Phil Cobb

For most of his adult life, Phil Cobb (BSBA ’65) has been an entrepreneur. He built a highly successful restaurant chain and then launched a nonprofit historic streetcar system. But his journey in life didn’t start out with the clear goal of being a business owner. Rather, a combination of his family’s entrepreneurial spirit and his undergraduate education at The Ohio State University helped mold Cobb into the success he is today.


Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, Cobb learned about entrepreneurship starting at a very young age from his father, Bill, who, for 37 years, ran a successful Shell gas station in the city’s downtown. Cobb’s father taught him the value of hard work, instilling a work ethic that has guided him throughout his career and continues to influence him today.

At age 6, Cobb earned his allowance by sweeping floors at his father’s service station. As a student at Thomas A. DeVilbiss High School, he continued working at the family business after school by pumping gas until he graduated in 1961, ready to enter college.

For Cobb, the choice to attend The Ohio State University was an obvious one. His father attended the university on a baseball scholarship until the start of the Great Depression in 1929 forced an early end to his college career.

Additionally, Cobb’s older brother, Dave (BSBA ’61), attended the university as a business major and played varsity lacrosse.

“It was easy for me to follow my older brother to Columbus,” Cobb said. “I’d never really thought about any other place to go to college besides Ohio State.”

Cobb continued following his brother’s legacy once he arrived at the university, including joining the same fraternity. But unlike his brother, Cobb initially began his college career with a different plan about his major.

“I started out originally wanting to be an engineering major,” he said. “But then my brother took me aside and said, ‘You’re struggling a bit with some of your engineering courses. See those guys coming out of Hagerty Hall? They’re going to be your boss if you become an engineer.’

“So, I switched to business my sophomore year and got a degree in marketing.”

At the fraternity house, Cobb took on the role of kitchen steward, a job previously held by his brother. The responsibilities involved managing the kitchen, a role that taught him some early lessons in leadership.

“I hired and fired my own fraternity brothers,” he said.

"When you can fire a 6-foot-3-inch, 250-pound tight end for Woody Hayes and not get beaten up, you learn something about managing people! That was my first lesson about how to survive in small business."

Cobb’s education about the food-service industry continued when he took a job at the Varsity Club, where he worked as a waiter. During that two-year period, he learned valuable lessons about running a successful restaurant. Then he spent three summers working at upscale restaurants in the Hyannis village of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Although he didn’t know it at the time, those job experiences would prove invaluable in his later career in the restaurant business.


After graduation, Cobb moved to Dallas to utilize his marketing degree by pursuing a career in sales. In 1971, the opportunity to return to the restaurant industry presented itself when he went into business with Gene Street, a successful Dallas entrepreneur.

The business partners opened their first bar, J. Alfred’s, and launched a handful of other bars in Dallas. Then, in 1975, they opened what Cobb calls their first real restaurant — the Black-eyed Pea. The idea behind the concept combined a truck-stop motif with the addition of alcohol service, placed in an urban setting. The idea took off, and the owners eventually expanded the business into a multi-state enterprise.

While Street oversaw restaurant operations, Cobb worked behind the scenes, focusing on the company’s marketing strategy.

“A lot of how you open a restaurant in any particular market in America is marketing,” he said. “How you enter that neighborhood with your new business, and your success or failure really depends on how you make a first impression to that customer coming through the door.

"It goes back to the marketing concepts I learned in my classes at Hagerty Hall.”

As Black-eyed Pea continued to grow, Cobb and Street launched additional bar and restaurant endeavors, enjoying the excitement of new ventures while testing the waters with other concepts. But after a few years, Cobb recalls that the partners were faced with a challenging decision: choose between being in the general restaurant business and continue trying out new ventures, or focus on the Black-eyed Pea, their most-successful concept. Ultimately, they chose the Black-eyed Pea and continued to refine the chain until 1986, when they sold the 45-unit franchise.

Cobb even considered bringing the Black-eyed Pea to Ohio and enlisting his brother Dave to run it, but the realization that the restaurant might not have the same appeal in the Buckeye State, forced a change of plan.

