After nearly a decade of paused franchise growth, Bar Louie is getting back in the game with a fresh new restaurant design and reduced fees to incentivize potential new owners.
“I’m not sure what actually slowed it down, but franchising was put on hold for a number of years, well before COVID ever hit,” says Brian Wright, who joined Bar Louie as CEO in September of 2022. Previously, he served as CEO of fast-casual brand Tijuana Flats Tex-Mex.
“I’m actually in one of our bars. I always have to be careful and say I’m not in a bar in the middle of the day—sometimes it’s misinterpreted,” he adds with a laugh.
To prepare for the renewed franchising effort, Bar Louie recently unveiled a new, contemporary restaurant prototype that debuted at its high-traffic Nashville, Tennessee, location earlier this year. The design features upscale, modern-yet-approachable finishes through the dining room, like brick veneer on walls, lighter woods and lighter palettes for furniture, and hand-painted murals over the top of brick. “It brightens up the environment a little bit,” Wright says. “When it was designed 20-25 years ago, it had a lot of those really dark woods.”
“It’s created an ambiance overall that just feels so comfortable sitting in a Bar Louie today,” he says.
Founded in downtown Chicago in 1990, gastropub Bar Louie is now headquartered in Dallas and has grown to 67 locations across the U.S. No two Bar Louie restaurants are alike—which the brand prides itself on.
“This brand is very unique,” he continues. “Very few brands are hovering around that 50/50 mark alcohol versus food, and we’re right on the cusp of that. We’ve got a brand that’s got such an amazing beverage section of the business—the craft cocktails, we’ve got that cool martini glass in our logo. You walk in and hear those shaker glasses going every night in all different directions.”
In addition to revamping the look of Bar Louie, the culinary team was hard at work this past year enhancing the brand’s food offerings. Last November, Bar Louie hired Joel Reynders as executive chef and vice president of culinary to help reshape the bar and dining experience with a refreshed collection of chef-inspired entrées.
Reynders, who previously served in a variety of culinary roles at Red Lobster (before Darden sold it in 2014), Ruby Tuesday, and Tijuana Flats, brought elevated dinner menu selections to the table after joining Bar Louie. The new lineup includes Steak Frites with a 12-ounce New York strip, garlic butter, truffle fries, parmesan, truffle aioli; Parmesan Crusted Chicken with two grilled chicken breasts, mozzarella, provolone, garlic parmesan panko crust, grape tomato bruschetta, roasted baby potatoes, and zucchini; and Shrimp & Grits with jumbo shrimp, cheesy grits, andouille sausage gravy, applewood smoked bacon, and scallions.
Plus, Reynders helped enhance mainstays items on the menu like Bar Louie’s signature burgers, which now feature 1855 Black Angus Beef, known for its premium quality and unparalleled eating experience. The craft burgers also feature a larger half-pound patty, a 2-ounce increase from the previous 6-ounce burger.
“It’s all about craveability, and I feel like we’re really in that direction to achieve that, both on the culinary as well as the beverage side,” Wright notes. “People knew we had great cocktails. They just didn’t know much about the food, and I think there was some foundational work that had to be done. We spent the last year really getting all this foundational work completed, getting ready to almost relaunch our entire franchising platform.”
“That’s what this was about, to really get a lot of attention—hey, Bar Louie is franchising again, we’re going to give you an opportunity for the next X amount of months to get in at a reduced franchising fee, and really become exposed to what Bar Louie is all about and see some of these really amazing things this brand can do for you. We’ve had a lot of interest,” he adds.
Bar Louie recently inked a five-unit agreement with a Midwest-based hotel group to develop locations across the Chicago and Indianapolis markets, the first of which is already under construction in Indiana, which will serve as a cornerstone restaurant for a brand-new retail center featuring shops and hotels. Existing franchisees are also taking note of the brand’s revitalized operations. For example, Kaushik Patel—one of the brand’s longest-standing franchisees—is opening an additional location in Naperville, Illinois, in the first quarter of 2024.
Wright also highlights Bar Louie’s hours of operation as a unique opportunity for potential franchisees. While many locations open at 11 a.m., most stay open until 2 a.m. “We almost have like four different dayparts in our business—lunch period, we’ll have a happy hour, we’ll have a dinner period, and then we have a late night, which also includes late-night happy hour at a lot of places where we can,” he says.
“We were really good when it came to the drinks and beverages. You would see happy hours in that period extremely busy, but then sometimes you’d see people sort of trickle out to go have dinner somewhere else. We felt like if we’re going to be open for four dayparts, we have to be fantastic for four different dayparts,” he adds.
The chance to build non-traditional Bar Louie locations is also on the table. One operator is currently building stores in major hotels, and the brand is in talks with several major metro airports across the country. A Bar Louie location is already open in Dallas’ DFW Airport in terminal D. “Quite frankly, it just worked so well there, and it got me and the team thinking, ‘wow, why are we not going after the airport channel more aggressively?’ Because again, with sort of that balance of beverage and culinary, it’s just sort of a perfect fit for an airport environment,” Wright says. “When we think about expansion, we’re explaining this to some of our potential new partners … how it can fit many shapes and sizes and work for whatever your goals are.”
While flexible, most Bar Louie locations are between 6,000 to 8,000 square feet, with 20 to 48 beers on tap. It costs between $2.5 to $4.5 million to open a Bar Louie, and average unit volumes have surpassed $3 million. The average check amount is $40 per person.
To further incentivize potential new owners, Bar Louie is offering qualified franchise partners 50 percent off their initial franchise fee until June 2024. “The idea is to start to get people’s’ attention, number one, not just that we’re offering a discount on a franchise fee, but ”wow, Bar Louie is franchising?’ I think that kind of surprised people,” Wright adds. “We’ve heard that actual comment several times in a lot of these discussions with these people who are calling in, because they just had no idea.”
Four new franchises are slated to open by late spring of 2024; two are in construction, while the other two are getting ready to break ground. Bar Louie has restaurants in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
“I think our development space is wide open,” Wright says. The only markets the brand is temporarily holding off on developing is the Idaho-Montana area (as well as Hawaii and Alaska) due to limited supply chain availability, he notes. Other than that, “we can take care of any other place in the United States and for us the opportunities are kind of limitless.