When Pool Bar Jim’s lost its namesake Jim in 2016, Hilton Head society almost had a collective coronary. Jim Lisenby had been slinging frozen tropical drinks from his perch at the Marriott Grande Ocean Resort’s open-air poolside bar for over 22 years. Then, suddenly, he was gone.
The South Carolina island recovered less than a year later, however, when Pool Bar Jim’s rematerialized at the Sea Crest Resort, just a short stretch down the beach. (The reasons why he and Marriott parted ways remain cloudy.) He was back cutting up fresh fruit and mixing it into more than 1,000 frosty creations—including a wide variety of Margaritas and Mojitos, and original creations like the Daufuskie Freeze (a rum-strawberry-coconut-orange drink named after a nearby island) and the Roseanna Banana Kabana (Kahlúa, coconut cream, milk and banana)—for the island’s collection of ritzy vacationers, golfers, locals and retirees.
Jim, age 71, still bartends seven days a week and greets every returning face by name while wearing his standard uniform of bright tropical shirts and a smile framed by a bushy white mustache. (If Captain Kangaroo retired from children’s television and took up a second career as a good-time bartender, he might look like Jim.) On an island of beige resorts and gated communities, Jim runs counter with his originality: old-fashioned, anybody-welcome hospitality—plus those shirts.
On a typical summer day, his bar, which is a two-minute walk from the crashing Atlantic, is five deep with pool bums and beachcombers. Each will receive a jumbo refreshment in a rainbow of colors. Jim exhibits no false modesty as to why he has drawn a crowd at whatever shore he has set up shop. “What I do is so unique and different than any other pool bar in the world,” he says in his mellifluous, whispery voice. “We make all of our drinks with fresh fruit. It’s just the best frozen drink you’re ever going to get.”
Pool Bar Jim
How did you find your way behind the bar?
When I was in college, a buddy of mine [and I] were on the town in eastern North Carolina. This guy runs out of a building and says, “You guys, come help me. I got a little fire in here.” We went in and helped him put out his fire. He says, “You guys want a drink? I’m getting ready to open a nightclub here. I don’t know a soul in this town. Do you know anybody who wants to bartend?” It was just beer he was serving. I said, “I can do that.” We did that for a couple years. That became the No. 1 club in our college town.
How did Pool Bar Jim’s get started?
I put together a proposition on a piece of paper [for the general manager of Marriott Grande Ocean Resort]. I said, “Rick, what about a pool bar out here?” He said, “Jim, we’re not in the beverage-selling business. We only sell timeshares.” This was 1992. None of their properties had food or beverage in those early days. At the end of a two-hour lunch, we had a handshake and a deal. I convinced him that it would be a great amenity for his guests and a great selling point. He bought it.
I notice you always give each customer everything that’s in the blender, placing the extra liquid in a plastic cup to the side of their drink. What’s that about?
I asked the hotel if I could do something different and make some drinks that people can’t make in their room—because who brings a blender with them on vacation? They said OK. We had all this fruit and mounted it in the center of the bar. We let people pick out the fruit they wanted. We’d cut it right in front of them and make them a drink as fresh as you can get. But to get people to try some of these drinks we were making, we’d make them big on purpose. We kept some extra and gave it to people around the bar so they could try it without paying for it and if they liked it, they could buy it. We did that for a year and business just boomed. [Now] we make the drinks the same size, we just give the extra to the customer.
What do you think makes for a good bartender?
When I look for a bartender, I look for personality. Most anybody can bartend. But I can’t teach people how to treat people, how to appreciate the business they give. When you go out at night, what place would you rather go to? Someplace where the bartender gets to know you, you get to know them? That’s why we do so well here. I want my bartenders to engage the customer. If they feel comfortable, they’re going to come back because they know their money is appreciated here.
How’d you get the name “Pool Bar Jim”?
That started at the Myrtle Beach Hilton. The name of our bar was Circular Bar. We hated that. We’d just call each other Pool Bar Jim, Pool Bar Bob, Pool Bar Becky, Pool Bar Nicky, Pool Bar Susie. We were in our 20s. We’d go out and party and yell out, “Hey! Pool Bar Nicky!” It just stuck. Never looked back.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.