“Taking a local ‘mom and pop’ concept and scaling it to a broader regional or national market is difficult, Cobb said. “It’s not easy to say, ‘It works here as a chain, so it’s going to work somewhere else.’ It comes back to marketing. You’ve got to do your research in a community and see if it will work.”


In the early 1980s, while Cobb was in the midst of building his successful restaurant operation, he cofounded the Vineyard Neighborhood Association as that section of Dallas was undergoing an urban revitalization. Today, the neighborhood is known as Uptown, and it’s at the heart of where Cobb and Street enjoyed their early success as restauranteurs.

The association, which was composed of area business owners and residents, embarked on a beautification project on McKinney Avenue, the historic neighborhood’s main north-south thoroughfare. The project included removal of the asphalt to reveal the century-old brick underneath. But prior to starting the work, the association’s partners had heard rumors that streetcar tracks, which were part of city’s old trolley system that hadn’t run since 1955, were just below the asphalt.

Indeed, the rumors were true. The original project to expose the brick streets revealed streetcar tracks in nearly pristine condition. The asphalt covering had served as a time capsule, preserving the tracks of yesteryear.

But Cobb’s true spark of inspiration came from the man with whom he would later establish the nonprofit McKinney Avenue Transit Authority (MATA).

"My co-founder of MATA, Ed Landrum, came to me said, ‘There’s three and five-eighths-inch crown sill on the top of that rail,'" Cobb recalled. “I said, ‘That’s great, Ed! What does that mean?’ He said, ‘It means you could probably run a street car on those tracks for 50 years before you’d have to think about replacing the rail.’

“Well, that got me, and I said, ‘We’ve got a pretty much intact section of rail. Why don’t we think about bringing the street cars back?’”

That discussion, along with a desire to enhance an old Dallas neighborhood, served as a springboard for what would lead to a second career for Cobb that continues today.

In 1983, Cobb became chairman of the board of MATA, and the partners began planning and raising the more than $3 million in city bonds, federal funds and private investment for the project.

On July 22, 1989, the first MATA streetcars became operational, returning trolleys to the city of Dallas.

What started out as an idea to promote tourism nearly three decades ago, has become a viable transit system that has undergone numerous expansions. In 2017, total ridership reached 614,000, making it the third-largest historic streetcar system in the nation.

  • Finding the cars

    Phil Cobb on old trolley carAlthough the trolley tracks below the asphalt were in pristine condition, none of Dallas' street cars remained. The MATA team built its current six-car fleet by acquiring street cars from numerous sources.

    This "Oporto" car was manufactured at the J.G. Brill Company in Philadelphia and then shipped to Portugal, where it ran for more than 70 years until it was purchased by a private collector in Portland, Oregon. In 1986, Cobb purchased this car and donated it to MATA.


Cobb retired from the restaurant business in 2004 after launching a few ventures with his wife, Janet, who also enjoyed a successful career as a restauranteur.

Today, he enjoys spending time with Janet, his two grown daughters, Savannah and Sierra, their two grown sons Brian and Blair, and four grandchildren. Additionally, he’s a proud member of Buckeye Nation and is active in the university’s Dallas-Fort Worth Alumni Club. Each fall, he makes at least one trip to his native state to visit his brother Dave and attend an Ohio State football game.

But MATA is never far from his thoughts. He continues to serve as MATA’s chairman on a part-time basis. He’s proud of the transportation system’s success and believes it will be his legacy — more so than the success he achieved in the food-service business.

On Sundays, he makes time to visit the system’s volunteer motormen and to collect the fare-box donations accrued from weekend riders. Then, each Monday, he deposits the donations personally. It’s a routine he still enjoys, but he admits it’s a habit he picked up from his first mentor and entrepreneurial role model.

“I’ve become my father,” Cobb said. “My dad used to say, ‘Watch the pennies, son, and the dollars will take care of themselves.’”

"I started out originally wanting to be an engineering major. But then my brother took me aside and said, ‘You’re struggling a bit with some of your engineering courses. See those guys coming out of Hagerty Hall? They’re going to be your boss if you become an engineer.’ 

“So, I switched to business my sophomore year and got a degree in marketing.”

Phil Cobb (BSBA '65)