How does he keep tabs on such diverse but equally demanding enterprises? “I’m real quick on my feet,” he explained. “I’ve always enjoyed people. I can make it fun for the customer and the employees.”
A total people person
It’s hard to get through the Atlanta airport with someone as people oriented as Wilbourn. Every two minutes, someone stops him to say hello. When he came to Atlanta in 1971 in pursuit of a new opportunity, he immersed himself in local politics. He became close to former Atlanta mayors Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, and he remains active in politics and civic activities.
But the interruptions don’t faze him as he makes his way across the airport concourse to his 610-square-foot office on the second floor of the airport’s main terminal. The airport office houses most of his dedicated vending employees. Here, his financial and marketing employees review the daily transaction reports from the vending machines.
“I believe you aspire to do what you want within,” said Wilbourn, a philosophical man whose soft spoken demeanor belies his aggressive and creative merchandising instincts.
Beginnings in retail foodservice
Wilbourn learned to multi task early in his career. After a stint at Jack In The Box, he joined the McDonald’s organization in the 1970s, where he got into the management training program.
At age 26, he and a partner moved to Atlanta in 1971 to open a McDonald’s restaurant franchise, which eventually grew to include four restaurants. Twenty two years later, he sold the restaurants to McDonald’s and went into institutional foodservice.
In 1996, an opportunity became available for a restaurant at the Atlanta airport. Several national chains bid on the contract. Wilbourn saw there was no chicken restaurant, so he explored chicken franchises and decided to submit a bid for a Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits restaurant. He won the contract.
Success didn’t come fast. Wilbourn’s restaurant opened right before the Valuejet Airlines crashed in 1996, which affected his and everyone else’s business in the Atlanta airport.
Success in retail foodservice
Despite that difficult start, the Popeye’s was a success. He focused on building the breakfast menu, and he made it a point to listen to customers. He tweaked the menu and added items that other restaurants weren’t offering at the time, like bottled water.
Wilbourn’s two Popeye’s restaurants became the number one and number three most successful stores in the chain, winning awards and numerous articles in foodservice and business publications.
He developed a close relationship with Coca-Cola Co., an Atlanta institution. When Coca-Cola Co. opened its office tower in 1979, Wilbourn, curious about vending, got the contract for the snack machines. And he quickly learned that vending required more investment and attention than he thought. “I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he said, and he ended the venture after a year.
In 2004, when Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. wanted a new vending operator to service their machines at the airport, they contacted Wilbourn. He had established himself as a local business and civic leader who was well acquainted with the airport’s retail operations.
While his previous exposure to vending hadn’t been encouraging, he saw a benefit to operating vending machines at the airport. Operating four restaurants, he already had a support structure in place. He delivered product from a nearby warehouse.
His 20,000-square-foot warehouse/office building near the airport includes refrigerated and frozen coolers for storing the beverages, candy and ice cream. As does the 15-foot Isuzu step-down truck he assigned to vending deliveries. The truck was fitted with customized racks for holding snacks.
With Coca-Cola Enterprises’s support, Wilbourn secured the 8-year contract for the public vending banks at the airport, which includes beverages, snacks and ice cream. The contract does not include employee and outdoor areas.