COLUMN: What F&B Companies Can Learn from Jimmy Buffett

Jimmy Buffet

The final tide has come in for Jimmy Buffett, who died from complications of skin cancer at his home in Sag Harbor, New York, on Friday, September 1st. He was 76 years old.

His X account posted the news to Parrotheads old and new before the sun hit the sand in the wee hours of the morning. Featuring a photo of The Chill One looking to the unseen horizon on a burnished sailboat, Buffett looks relaxed as ever, one arm resting on the gunwale, the other atop the tiller, with a simple caption that he died “surrounded by his family, friends, music and dogs,” and that he lived life “like a song till the very last breath.” The light on the water behind him is half aglow, half dark as some slanted sun drifts down through the Caribbean cloud cover as he steers toward the next beach, no hurry, not a care in the world.

A previous post the week before reminds his followers it’s 5 O’Clock Fridays on SiriusXM Radio Margaritaville, and that listeners can hear a new track from “JB’s” upcoming album, Equal Strain on All Parts. The post before that one says the same. In fact, the three previous posts all say that, all on Fridays, all chill reminders that it’s 5:00 somewhere. You can almost hear the rustle of the palms, smell the salt on the breeze. From beyond the bar comes the marimba musica of a steel drum chorus.

No matter how you feel about Jimmy Buffett or “Margaritaville” the song, Margaritaville the brand, or Margaritaville as mantra—hey, at least it’s an ethos—one thing is certain.

Buffett built an empire from a napkin.

No, really, that’s the lore. Per the story published by the Library of Congress upon the 2023 induction of “Margaritaville” into the National Recording Registry, he penned the song on a cocktail napkin early in the ‘70s while sipping a margarita at a bar in Austin, Texas, after a rough night out. He finished the song while stuck in traffic on Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys and first played it the same evening. Earlier this year, Buffett told the Library that the song resonated with American culture because most people just want to feel good and be happy.

“You’re lucky enough at some point to put your thumb on the pulse of something that people can connect with,” he said. “It’s an amazing and lucky thing to happen to you, and that happened with ‘Margaritaville.’”

The Top 10 hit became a cultural sensation, a paean of chill against a culture of corporate, and it helped launch a career, a restaurant, a radio channel, a cruise line (Margaritaville at Sea), and even a $1 billion retirement community. More than anything, “Margaritaville” offers a calypso dream of an escapist lifestyle truly open to just about anybody in the way few pop culture artifacts do, much less those that operate within the food and beverage space.

And the food and beverage space was where Jimmy really counted his clams. Worth over $1 billion at the time of his death, just 5% ($50 million, for those counting) of that came from his music. The rest came from Margaritaville, a restaurant (nee religion) that welcomed all Parrotheads—young and old, reluctant and exuberant, indifferent and ecstatic.

Here are three brief takeaways from Jimmy Buffett and the dream of Margaritaville. Call ‘em Jimmy’s Laid-back Laws of Living.

Laid-back Law of Living Numero Uno: Start with What You’re Good At

Because there’s always time to innovate. Did James Buffett (born 1946, Pascagoula, Mississippi) aspire to tour the world aboard his own ship and sailing yacht (the Euphoria), be shot at by Jamaican authorities as a suspected drug runner with Bono on board his 1954 Grumman HU-16 Albatross (the Hemisphere Dancer), and be honored by Southern Miss upon his passing before its opening season kickoff on Saturday?

No. Dude just wanted a cheeseburger and a drink. The original styling of his first greatest hits album, Songs You Know by Heart (1985), was originally captioned “Jimmy Buffett’s Greatest Hit(s)”, a self-effacing nod to the one song many know, kind of, can whistle along to a bit. Something about a woman and a long-lost shaker of salt.

Innovation isn’t overrated, but it can often be rushed in a market environment dedicated to hot collaborations, novel products and services, everyone grasping for The Next Big Thing. Buffett built an empire based on a simple idea and never, not once veered from it even as it brought him worldwide acclaim. And many, many margaritas.

Laid-back Law of Living Numero Dos: Give Yourself License to Chill

 Listen, the work will get done. It always does, especially if you’ve got a solid product (see: Laid-back Law Numero Uno) and the team in place to help steer the boat toward the next port. It’s 5:00 somewhere. If the market has taught this sector anything the past several years, it’s that mental wellness and emotional wellbeing can be powerful motivators.

Of his self-described “drunken Caribbean rock ‘n’ roll,” Buffett said, “I’m not the first one to do it, nor shall I probably be the last. But I think it’s really a part of the human condition that you’ve got to have some fun. You’ve got to get away from whatever you do to make a living or other parts of life that stress you out.”

That he wasn’t the poster child for more major brands that tout the better-for-you health and wellness lifestyle may go down as a bit of a travesty.

Laid-back Law of Living Numero Tres (The Whole Enchilada): Community Fosters Camaraderie, Loyalty, and Growth

I am not a Parrothead. I couldn’t have named three songs by Jimmy Buffett before scribbling these thoughts down on a digital napkin. But one thing the market proved for Jimmy Buffett again and again and again, as the tide and decades rolled on, is that people like getting together, they like taking it easy, and they will spend big bucks to do so if they believe in the product and everything it represents.

 Jill Blanchard is president, Enterprise Client Solutions at Advantage Solutions, a sales, marketing, and technology company in the retail space. While describing this piece to her, she described Buffett’s appeal as “multi-generational brand equity,” a perfect distillation of what all those neon restaurants represent for the traveling multitudes of Parrotheads up and down the Caribbean, from Barbados to the Bahamas, Rum Point to Treasure Cay: through his singular vision and commitment to what he believed important in this life, Buffett found success not on the floral-shirted backs of concertgoers, but elbow-to-elbow with them at the bar through his music, his mien, his moxie, his margaritas. Growth is not achievable in this space without those who believe in your brand proposition, even if it’s rife with sodium and bad for the arteries.

Jimmy Buffet is dead. But Margaritaville—and the brands, Parrotheads who support them, coasters and cocktails and music and more—will coast on. Long live Jimmy Buffet.