Cumins & Partner Jerry Scheer Enjoying Near 38 Year Run with String of Popular Restaurants
By: Jeff Walker, Entertainment Interview
While Charleston based duo Mark Cumins and Jerry Scheer own and operate Homegrown Hospitality Group, it is widely recognized that Cumins is the face of the restaurant group. “It’s not because Jerry isn’t sociable, he is. It has more to do with having different backgrounds. I was in food and beverage when we decided to go out on our own.” Jokingly Cumins adds, “And obviously I have the better-looking face.”
An Augusta native, Cumins graduated from the University of Georgia in 1978 with a degree in Special Education. Although he worked briefly in the Georgia school system, Cumins was working in a restaurant when he and Jerry began their friendship leading to lifelong careers as restaurateurs.
“I guess you could say food and beverage is in my DNA. I was working in a restaurant and Jerry would frequent the establishment on a regular basis. I actually knew his brother a little better from high school. They were both from Savannah. Any way Jerry and I became close friends, and we’d often talk about having our own restaurant. Initially it was just talk. I had nothing for money and Jerry was in law school at the time.”
The food and beverage gods must have had plans for the pair. “A few other people knew we had interest. One day this guy who we both knew walked in where I was working and said there’s this soon to be abandoned Captain D’s that is becoming available. He said the owner couldn’t afford to keep it up and he was going to force him out. Jerry and I didn’t have a formal business plan, but we did have a desire for customer service.”
Although they went in blind, they did have an idea for the initial concept. “We quickly decided on opening a steak house. In fact, we kind of modeled ourselves after Longhorn’s in Atlanta who were just starting to gain momentum at the time. Again, we didn’t have a lot of money and wanted to borrow as little as possible, so we basically gave Captain D’s a facelift and used whatever was left over, pots, pans, dishes, you name it.”
Cumins admits they did make one small change before throwing open the doors. “For whatever reason we decided on Waco’s for the name of the steak house. But when we got the business checks in the mail and looked closer at them, all we could see is the word ‘whacko’, and we knew we didn’t want to brand the restaurant that way.”
He adds, “Not long after someone said why not just call it T Bonz, using a unique way to spell it, and it stuck.” With the help of an old sign that declared ‘serving up the best steaks known to man, Cumins and Scheer would open their very first T Bonz Steakhouse in May of 1985. “Going on 37 years. It’s become our signature restaurant.”
While T Bonz focused on a singular food item, Cumins says they wanted to make certain they were catering to broad dining audience. “We really wanted a simple menu. First and foremost we wanted to be known for serving up the finest steaks around. But we offered chicken and seafood. We even had selections for vegans.”
Cumins recalls, to help entice patrons into their new venture and get the word out they used a variety of low cost options. “Jerry found this old sign we were able to re-work. I think we put something like ‘the best steaks known to man’ on it. I think we were to naive to be cocky. We knew our food was good. We were just trying to promote ourselves the best way we could.”
Business took off. A little over a year and a half later they would open their second location in Cumins home town of Augusta. A stones throw off I-20 at 2856 Washington Road it’s become a fixture in the Georgia border city due to its proximity to Augusta National, home of the Masters Golf Tournament where Cumins over the years has forged many relationships with PGA players, caddies, and those who cover golf.
An avid golfer Cumins enjoys spending time at the restaurant during Masters week. “I can’t tell you how much business we do, but it’s crazy. That location stays busy most of the year, but it’s crazier during the Masters. Our staff have to prepare weeks and sometimes months ahead of time to accommodate the flow of traffic.”
Not long after another location would open in Savannah. By 1988 Cumins physically relocated to Charleston, opening T Bonz in West Ashley the following year. “I remember it well. It was September 12th 1989. Nine days later Hurricane Hugo came through it did a number on us. Less than two weeks later we were back up and running. It wasn’t under the best of conditions but we made it work. The main thing was, we were there to help serve the community, and in some odd way it helped establish us in Charleston.”
Behind grilling up great steaks alongside exceptional customer service T Bonz gained a solid reputation. “When we first opened here (Charleston) we just wanted to make a name for ourselves. The landscape was different 30 years ago. There certainly weren’t the chain steak houses you see today throughout Charleston. I believe we tapped into something. We gained a reputation for awesome steaks at fair prices. So, we appealed to a larger demographic. Plus we provided a fun atmosphere for lunch and dinner.”
But Cumins says they longed for more in the low country. He sensed with Charleston’s history and tourism they had to have a place downtown. “Market Street wasn’t what it is today. This building was kind of run down as were many of the locations on Market Street back in the early 90’s. It had no night life. I recall on a Sunday evening when we were still under construction standing on Market Street and tumbleweeds would be rolling down the street.”
