November 08, 2023

In the swim: Ex-Green Berets take industry plunge

Former special ops soldiers plan Fireside Surf in Dallas, help veterans create rewarding careers.

The Fireside Surf team, from left, are former intern Chris King, co-owner Billy Adams, marketing consultant Christie Nix, Chef John Shaw and co-owner Patton Nix.

Billy Adams and Patton Nix will be the first to tell you they have a lot in common. 

The two, former Special Ops soldiers, entrepreneurs, and adrenalin junkies, first met in 2011 when Nix brought his military team to Adams’ Washington State iFly indoor skydiving location for a training session. 

That adventure solidified their burgeoning friendship and became the foundation for a business partnership that has resulted in the opening of Dallas’ next new ‘eatertainment’ concept—Fireside Surf, a restaurant and surfing facility that will teach guests how to surf on an indoor, 35-foot-wide wave while serving up a menu of upscale-casual, healthy, global fare.

The $10 million operation was built to appeal to all customers, but especially to Gen Z and millennial customers who tend to crave the ultimate dining experience paired with an entertainment ‘wow’ factor. Adams, who left the army in 2004, and Nix, who left in 2016, have been working on Fireside for the last seven years and plan to open the business in the first quarter of 2024. The goal is to give landlocked Dallas residents a chance to learn how to surf (with supervised lessons) and sample eclectic menu items like Ahi tuna burgers, fish or venison tacos, and Wagyu beef sliders, along with specialty cocktails, wines, and other beverages, including healthy mocktails.

“We want to create an experience that’s fun and safe for everyone, a surfing experience for those who want it, and pure entertainment for the ones who just want to enjoy the atmosphere and eat delicious food. That’s what we’re excited to offer,” Nix says.

Creating jobs and opportunities for veterans

The two men also say they want to share some of the military training they learned in a fun, civilian-friendly way. But more importantly, they want to offer fellow veterans jobs and create career opportunities for them in the restaurant and hospitality industry. One way of doing this was to join the Department of Defense’s Skillbridge program, which places military veterans into internships with participating firms that help them develop the skills to pursue successful management careers. Fireside Surf has been involved in Skillbridge for about a year, and its first intern, Chris King, a former Army logistics specialist, was recently hired as its bar manager.

“Chris is extremely motivated, and so knowledgeable in logistics,” Adams says. “He’s a great fit because this industry relies on logistics—getting the best possible ingredients at the best prices as quickly as possible. He’s been a great addition to our team, and now we’re looking for others to hire.”

That said, he notes it can be difficult for soldiers to transition into the civilian sector. The reason, he says, is because after spending a lot of time in the military, leaving it is almost like experiencing a loss.

“There’s a grieving process: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance,” he says. “I went through that entire process. I’d worked with my team my entire career, doing huge things, like diverting rivers and delivering hundreds of metric tons of rice to people in need. You go from that to trying to tell people why you'd be a good project manager somewhere. It’s difficult and takes time. Once I unlocked the code of how to speak to a civilian population and told them about my leadership and project management experience, I got more traction.”

Great place to showcase entrepreneurism

Once the veterans acclimate to their new roles, Adams says restaurants are a great place for them to put their leadership and organizational skills to use. He says they can then show off their innate talents for entrepreneurism. It’s an environment where they can speak up when they have better ideas or share how they might do things differently. “That’s what entrepreneurism is, and a lot of special operations personnel have it in spades.”

Still, Nix adds, “Entrepreneurism isn’t easy. There are a lot of bumps and bruises along the way, a lot of obstacles to overcome. That’s why the military is such an interesting segue into the industry. In the military, there are so many opportunities to learn, and growth potential is built into the structure of how soldiers are trained and how their roles are built. A lot of that training and education extends into the civilian world.

When asked how veterans could pursue industry careers or become successful entrepreneurs, Nix offered this advice:
  1. Find any role in the food and beverage space and ask tons of questions. Talk to general managers to find out what the business’ culture is like, what the people you work with care about, and what skills are important to have to become a successful leader.
  2. Find a mentor to help guide you to the right location and the right position for your talents and skillset. 
  3. Build a network to help you get to the place you want to be. Your network will become your net worth.
Learn more about the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation’s military programs to help transitioning personnel, veterans and their spouses create successful industry careers.
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