The restaurant group is doubling in size despite the unpredictable nature of COVID.
Just before 2021 arrived, the National Restaurant Association informed everyone of grave news—roughly 110,000 restaurants in the U.S., or 17 percent of the industry, permanently shut down.
Hundreds of billions of dollars were lost, and the Paycheck Protection Program and $28.6 billion Restaurant Revitalization Fund have proven to be insufficient. The cold hard facts put in perspective how much torture COVID has been for restaurants. When one takes those truths into account, any little bit of success experienced by restaurateurs during the pandemic, especially in the casual-dining segment, has been cause for celebration.
Ballyhoo Hospitality, which manages multiple single-unit concepts across the Chicago market, gave itself plenty of opportunities for these said celebrations. COVID may have changed the country, but it never shifted the company's growth trajectory. Ballyhoo entered the pandemic with four brands—Gemini, Old Pueblo Cantina, Coda Di Volpe, and Walton Street—and proceeded to open Sophia Steak in spring 2020 when indoor dining was disallowed.
The group followed that up with the debut of Andros Taverna in February. Later in the fall, French bistro Pomeroy will open its doors in the North Shore, and that will be followed by Buck Russell's Bakery & Sandwich Shop. By the end of 2021, Ballyhoo will have nearly doubled in size, with the only casualty being Walton Street, which shut down permanently due to the pandemic.
Recently, FSR spoke to Director of Hospitality Brianne Carden to learn more about Ballyhoo's navigation of the pandemic and how it built a diverse collection of restaurants amid such an unpredictable environment.
What’s the secret behind successfully opening concepts during the pandemic, especially Sophia Steak in the spring of 2020?
We are an escape for people. Especially with so much going on, we found that people, whether it was takeout or when we were able to open up on patios and then as the opening expanded a little bit, people were ready after a tough year to be out and about and ready to not be cooking sourdough bread and hot meals at home. They want someone to do it for them and also to feel that sense of normalcy. Going out to dinner really is a big part of everyone’s everyday normal lives. As we reopened and as we got back to day-to-day routine, I think it was nice for our guests to be able to just have these neighborhood spots that they had trusted throughout the pandemic. I've done a lot of to-go when we were shut down. They knew that they could trust that we were following guidelines and taking care of our staff and doing the right thing. They felt comfortable dining with us despite such a strange time.
As far as the growth strategy, it seems like each concept is a different cuisine and each has its own personality. I was wondering if you could take me behind the scenes on the process of creating that next concept. How do you arrive at that?
One of the owners of Ballyhoo Hospitality is Ryan O’Donnell, and he and his wife Anna own the company together. Then we have various partners depending on the concept, but Ryan has a very strong view of what it is that he wants to do conceptually, but he also has a culinary background. For him, a lot of times it's a labor love with, “What do I want to eat next.” He'll have a chef in mind or somebody that he’s wanting to partner with or a menu that he’s really interested in pursuing and he'll take it from there and the next concept will be born.
Could you describe how the relationship works with those partners?
Ballyhoo Hospitality is the hospitality group that runs and manages the concept. And then, for example, at Gemini our long-time friend Pauly [Graves] who had been with us since the opening, bought in, did a remodel in 2017, and he became a partner there. He still oversees the bar, which is what he had been doing before, and really has a hand in just the day-to-day operation still, but now on the partnership level of that. And then we have Coda di Volpe, which falls under the Ballyhoo Hospitality umbrella as well as the Gage Hospitality umbrella. Ryan and Billy Lawless are great friends, and I'm sure you know Lawless has several concepts of his own, and they paired up for Coda di Volpe in the Southport neighborhood.
From there we have Old Pueblo. It's mostly a silent partnership, but again Ballyhoo Hospitality managing and overseeing the day-to-day operations. Then when we opened Sophia, we re-paired up with Glenn Keefer. Glenn Keefer had owned Keefer’s in the city back in the day and both Ryan and Anna actually worked there at one time or another, and Ryan saw Glenn as a mentor. When he was looking to transition to the suburbs and going to the North Shore, Glenn lives out that way with his family, and for Ryan, it seemed like full circle to re-involve him and get Glenn back into the game. Glenn is a partner at Sofia. Glenn is also a partner with a couple other people at Pomeroy, which we’re gearing up to open. And then also during the pandemic we opened Andros Taverna in Logan Square and that's a double partnership as well between Ballyhoo Hospitality and DPHC management. [DPHC] is the partnership of Doug Psaltis and his wife Hsing Chen. We paired up and created the Andros Restaurant Group for that concept. A lot of players, but it keeps us on our toes, keeps us interesting, and it's really fun to work with the different partners on various levels depending on their involvement.
How does preparation differ from concept to concept?
I would say that that doesn't differ too much. I think the biggest part of what we do with Ballyhoo is making sure that you may be getting a different cuisine, you may be in a different neighborhood, but that culture is going to be the common thread throughout, and that goes for our staff and what we want their expectation of us to be, but also going back to the guest experience. You may be eating a steak here and pasta coda, but you're going to know that you're at a Ballyhoo Hospitality restaurant just by the feeling that you get in the way that you're treated.
Prepping for the openings and things like that is really similar. We start with the concept, we build up the menu. I work really closely with Ryan. He builds out most of the space and a lot of the design on his own at this point. Then once all those puzzle pieces start coming together, we start staff training, which is a tough aspect these days for sure. But we think that a lot of what we do and who we are is translated into the staff that we’re able to hire. It's short staffed for everyone right now and we're definitely seeing that, but [we're] able to push through it and be somewhere that people want to work at.
There was one restaurant that closed during the pandemic, Walton Street. Was that just a case of not meeting expectations?
Unfortunately, Walton Street was great when downtown was bustling, but took a really hard hit not only during the pandemic, but just everything going on in 2020. A lot of people at that time were still moved out of the city, especially in the Gold Coast neighborhood. So it's just been too hard to sustain.
With the Delta variant hitting the U.S. hard, how has that affected the recent performance of restaurants?
We’re just hopeful that we won't be taking one step forward and two steps back, which we've done a lot over the past year and a half. The mask mandate, we're making sure to follow all the guidelines and let it go from there. It's really been a tough year in our industry as with many industries, but just hopeful that we'll continue to trend in the right direction and not be looking at more of a shutdown in the future.
Are there any more ideas or cuisines that leadership is formulating right now that could come later this year or early next year, or have you hit the point where you’re comfortable for right now?
I won't give anything away. But I will say that I'm always telling our regulars and guest who are baffled by us not slowing down that we are always up to something.
Do you foresee a time when the company would open a restaurant outside Chicago?
For us right now I think we're mostly focusing on Chicago and the North Shore. Ryan and Anna and their family recently moved up to Wilmette, and then with just the success and positive energy that we've gotten from the neighborhood with Sophia Steak, we're hoping for the same at Pomeroy and then Buck Russell’s. I think we'll stick to that for now.
What are your expectations for Ballyhoo Hospitality for the rest of this year and next?
I'm just really excited to see where the rest of this year takes us, obviously with Pomeroy opening so soon and the next one already on the horizon. We are gearing up for a really fun end of the year and hopeful that everything that's been going on and the hardships that the past year and a half has brought us are a little bit more behind us.