If you know Gulf Shores, you know Papa Rocco’s restaurant. They grew up together. In the mid-1980s, “Papa,” also known as Bill McGinnes, rocked the culinary scene of what was then a sleepy little beach town. It is sleepy no more, in part because of Papa Bill.
Mobile Bay Magazine caught up with the 79-year-old restaurateur for an on-site interview among the aroma of baking oysters and sounds of sizzling pizza. We discussed his role as a beachside culinary pioneer, surviving hurricanes, and life at 101 West 6th Avenue, the Gulf Shores “Home of Warm Beer and Lousy Pizza.” Actually, the restaurant’s motto was our first question.
Your slogan is “Home of Warm Beer and Lousy Pizza,” yet your food has won awards! What were you thinking?
(smiles) “In about our third year of business, a pilot friend of mine from New Zealand flew banners on the beach. One night, while discussing messages to place on his banners, we grabbed a pitcher of old beer. It was warm, and we laughed about it.
We instantly had an idea, ‘Let’s go with that — Warm beer, lousy pizza!’ He flew the message across Gulf Shores: Papa Rocco’s, Home of Warm Beer and Lousy Pizza.
That night, the restaurant was packed. Customers approached me laughing, saying, ‘I demand my money back! False advertising! This beer is NOT warm and the pizza is NOT lousy!’ The warm beer / lousy pizza message is also on my merchandise, T-shirts, everything. I sell the hell out of it.”
You are from the Detroit area. Why move and open a business in Gulf Shores?
“Actually, I was born in Glasgow, Scotland. My family left when I was 12 for a new life in America. Dad worked in the coal mines of Scotland, which was dangerous, and he wanted out. After trade school graduation, I became a project engineer at a large cutting tool manufacturer. I also worked in sales, management — everything on the drawing board. The stress was killing me, and I had to make a change.
A friend’s parents retired in Fairhope, and my wife Rose and I visited them when on vacation. That’s when I discovered Gulf Shores, but back then it had nothing. In those days, a Gulf Shores phone book could fit in your back pocket, but I had a vision and saw the town’s potential. (Editor’s note: In 1980, the U.S. Census reported the population of Gulf Shores was 1,350. Today, it is 15,000.)
As for this building, I have no idea how old this place is, but a Michigan friend opened it as an all-you-can-eat buffet. It wasn’t doing anything. I got it, expanded it and turned it into a pizza delivery restaurant. Oysters, a bar and full-scale dining followed later. It took every dime we had.”
Tell us about the early days.
“We opened in March 1985 on a wing, a prayer and with no money. Back then, Gulf Shores had about five restaurants. But I had the only delivery service. I came to work at about 8 a.m. and stayed until 2 or 3 a.m. the next day, every day. I was the bookkeeper, cook, delivery service, everything. In about 1988, I closed pizza delivery and became full in-house dining.”
Did you ever wonder, what have I done?
“All the time. Business was not good when we started. It was tough. I wanted to tell Rose to keep her bags packed. We might be moving soon.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, I had never seen a hurricane before until one hit us. Since then, we have experienced many storms. Ivan shut us down for months. We had three feet of standing water in the dining room — and this place is on stilts!”
Who is your typical customer and has it changed over the years?
“It depends on the season. (laughs) In summer, we generally have families with kids — our atmosphere is like Chuck E. Cheese. In winter, we have the retirees / snowbirds / old folks — the atmosphere is like Jurassic Park.
Locals visit every day. We have also seated Rush Limbaugh, Ken Stabler, Tom Brokaw, Wayne Newton, Mike Ditka, Al Hirt and some other pretty famous people.”
When you came here almost 40 years ago, what culinary experience did you have?
“Experience? Ha! That’s easy, zero. But I knew a guy in Detroit who owned Iggy’s Pizza. I told him of my plan and asked if I could come in two nights a week for him to show me how to make pizza. He agreed. I brought Iggy’s Pizza techniques from Detroit to Gulf Shores.
Later, I got the idea to open an oyster bar. Nobody did that back then.
My menu is different from others down here because I do not fry anything. Nobody in Michigan fries food, and I don’t either. But I have great baked oysters.
We were also the first restaurant to have a full menu until midnight and one of only a few places with live entertainment seven nights a week. I hired local entertainers and great people.”
Where did the name Papa Rocco’s come from?
“Rocco is the name of a friend who retired down here from Michigan. Papa was just added to it. Now everybody calls me Papa. Sometimes I forget my real name (laughs).”
How is business today?
“I have good people working here, so I don’t do everything like I used to. I still come in every day. But at age 79, I have slowed down a bit but do a lot of PR work for the restaurant. People like to take their picture with me, even little kids — I don’t know why.
I do know I did the right thing coming here, and comparing a Gulf Shores winter with a Detroit winter sealed the deal. I am not going back.”
Papa Rocco’s • 101 W 6th Ave, Gulf Shores. paparocco.com