One of SEASIDE®’s most influential female restaurateurs says success is all about relationships, timing and the perfect ingredients by Anne Hunter and Wendy O. Dixon
A special year for her, 1988, Heavenly Young fell in love with “Wild” Bill Dawson, which was the year that he opened Dawson’s Yogurt, now celebrating its 30th anniversary. It could have been seven years earlier, when the vivacious and driven entrepreneur ranked as the top saleswoman of the south for RUSS, a stuffed animal company well known for its plush loveable animals. Her future husband, Bill Dawson, CEO of Russ at the time, would become the owner of the largest conglomerate of restaurants on Scenic Highway 30A. Dawson started his retail career in Atlanta and followed his passion for merchandising management and inventive product creations to JCPenney in New York City, and later into a partnership with Russ Berrie and Co., where he transformed the plush toy retailer into a profitable, publicly traded company. It was here that he would first see Heavenly’s name appear at the top of a spreadsheet as RUSS’s number one sales agent, time and time again.
For many years, the two would weave a professional path of two singularly successful people. In 1993 the stars aligned and Heavenly and Bill decided to get married at the Tupelo Beach Pavilion in Seaside. That same year, they opened Pickle’s Snack Station (now Pickle’s Burger & Shake).
Heavenly had initially launched her career in the dental industry and later moved into gift retailing, where she fast ascended the ladder of corporate success in sales management and product development. Armed with an innate business sense, she foresaw the masterpiece that Seaside was destined to become. In 1999, Heavenly urged Bill to move to Seaside full-time and expand the restaurant enterprise, allowing for her to become his business partner. Bill would agree to call Seaside home under one condition: that Heavenly would step-up to serve as Dawson Group’s president and CEO, leading its 70-person team and burgeoning boutique restaurant concepts. She agreed.
When the Dawsons settled into Seaside in 2000, their creative chemistry kicked into high-gear as the expansion of Pickle’s, and their scrumptious sequels to come, would become culinary traditions. “We have complimentary sensibilities, and both of us enjoy the hunt,” explains Bill. “It was gratifying to get to see Heavenly thriving in this role.”
It’s no secret that historically, women have faced many obstacles on their way to business success, but Seaside co-founder Daryl Davis paved the way in 1981 when she opened the roadside stand and farmers market that, through the years, would transform into Cabana Style, the beloved iconic open-air market on the beachside and the Seaside Farmers Market, the weekly farm stand that skirts the Seaside Amphitheater. As the the national paradigm shifts to support the rising sea of female entrepreneurs, Davis has long been a lighthouse beacon of inspiration for women business owners who are too often left to navigate the turbulent waters alone. It’s not surprising that in the early years of its infancy, Davis would attract other female entrepreneurs, like Heavenly Dawson, to Seaside.
“Heavenly is one of those rare people who can deftly fit the role of both the soft Southern woman and strong business woman,” says Pam Avera, vice president and general manager for Seaside Community Development Corp. “She works behind the scenes as one of the most influential female restaurateurs in the new urbanism movement. Heavenly knows her numbers, her team and every detail of her business operations.”
The Dawsons are careful to make and keep good relationships with farmers who specialize in top-quality foods. At Daryl Davis’ urging, one of the restaurants in the Dawsons’ fold, Wild Bill’s Beach Dogs, features hot dogs made across the country and shipped especially for the Airstream eatery. The franks and sausages are made of grass-fed beef or heritage pork, the animals are humanely raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and the links are naturally cured so they are free of sodium nitrates or nitrites. Heavenly also searched for a grass-fed beef and free range chicken farm, where the animals roam freely — grazing and pecking, rather than living in mono-cultural confinement. She found it at White Oak Pastures, the largest USDA Certified Organic farm in Georgia. They are now the sole provider of the ground beef that has made Pickle’s so famous.
Another special relationship the Dawsons share is with an Italian-born couple who specialize in gelato, an Italian favorite sweet treat. In 1997, the Dawsons met Simona Faroni and Guido Tremolini of G. S. Gelato, as they were opening a gelato shop in Destin. Bill and Heavenly partnered with the pair to make exclusive gelato flavors for It’s Heavenly and Dawson’s Yogurt and Fudgeworks. To celebrate Dawson’s Yogurt and Fudgeworks 30th anniversary, Heavenly has launched an exclusive flavor called Birthday Cake soft serve yogurt. Heavenly and Faroni and Tremolini also work together to make the ideal butterfat and custom flavored ice cream for Pickle’s perfectly rich and creamy milkshake, with names like Salted Caramel, Orange Crush and Blueberry Cobbler.
For burgers and hotdogs, the bread is just as important as the meat, so Heavenly went on a quest for the perfect bun and found it at Masada Bakery in Atlanta, which ships fresh brioche buns to Pickle’s every day. “Heavenly gives extra special care in sourcing a healthy hotdog, grass-fed beef for burgers, and special gelato that is made only for It’s Heavenly to serve. Also, her keen sensibility to nurture relationships with local vendors to provide fresh and healthy choices for patrons,” says Avera. The produce, from local farmers, is also brought in fresh daily.