During a conversation with FSR in July, Bottleneck Management CEO Chris Bisaillon revealed big plans for his growing restaurant group. The Chicago-headquartered company was eyeing four additional Old Town Pour Houses in the coming 18 months, and had visions of a 30-store, $150-million brand some time in the next eight years. While the details might have changed a bit, the big picture essentially remains the same. Early in March, Bottleneck opened City Works in downtown Minneapolis, the group’s second stop outside of the Chicagoland market (Old Town Pour House in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is the other). But more notably, the concept represents a launching pad for the company’s reconfigured future.
“With City Works we really wanted to emphasize—on an equal playing field—our great food as well as our great beverage offerings,” Bisaillon says. “We have a scratch kitchen. We have extremely talented chefs back there cooking it. And we wanted to make sure that didn’t get overlooked with the Old Town Pour House brand.”
This is more than a one-outfit change. Bottleneck is set to unveil City Works in King of Prussia and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, as well as Doral, Florida, in the months ahead. Old Town Pour House, once the flag of expansion, has a location picked for Naperville, Illinois, this summer. But after that, the future of Bottleneck will turn its focus firmly to its newest concept. How the company decided, in a relatively narrow window, to change course is relatively simple, although the foresight and willingness to adjust didn’t arrive without some serious thought. Old Town Pour House, which is revered for its 120 taps of beer and elevated setting at its Chicago, Oak Brook, and aforementioned Gaithersburg locations, seemed like a perfect boon for growth until Bisaillon considered the market from a distance. “We found that there were a lot of, quote on quote, Pour Houses out there—that are located across the country, and what we didn’t want to have is any kind of market confusion. I think we have a great concept with the 90 to 120 drafts and scratch food. But if there’s one located a mile away or 10 miles away, we didn’t want to have an affiliation that wasn’t proper.”
Minneapolis was a perfect example. Despite having the rights to Old Town Pour House locked up, the group realized there was another similarly named restaurant located just a few blocks away. The same was true of the King of Prussia and Pittsburgh spots. Additionally, there was a gap in name recognition. From the early processes—the landlord, realtor, and developer conversations—Old Town Pour House carried a certain expectation that Bisaillon felt misrepresented the brand. “When you mention Old Town Pour House, they immediately pigeon hole you as a bar. And that is so far away from what we actually are. We sell a lot of food. We take great pride in our food, and we didn’t want to be pigeon holed into an area that was really caused by the name as opposed to the concept,” he explains. “So we said, ‘You know what, it’s time for a refresh here and I think City Works does a wonderful job doing that.’”
In the early going, the first City Works is tracking well, Bisaillon reports. The location is situated pleasantly about a block from the Target Center and a block and a half from Target Field, where the Minnesota Twins are in the midst of a 4-10 start in the young baseball season.
Truthfully, City Works isn’t all that different from Old Town Pour House. There are 90 craft beers on tap and the kitchen plates contemporary American cuisine. “It is very similar,” Bisaillon says. “The finishes were really not dramatically altered to what we were doing at Old Town Pour House. I think each location needs to speak for itself a little bit. How high are the ceilings? Is it a big open floor plan? Is it a little bit chopped up? But the actual finishes? Very similar.”
Flexibility has been a real strength of Bottleneck. Despite strong sales, Bisaillon says the group wanted to make sure it could adjust to consumer demand. One example: Bisaillon explains that they’ve started to cater to the lunch crowd by offering build-your-own salads, which add stress to the kitchen but pays off at the table. “What we found is most restaurants dread modifiers. But at the end of the day, in the world that we live in, people modify things,” he says.” In fact, they modify most things. Well, people are going to modify most things anyway, so why don’t we just give them the outlet to do so?”
Bottleneck started in 2011 when Jason Akemann and Nathan Hilding, college pals from Illinois Wesleyan, opened a two-story tavern named Trace in Chicago’s Wrigleyville. Bisaillon, who was also a classmate of the pair, joined in 2007 and helped opened The Boundary. Next came Sweetwater Tavern and Grille in 2009 and South Branch two years later. The first Old Town Pour House sprung up in 2012 with the addition of Corporate Executive Chef Paul Katz.
Since then, Bisaillon says the key has been learning and adapting. In the past year, a major change has occurred on the employee training side. “That’s probably the area we’ve improved the most in the past 12 months,” he notes.
Bottleneck now has a specific department dedicated to the practice. “We take some of our very best servers and bartenders, support staff, line cooks, prep cooks, and we have developed a training program for these folks that are in our existing locations that will then be the ambassadors and trainers on the ground for a new location,” he says.
The eight-week program helps Bottleneck instill its ideal standard operating procedure. There’s also a Bottleneck Beer 101 program, which involves a combination of manuals and videos to educate staff. All servers and bartenders take the course during orientation and have to pass a test before serving guests. But regardless of the path, Bottleneck has a goal of opening about five units a year with an average unit volume of $5 to $6 million.
“I think there have been some things that have changed as far as how we get to where we’re going,” he says. “But we are definitely excited about getting there.”
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