Still he and Scheer remained optimistic. “There was a feeling it was coming back, and slowly it did, and we wanted to be a part of it.” Three decades later it’s become a fixture on North Market Street.
Despite the red tape and the cost the two were determined to bring T Bonz to the heart of downtown Charleston. “This was the biggest leap of faith we ever took, because this is the largest amount of money we ever spent.” He adds, “After we opened that’s when I knew this is what we’re going to do for the rest of our lives.”
Along the way Cumins and Scheer have grown exponentially, opening an array of eateries in the Avondale neighborhood of West Ashley as well Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach, Columbia, Irmo, and Greenville. Among their signature brands are T Bonz Gill & Grill, Pearlz Oyster Bar, Kaminsky’s Dessert Cafe, Liberty Tap Room & Grill, Taco Mundo Cantina, and Flying Fish Public Market & Grill.
Although every restaurant carries a specific theme, Cumins is quick to point out they each offer a varied menu. “That’s been our focus since day one. For those who don’t eat steak or seafood, we want make sure we have burgers, chicken, pasta, and salads they can enjoy.”
One of Cumins favorite dining destinations under their food & beverage umbrella is Rioz Brazilian Steakhouse in Myrtle Beach, one he researched himself. “Jerry calls me one day and says I need you to get down to Brazil to check out this new dining format.” Cumins admits he was happy to take one for the team. “So, I buy a ticket and spend a week to 10 days in Rio soaking in this new craze. It was a tough assignment. We quickly decided we wanted to add this concept to our restaurant group.”
Not long after Rioz Brazilian Steakhouse welcomed guests at their Broadway at the Beach Myrtle Beach location. For those not familiar they provide continuous table-side service offering savory choices of 15 different cuts of beef, pork, lamb and poultry, prepared and presented by Gauchos. “It’s a meat lovers paradise.”
For many years the restaurant group flew under the T Bonz banner, eventually rebranding as the Homegrown Hospitality Group. Cumins who is a close friend and golfing buddy of Darius Rucker said he mentioned the name change to Rucker since Hootie & the Blowfish had branded their Homegrown Concert Series in Charleston in the early 2000’s. “Darius didn’t think twice about. We had a quick laugh, but both agreed it’s a generic term, and one that certainly fits our stable of restaurants.”
Cumins has not let the success of Homegrown Hospitality Group go un-checked. The partners decided long ago they had to give back to the community. With little fanfare T Bonz in Charleston and Augusta open on Thanksgiving and Christmas respectively to serve the less fortunate.
“You can call it ‘paying it forward’. We’ve always had a sense of giving back, taking care of those in need.” Aside from changing up the routine during the pandemic, it’s continues to be a first rate, hands on operation. “The homeless and those who come in get the same attention our regular paying customers do. We provide table service and let them order off the menu. In some small way we’re trying to provide them some dignity and a small measure of normalcy to their lives.”
Their benevolence extends further into the community. Homegrown Hospitality partner with several charities and causes that center around children, people with disabilities, and education. “On the scale of importance, having the opportunity to give back, and giving back is really how you determine your future.”
Albeit on a smaller scale, Cumins says he likes to model what Homegrown Hospitality does after a noted local businesswoman. “One of my heroes is Anita Zucker. Jerry and I know her very well. She’s very un-assuming. She doesn’t throw her weight around, and she could. She’s a remarkable person, and a very smart in business. She’s successful because she’s charitable. She has her priorities in order.”
The College of Charleston is among the many schools benefitting from Homegrown Hospitality, where they might provide meals for fans before basketball games. “We take care of the school. We’ve forged a strong relationship with the college and their athletic department.”
Cumins admits it’s a two way street. “Most of our servers and kitchen help over the years have been College of Charleston students. Many who’ve stayed with us we’ve promoted. We do our best to take care of the people who work for us, treat them like family. You can start out as a server or in the kitchen and work your way up. We think of everyone as family that work for us.”
Maintaining a slow and steady growth plan has kept Cumins and Scheer in business for nearly four decades. “We’re heading into our 38th year. I want to be in business another 38 years. The question is, ‘would I retire’. I love this business. I love our food. I know what we buy because I’m there buying it.” Although he and Jerry oversee the operations Cumins says they welcome input from management at each location. “We hire good people and we trust them. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.”
Referencing one his restaurants. “With like Pearlz. It has a small menu, but it allows for a lot of leeway. Everyday we have a specials menu. We encourage our chefs to be creative. We don’t want them to be wasteful, but be creative from a cost plus standpoint. That’s what Pearlz is all about, and I’m proud of that restaurant and every restaurant in our group.”
