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Remembering David Essa

Updated: Jan 19

This was the first time I encountered late Greensboro restaurateur David Essa:

“Hey boss! Hey boss!” a gravelly-voiced stranger bellowed at me.

It was 2015, and I was standing in the back alley of the original Geeksboro, my former business located at the Lawndale Shopping Center - a 'strip mall' in name only that was a loose rabble of disparate buildings butted against each other.

Hauling garbage into the dumpsters, I ignored him in the hopes he might go away, all to no avail.

“Hey boss! Hey boss!” he continued to gravel.

Some context: The back alley of my old shopping center could at times be a bustling hub for unhoused people. Many were generally benign and in need of a quiet, shaded area to rest their heads when they weren’t panhandling or catching cheap beers at the two bars located on the strip.

But there could be others who were aggressive in the way they would solicit spare change from me and my staff. When rebuffed, the aggressive types could launch into a volcanic tirade of sexist and homophobic insults as well as threats of physical violence, sexual assault and even murder.

After running my business in that area for three years, my experiences taught me pretty quickly that the latter group would invariably approach by shouting, 'Hey boss!'

Already having a bad day and wary of a potential conversation I was certain would conclude with a hateful spew, I turned to the stranger and launched back: “Do you work for me?!?”

The gravelly-voiced man didn’t skip a beat.

“No I don’t work for you,” he said. “And I never will!”

“Then don’t call me boss!” I fired back.

I realized the gravelly-voiced man wasn’t alone. Beside him was another guy who was taller by at least a foot.

Understandably, our conversation would not last much longer than this.

A couple of days later, I would learn that the gravelly voiced stranger and his taller friend were not in fact unhoused people at all – they were David Essa and Chris Martin, the majority co-owners of the massively successful Hops Burger Bar. 

As for the reason they were strolling the quarter mile skid row behind my coffee shop – it turns out Essa and Martin were planning to build a second location two doors down from my business.

So much for good first impressions?

Yet in spite (or maybe because of) our scorched earth first encounter, Essa and I would become friendly.

An odd couple in the ways we lived, voted and generally saw the world, Essa and I still managed to get along – for the most part. This was in stark contrast to virtually every other business owner at the strip who resented Essa and what the impending arrival of a booming hamburger restaurant with national buzz and stellar reviews would mean for our parking lot.

Sure, I had anxiety about that latter part, but knew there was nothing I could do about it and saw in Essa a business owner who had been doing it much longer – and better – than I had been.

In retrospect, he also did it much better than I ever could.

Essa was happy to talk to me any time we saw each other, and I realized pretty quickly that so long as I was able to overlook our fundamental disagreements on topics both personal and political, he could teach me a lot.

I had lots of friends who owned restaurants. When I added food service to Geeksboro’s operations, I asked several of them if they could come check out what I was doing and give honest feedback to help us improve. Many promised that they would, but the only two people who made good on the offer were Essa and Martin – a gesture hindsight reveals was beyond generous given how busy they were.

Essa tried everything on the menu. Delivering advice with his typically brash, no-filter method of communication, he rankled my kitchen staff to the core, and yet every piece of sage counsel he shared that day was spot-on.

There were also lessons Essa taught me without ever saying a word. 

It would have been easy for me as a struggling small business owner to feel envious of Essa and his massive newfound success, but I could see that even if his new mode of business ownership was less precarious than mine, there was just as much stress – if not more.

Companies that focused on turning hot business concepts into franchises were swarming Essa and his partners, coupled with the push to open more Hops locations in Chapel Hill and Winston-Salem. 

Watching this wild expansion and growth happen from my vantage point, I sensed Essa had little solace in his life. This was a big reason why I never cared when he would randomly crash on the broken couch I kept in my coffee shop basement. He took these sojourns without asking permission, and would occasionally snore so loud that you could hear him upstairs over the music we played on my cafe speakers – all while catching a brief respite he obviously needed.

At times, he would even let his guard down, expressing a true sense of vulnerability. 

He understood how truly rare it was to have a working relationship with a business partner like he did with Martin, a fact that he never took for granted. 

More importantly, he shared the regret he had that the work it took to create a successful business made him largely unavailable to spend as much time with his kids as he wanted. This was a hard truth that I as a parent internalized after Geeksboro closed and I refused offers from three different people to help reopen it.

To say Essa’s gruff, excoriating demeanor turned a lot of people off is putting it mildly.

There were several occasions when I caught Essa during one of his bad moods and he would say things to me that would hurt my feelings. Even then, he would always come back around to do or say something that made it all right.

If I had to share one story that could distill the full spectrum of emotion I could have for Essa, it would be the day I gifted him with a custom bottle of hot sauce I got from one of my favorite chicken wing restaurants.

Perhaps assuming that I was saying the house made buffalo sauce he used at Hops was inferior, Essa grabbed the bottle, and without even tasting it, yelled, “This is shit! It’s garbage!”

He added: “This is nothing but a donkey product that came out of a bottle! 

“You can’t stand there and tell me this is better than my sauce!”

Confused by Essa’s response, I tried to explain that I wasn’t saying that at all. That I really just liked the hot sauce and wanted to give him a bottle as a gift because I liked him.

Visibly embarrassed, he then opened the bottle, dashed some sauce on his hand and tasted it before saying, “It’s actually pretty good.”

A little while later, he did more to make it right.

I was hanging with Essa in the back kitchen of his restaurant and said I needed to go home and see my kid. He told me that he wanted to make her something special to eat for dinner. 

Launching into his walk-in fridge, he tossed a handful of peeled shrimp into a hot skillet.

Essa loaded the shrimp down with butter, salt and pepper, before hitting it with a cajun dry rub. I didn’t have the heart at the time to remind Essa that my kid was barely a year old, and would probably not be able to eat something so spicy.

What I didn’t expect when I brought the shrimp home is that the kid still wanted to eat it – regardless of how much kick it brought to her newly forming taste buds.

To counter the cajun heat, she instinctively poured sippy cup full of ice water directly into one side of her mouth with her right hand while stuffing hot shrimp into the other corner of her mouth with her left.

My kid transforming into a food-inspired riff on Thalia and Melpomene - the masks of Comedy and Tragedy in Greek theatre - I used my phone’s camera to capture a short video of this peculiar sight before texting it to Essa with a quick thank you.

“I love it!” he texted back.

When I think about it now, that plate of shrimp is exactly how I would describe Essa’s personality – spicy on the verge of incapacitating, while simultaneously too flavorful to put down.

(R.I.P. David Edward Essa, 1974-2024)

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