Greg Tillery is an adapter.
Spend any time with the owner of We Dat’s Chicken & Shrimp and you’ll come away realizing that he’s not someone who stays down for too long. He always has an eye on what’s next, ready to shift toward whatever might be coming. When the universe deals him a bum hand, he starts playing another game.
That’s what started his food truck-turned-local institution five years ago. Tillery read the writing on the wall at a corporate gig and decided that he needed to get into something a bit more stable.
“I was working in corporate America at the time,” he told Very Local in a recent interview. “The job that I was working for, they did a company-wide layoff. They didn’t lay me off because I was fresh and brand new from out of college, so they weren’t paying me all the big bucks. It didn’t affect me financially, but it affected me mentally and in my heart.”
Tillery decided to shift toward being his own boss after watching many of his colleagues get the ax unexpectedly.
“I thought, ‘Man, I can’t depend and count on these people to keep a roof over my head and food on my table.’ So, that’s why I wound up taking my 401K and purchasing a food truck,” he said.
Tillery chose a signature dish as far away from the starched shirts and corporate office atmosphere as he could: chicken wings. His love for the dish shined through and word quickly got around about his bright purple truck.
“People think that I have a culinary degree and I don’t. I actually have a sales and marketing degree from Tuskegee University,” he explained. “Fried chicken is just something that I love.”
News of Tillery’s chicken wings spread quickly and business was so good that he was eventually able to open two traditional restaurants in New Orleans. And he’s currently planning a third for Marerro. Within city limits, Tillery credits his success to the food they sell and the philanthropic efforts that We Dat’s does throughout New Orleans.
“I think that people in the city know what it is we do in the community. I’m involved with a lot of stuff thats publicized and stuff that’s not publicized. People gravitate toward that. People gravitate toward the fact that I started off in the food truck. It was grassroots for me. I got it out the mud,” he said. “I’m taking that and investing back in the community.”
But We Dat was much more than just a local smash, as his 196,000 Instagram followers can attest. The company’s ultra-photogenic color scheme helped to spread his restaurant’s image to all corners of social media.
That purple that has colored so many newsfeeds is actually a mixture of hometown pride and pride in one’s self.
“I went to Edna Karr High School in Algiers. Those are our colors: purple and gold,” he said. “In a lot of cultures, especially African cultures, purple is a sign of royalty. I feel like I’m a king and all people who walk on God’s green Earth are kings and queens. And that’s how we need to govern ourselves and treat each other.”
That’s not to say that Tillery doesn’t work hard to make sure that his brand is spreading. The 31-year-old has an innate understanding about the way to reach people in a smartphone-based era.
“Because I am of this generation, I understand the sales and marketing aspect and the branding aspect of it. On the billboards I have in the city, you’ll notice I have my Instagram handle on there,” he said. “I’m trying constantly to drive traffic to the actual page. I just get it. I understand it.”
And when New Orleanians do head to Tillery’s page, they don’t just follow because they like the color scheme or the delicious-looking food. They follow Greg because they see a reflection of themselves in the self-described “7th Ward hardhead” who refused to let anyone else define his success.
“I’m not going to allow or let anything get the best of me for too long. Just like a bunch of other people that’s from the city of New Orleans. That’s what makes the culture and the people so great,” he said. “It’s that strength and resiliency. No matter what happens, it’s going to get better.”