Operators look to tap into a new dining occasion.
In expanding their on-premises business, restaurants typically go one of two routes: They open more locations of the same concept, eventually becoming a micro-chain, or they pack their portfolio with new concepts. And then some brands take a varied approach on the latter path. Instead of creating new restaurants, they build bar-forward establishments and differentiate themselves from the pack by serving a niche—and sometimes untapped—dining occasion.
“Food revenue drives a lot of the sales, but the margins are not as strong. So when you build a bar concept on top of that, you’re building something with much larger margins,” says Justin Weathers, co-owner of Stove & Co. Restaurant Group. “The 50/50 blend of food and beverage sales, in any operation, is the sweet spot for making a successful business. It is more to manage, but it does amount to a healthier business.”
Based in the greater Philadelphia area, Stove & Co. comprises four brands: two-unit Stove & Tap, Al Pastor, Revival Pizza Pub, and its latest concept, Good Bad & Ugly. When the space beneath the West Chester, Pennsylvania, location of Stove & Tap opened, Weathers and his partners were eager to grab it. They wanted to distinguish it from the New American restaurant upstairs, but they also didn’t want it to stray too far from the group’s F&B core. Opening a bar was the natural choice.
“It expands your time that you can, as a business, create revenue and different experiences. And because it’s attached to the restaurant, my business partner Joe [Monnich] and I like to say it’s kind of like dinner and a movie,” Weathers says. “People want to not just go out; they want to be entertained.”
To this point, Good Bad & Ugly has adopted a bar-meets-eatertainment identity, with shuffleboard, billiards, and nostalgic video games at the ready. Weathers says these interactive components also encourage conversation among strangers—something he himself seeks when going out.
In Atlanta, Bar Vegan is also all about the experience, albeit without the eatertainment vibes. For founder Pinky Cole, who also owns growing fast casual Slutty Vegan, the full-service bar/restaurant was meant to foster the quintessential bar experience but with a crucial distinction.
“After the success of Slutty Vegan, I’m like, ‘OK, I want to create a bar where they have vegan food at the bar because I’ve never been to a vegan bar before,’” Cole says. “The experience was always at the forefront of the idea … and that experience is the vibe, the music, the food—because food is also an experience. We wanted to make sure people could let their hair down and relax.”
And while the atmosphere may be laidback, it is also brimming with energy—both from the funky decor (neon signs, velvet chairs, a stained glass bar backsplash, etc.) and its location within the lively Ponce City Market. True to Cole’s original vision, the menu features indulgent bar foods (think: fries, tacos, pizza, and barbecue chicken sliders) but with an elevated, plant-based twist.
As for beverages, refreshing classics like margaritas and mules share real estate with signature cocktails, including nonalcoholic options. Ironically enough, wine, not mixed drinks, is the top-seller, something Cole attributes to the young professionals Ponce City Market tends to attract.
Like Weathers, Cole says a bar concept can boost profits because it appeals not to a different clientele so much as a different going-out occasion. She’s also seeing more blurring between what constitutes a restaurant and what constitutes a bar, since both categories are stepping up their game.
“I think they’re now starting to go hand in hand, even if it’s not a full-on bar. I’m seeing restaurants that have a bar aesthetic to them,” she says. “A bar can really bring in a different kind of revenue that you typically won’t see just in the restaurant space.”
Bar Vegan doesn’t directly name itself as the sister concept to Slutty Vegan, though Cole’s growing reputation means many customers know the two properties are linked.
“You won’t see anything about Slutty Vegan on Bar Vegan’s [web] page, and you won’t see anything about Bar Vegan on Slutty Vegan’s page because I want them to live separately and have their own identity,” she says. “However, you know who owns both of them, and you know the quality of one is going to be as good as the quality of the other one.”
Stove & Co. isn’t especially loud in cross-promoting its concepts, but each respective website does have an option to view other restaurants in the same family; Good Bad & Ugly also points out its location as right below Stove & Tap.
Weathers estimates less than half of Good Bad & Ugly patrons are coming directly from Stove & Tap above. That’s no small amount, but he says it’s important that the bar be a destination unto itself. The two concepts’ operations, however, have far more overlap, both in terms of kitchen prep and workforce.
“There’s a lot of synergy that goes along with our philosophy behind the bar. We make our own mixes, syrups, and sours and fresh-press everything, so it is nice to have kitchen space,” Weathers says. “It also makes it better for efficiency of employee staffing.”
He adds that employees can earn more by picking up shifts from both establishments, which also helps Stove & Co. optimize its workforce amid labor challenges. Training can be more intensive to work behind the bar, but the group has come up with clever ways to cross-utilize staff.
“Because it does go until 2 in the morning at the bar, it’s necessary to interchange employees,” Weathers says. “The bar does require a higher skill set of bartending—that’s kind of required—but we just recently installed a food truck–style snack bar in there, so we need employees to work that. And some of our other employees who serve at night will transition into being bouncers and security at night.”
The success of Good Bad & Ugly has led Weathers and his partners to look at properties with potential for the addition of a separate bar. This strategy may soon prove especially prescient; as inflation threatens a chilling effect on restaurant sales, bar concepts might be more insulated.
“I always say the threshold for a restaurant’s price point is the burger on its menu. People say, ‘Oh, they have a $16 burger there; they’ve got a $22 burger there. It’s a we-can’t-go-there kind of spot.’ Whereas a lot of times, people don’t even look at the drink prices; they just order,” Weathers says.
Cole is also keen to expand Bar Vegan, though only into big cities, where it can attract locals and tourists alike. She’s already exploring locations in D.C. and New York while also developing another alcohol-forward restaurant, which is slated to debut next year.
“I’m going to do a mimosa bar,” she says. “People can get excited about coming to the space outside of just the food.”