Li’l Willy’s BBQ Smokehouse closing, two new restaurants in the works for Conns

Li’l Willy’s BBQ Smokehouse is closing after two-and-a-half years of operations at the corner of MacArthur Boulevard and South Grand Avenue, but Conn’s Hospitality Group already has two other restaurant ventures in the works.

Friday, March 31, will be the last day of operations for Li’l Willy’s. The building at 916 South Grand Avenue West previously housed Free Press Coffee before the barbecue restaurant opened in September 2020, offering smoked meats and a variety of traditional sides.

Conn’s Hospitality Group, which operates Li’l Willy’s, purchased the Vinegar Hill Mall, the Baur’s Building and the Dewitt Wickliffe Smith Mansion located on Cook Street between Second Street and Spring Street in October 2021. The nearly three-acre site is just south of the Capitol complex and Conn’s Hospitality Group moved its headquarters into the mansion and has begun cleaning up the site, which has largely been vacant for years.

“We’ve been juggling a lot, and now we’re to the point with Vinegar Hill Mall we’re trying to strategically narrow down the focus,” said Karen Conn, owner and CEO of Conn’s Hospitality Group. She noted that it will be easier to have staff operating out of the same location.

“We’ve already applied for a liquor license and are in the process of finishing up some cosmetic work in the former Tommy’s Tap space,” said Conn. “It will become Trish and Mary’s Pub, a British-style pub with English beer, soccer on the TVs and darts.”

Conn said the new restaurant will be named in honor of the company’s bookkeepers. “Trish is our current bookkeeper and Mary was our other bookkeeper who unexpectedly passed away right as we were moving our offices into Vinegar Hill Mall – she was so excited about it.”

Conn said the plan is to have Trish and Mary’s Pub open by the first or second week of May, depending on how fast the city moves with the approval process.

“Once we get that opened, we’ll focus on our anchor restaurant in the former Julia’s Kitchen,” said Conn, although she said it won’t operate under the Li’l Willy’s name. “We’ll rebrand it – the concept won’t be smoked meat, but more of a southern-style kitchen: shrimp and grits, fried okra, jambalaya.”

Conn said there are no plans to reutilize the Li’l Willy’s space, since that is the only property that Conn’s Hospitality Group leases, rather than owns. However, the staff from Li’l Willy’s will be a part of the new ventures.

“Our management team that we had at Li’l Willy’s will be a part of this and building it from the ground up with us,” she said.

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