shop and biergarten they seek.
Once you know, you know. The WECO sign resides at 750 Meeting Street, the former home of WECO Billiards. The WECO Bottle & Biergarten — the brainchild of North American dive bar magnate Phill Blair — is a West Columbia hangout, a block downstream on Meeting.
Phill, a lifelong resident of West Columbia, is not put off by this slight navigational snafu. He’s pleased to be neighbors with one of the city’s most well-known and beloved landmarks. “A lot of people think since we’re called WECO, that we’re in that space,” he laughs. “We’ve heard tons of stories about it.”
While the old WECO Billiards was “before his time,” Phill’s been a West Columbia regular his entire life. “I grew up in what’s now Westover Acres and graduated from B-C. I’ve been eating at D’s since I was five years old,” he laughs.
Those meals at D’s and other local haunts opened a door for Phill. His first foray into the work world was the service industry. “It was one of my first jobs as a teenager and then I never really fully got out of it,” he says. “I worked a lot of retail, music retail specifically, but always had a side job in the industry. Then, when I turned 21, I started working in bars.”
While Phill was working at Art Bar, opportunity knocked in the form of a few overworked friends who’d just opened up a new bar on Main Street. “They needed help from the get-go, so I started working there. I became one of the owners very shortly after,” says Phill. That bar was Columbia’s much-beloved Whig, which will live on forever in Columbia Nightlife History after closing in November due to a change in building ownership. But that’s a different story.
Even as he helmed The Whig, Phill kept his eye trained on West Columbia. “I wanted to open a bottle shop, the kind of beer place similar to Craft & Draft on Devine Street. There was a need for something like that in West Columbia,” he says. Depending on the site, Phill’s concept could either be a small retail nook or a vast outdoor beer garden. Or, in a perfect world, both.
There was one particular Meeting Street location — and its nearly one acre lot — that snagged his attention over the years. “Sometimes it was empty, or just not being well utilized,” says Phill. “I’d walk or drive by and be like, yep, that would definitely work for what we wanna do.” But somehow availability and timing never seemed to line up. Until the day they finally did.
In February 2020, WECO Bottle & Biergarten erupted onto the growing West Columbia scene. “It’s been cool,” says Phill.
“I think we’re still near the start of it, believe it or not. Even with all the new stuff that’s open, there’s plenty more needed over here.”
And what better neighbor than a guy who invests in your neighborhood by building community? “We got involved in events early in The Whig’s career,” explains Phill. “We started working with the Nickelodeon theatre on their yearly film festival. We started working with the Jam Room Festival, which is the big Main Street music festival, and Arts & Draughts, a huge program the Columbia Museum of Art does.”
The hard work and late nights spawned a multitude of accolades and awards for Phill, his bars and staff over the years, but he remains ever the guy who just pitches in. “It’s nice to be recognized but it’s not something you’re super concerned with day to day,” he says. What’s success to him? “Don’t be absent. Show up. Treat your staff well. Be honest. People recognize those no matter what kind of work you’re in.”
Perhaps no one more than Phill can see the immense potential in a bit of metal and neon tubing. “The WECO sign has a cool vintage look and if you’ve been lucky enough to drive by, coming from the right direction, you’ve seen the sign with that amazing skyline backdrop.” More than a landmark, to Phill, the sign is a gateway to those passing through — or to — West Columbia. “It’s cool to restore the sign because it’s such a cool piece,” says Phill. “But it’s also symbolic of the area’s revitalization. You know you’re in the area now.”