What are some of the core values that have made Cumins, Scheer, and Homegrown Hospitality successful. “We serve up good food. We always fight to keep our prices down.” With the economy going south over the past year Cumins admits they have to be inventive. “You adapt. Cost for us has gone up seven percent over the past six months. That’s a lot. You just get better at what you do. Sometimes you adjust the menu among other things.”
As with everyone in food & beverage, Cumins says COVID 19 presented a challenge. “The unwritten story behind the pandemic is the stress it puts on the people who do come ot work. They’re actually doing the work of two or three people. That’s hard. When the President leans across his desk and says ‘pay them more’, I don’t have a problem with that. But show me you deserve it. When people work better and with one another it’s better for everyone. I just want to hire workers that give a damn.”
Whether it was fate, dumb luck, or divine intervention Cumins career has been dictated by his passion for food & beverage. Thankfully he is happy he didn’t have to rely on a plan B for his livelihood. “With my degree I thought I’d work for the health department, in a hospital or be superintendent of schools. Fortunately, the restaurants have been well received, and it’s provided Jerry and I a good income, and we’ve been able to help and employ others in this industry.”
How would Cumins like to be remembered. “Someone asked me several years back what I wanted my legacy to be. It kind of hit me off guard. It had been a long day and I was tired so I didn’t know what to say. I started to get a tear in my eye thinking about it. But my kids were young then and I thought, I just want my kids to remember me as a good guy. I don’t want to be known as a guy who threw his weight around or intimidated people. I want to be known as a guy who got results because I treated people right.”
One of the few privileges he’s enjoyed throughout his adult life is having played golf on many renowned courses. His best round at Augusta National, “I shot a 78, of course that’s from the members tees. I could never get anywhere near that score from where the pros tee off. They play 7600 yards.” There is one course he’d welcome playing. “Pine Valley in Philadelphia. It’s just a really tough course to get on.”
65 years young Cumins does play golf on a regular basis. “Several times a week. I play the Country Club of Charleston over on James Island. That’s where I live, and I’m a member out at Bulls Bay. I’m also a seasonal member out at Yeaman’s Hall. It’s one of my guilty pleasures in life.”
For those who’ve never met Cumins or wouldn’t recognize him as part owner of one of Charleston’s most successful food & beverage groups, he looks rather ordinary, like someone who maybe retired from construction or the paper mill. He’s more comfortable in jeans, t-shirts, golf attire and a ball cap, perhaps trying to fly under the radar.
“What you see is what you get. I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve been truly blessed and God’s a big part of it. I’m not super religious. I lean right fiscally and left socially. I’m a conservative fiscal guy and a liberal social guy. I don’t believe we need to give everything away to those who don’t deserve it, but we need to help those who really need our help.”
Being dressed down along with his sometimes un-shaven look Cumins appears rather gruff at times, but the keen businessman says he has a soft side not many people see. “I’m warm, fuzzy, and sensitive. I cry when I see those SCPA commercials. Little dogs and stuff that need to be adopted. My wife laughs at me and my kids think I’m silly. But I get moved by stuff.”
Losing his parents at an early age turned out to be a two-edged sword. “My dad died when I was 15 and my little sister was 5. It gave me a sense of fear. My two older sisters were gone. It was scary to lose a father at such a young age. And then my mom got sick a few years later. She died before we opened our first restaurant.”
It did however result in a positive family outcome. “The blessing in all that is the lessons my parents taught me early on. Put your right foot forward and your left foot will follow, and take care of those around you. My sisters and I are really close. Our families are close. Our kids are close. And that’s a by-product of how I was raised. Never, never take anything for granted. Jerry and I have been holding on to that same philosophy for nearly 38 years now.”
If you can’t get enough of Mark Cumin’s or his partner Jerry Scheer, and love their array of eateries, especially T Bonz, then maybe carry home a bottle of Mark & Jerry’s Most Excellent Steak Sauce. While it’s not available in stores you can purchase it online or in any of their restaurants. Like their tagline says ‘Sauce Like a Boss’. “It goes great on just about everything.”
The same image proudly displayed on the bottle is painted as a mural on the wall at T Bonz on Market Street. “After the fire a few years back (2017) and the restoration, we decided it was a nice touch to add our mugs on the wall. This way people have a glimpse of what Jerry looks like. I still have that suit.” With his wry humor he adds, “We can kind of watch over the operation even when we’re not here.”
For more on their group of restaurants and low country locations visit https://www.hghosp.com/
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