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Bobby Silver: Entrepreneur, Musician, Artist

Somewhere in the 1980s, Akron hit the skids.
Economic recession decimated the downtown district, and many of the city’s famed rubber factories—the jewels of an already modest crown—were shutting down left and right.

Photo by Chris Casella

Photo by Chris Casella

Inside those abandoned industrial carapaces, sketchy kids built makeshift skate parks and shredded until the cops came to rustle them out. Rock shows, hard-core shows, girls, booze, rumbles. Regular shit.

Unfortunately, to date, there are no plans to gear up a proper Where Are They Now? on these characters; one could reasonably presume that much of that crowd wound up sucked into Akron’s undertow and pulled asea.

Bobby Silver was one of those sketchballs—rowdy and restless, a consummate middle child, bucking against the family rubber business. Around 1994, at the age of 19, Silver moved to Olde Towne East and found a three-bedroom apartment on 18th and Oak with a couple friends. The rent was 75 bucks per man to live in the Wild West East. The dog fights and streetwalkers came free with purchase.

Twenty-some years later, Silver sat with me at Upper Cup, wearing one of their t-shirts, a Seventh Son zip-up hoodie, and a hat that read Olde Towne East. I didn’t even know they made those…

Silver now co-owns one of the neighborhood’s finest establishments and anchor businesses: Yellow Brick Pizza. He is the marketer, the handshaker, the chalk artist, the peacock. He’s a creative bone in an ever-expanding skeleton, a network of people that makes things go, not just inside the walls at Yellow Brick, but in Olde Towne East at large.

His co-owner and dear friend, Faith Pierce, is the backbone, holding things up from the inside, crunching the numbers, getting work done. There’s harmony at Yellow Brick Pizza. But it wasn’t always so.

SILVER: We didn’t start Yellow Brick. A family owned it. A guy that lived on Oak Street roped his family into buying it. After a year, they just didn’t want it anymore. Faith was working there at the time. We saw the opportunity, figured out the financing, and kept it going. We took what they had, some of their original recipes, the classic movies, Twin Peaks on the TV—and built on it. They had some local art, some local beer. We just kicked it up a notch. Faith is in charge of curating the beer selection and all the operations. I handle the marketing, branding, and personnel. We both do outreach. It works.

After installing new banquette seating and reconfiguring the entryway, walking into Yellow Brick now feels more like walking into a restaurant than into someone’s house, but the homey ambiance remains. An ’80s-baby’s paradise, the walls are decked out with eclectic artwork, including a spot-on chalk mural hyping their new Big Trouble in Little China-themed pizza. It has crab, crispy wontons, and sweet Thai chili sauce.

S: We have a very different business model to what’s typical in Columbus. We’d like to see more of it. Flat screens and sports definitely have their place. I watch sports, I love sports. But there’s a lot of that already. I want to see art on the walls. Any time I can walk into a place and really see their hands in it, experience their cuisine, see their approach…I look for authenticity wherever I go. It’s not hard to recognize.

Across the street from Yellow Brick, The Angry Baker and Olde Towne Tavern help pump energy into the neighborhood. The revitalization is ongoing. It has been well publicized. As ever, gentrification lurks above like a gargoyle on a tower. Silver and his crew (Pierce, Linda Diec of 400 West Rich, Brad Hobbs of the Tavern, area resident Anne Heffernan, and Craig Dransfield of Chop Chop) comprise the vanguard against unfettered commercialism.

S: I’m deeply invested in the neighborhood. I was able to buy my first house here, two years ago in March. When developers came in and wanted to build a high-rise apartment building, I helped lead the fight and bring people together—not to shut it down, but to come to a better place in terms of what goes in that space [across from Carabar].

The development will come, but now with more mixed-use spaces and an increased focus on area-appropriate retail (in other words, don’t expect Anthropologie East). Meanwhile, Silver has some big plans of his own.

S: We’re having a company talent show displaying art and performing music in early [2015]. We’re doing a special pizza art exhibit where you can eat the art. Special pizza challenges for our employees with cash prizes, collaborations on artwork and names for the pizza. We just like to generate fun. And love. We pride ourselves on positivity and the harmonious nature of our business.

The biggest news of all, perhaps, is the upward expansion of the restaurant to include a new space for Arcade Super Awesome, the brainchild of John Geiger, CEO of Tracer Media. Geiger and his collection of almost 100 original, restored arcade cabinets and pinball machines will soon occupy the second floor above Yellow Brick, complete with its own bar.

Geiger has been cultivating the collection for years, opening it for free to the public during local and national events. Great beer, killer pizza, some Donkey Kong, and maybe a few fewer flat screens—coming soon to Olde Towne.

All this, and it’s only half
the story.

It took a while for Bobby to open up. Someone told me that he’d done some album artwork for Macklemore and Ryan Lewis. I tried not to lead with it. I assumed that creating art for the Grammy Award-winning Best Rap Album would enter the conversation organically. It did. But it wasn’t a big deal.

A lot of what Bob wanted to talk about was based in the accomplishments of other people. At times, it almost felt repentant, as if he had bitten off other people’s shit in the past and never owned up. It wasn’t the case, of course. He just wanted everyone to get their due.

After I called him a hippie (in a profoundly good way), he bristled. But not for being a hippie. Just for being called a name.

S: There doesn’t have to be a name for someone who’s invested in friendship and love. That’s regular stuff.

I apologize for trying intentionally to get a rise out of him. I apologize again later for a reaction to something he said that I couldn’t control.

On one of many excursions out west, Silver took up with some innovation guru friends of his and attended a professional training seminar. It’s made its way back to Columbus under the name Next Level Columbus. His fervor for it struck something in me. Something bad.

“It looks a lot like motivational speaking, Bobby,” I say.

S: What’s wrong with motivation?”

Touché. I listened to more of what he had to say about it. Personal innovation. Transformational training.

S: Because I went through the training, I help facilitate it. It’s an emotional intelligence class.”

“Is it church? It sounds like church.”

S: It’s certainly spiritual. Spirituality isn’t a very popular thing here. It’s all over the place in California. Binge drinking and comfort food is part of the culture here. This is just something for people who want to do big things. Make changes. We all kind of get stuck in a rut sometimes. If you don’t try to approach things in a new way, it can get harder. It’s only right for me to try to share that with other people.

Once I got over my own hang-ups, it occurred to me that he was just giving a shout out to those folks, just like he’d given a shout out to Faith, or Brad, or John Geiger, or music mates he’s playing with again. (David “Earl” Barnes and Scott Vogel from Columbus’s Mortimur, and Evidence from Dilated Peoples out in Cali).

Silver is part of a coalition, a SuperFriends-style team of entrepreneurs and artists and crimefighters. They move and shake. They drop each other’s names. They prop each other up.

Hippies—in the best possible way.

We continued to cut the conversational rug back at Yellow Brick over a couple beers. He tells me more about his family, his music, his knuckle-dusting past, his nunchaku skills. We get close. He picks up the tab and I leave.

I left him there, getting dapped up by old dudes in Adidas gear and approached by friends of friends of friends, in from out of town, just wanting to say, “Hi.” 

Bobby Silver, in addition to being a trained portrait artist, a skilled nunchaku warrior, and a bassist for Nick Tolford and Co., is the owner of a 20-year-old cat named Bella and a rescue pit named Dr. Dre. Stop in to Yellow Brick and ask him about the Wu-Pie and its 36 chambers of flavor.