A development group with no restaurant experience opened The Bedford and capitalized on others' talent to make it popular

It was love at first sight.

Matt Mering and his partners at Salita Development had been looking to move into restaurant management and when they saw the space that is now The Bedford, “we just couldn’t not do it,” he says.

The Bedford, a restaurant that opened last May, is housed in a former 1920’s private bank called Home Bank+Trust, and is located in Wicker Park, a trendy Chicago neighborhood.

But the building wasn’t part of Mering and Salita’s problems. Rather, the problem was the fact that the team had no restaurant management or operations experience—just experience operating nightclubs and hotels.

“We did, however, have a lot of business experience,” Mering says. “We’re very data driven and always focused on the bottom line so we’re constantly analyzing numbers and using that information to improve the business. At the end of the day, the restaurant industry is a business like any other.”

To come to grips with the restaurant industry, Salita brought in people with the know-how—a chef with experience, a beverage director who designed the cocktail program, a PR team to handle messaging to media, and a social media team to spread the word virally.

“If you hire good people and give them the tools to succeed, they will be successful,” Mering points out. “You need to hire great people and then get out of the way.”

The space, beautiful as it is, was also challenging.

At 8,000 square feet, it needed to become much more intimate, so Salita created a private event space at the back, making the front smaller.

A lobby leading to the former vault became the dining room, which now has 46 seats; the vault itself, lined floor to ceiling with more than 6,000 original copper lock boxes is now a lounge; and the area of private cubicles was opened up into the bar.

Salita wanted to retain as much of the bank’s character as it could.

The building has many details of the period: terrazzo floors, crafted crown molding, terracotta, marble, and a vault that’s large enough for a party. Other pieces that have been used from the bank include teller grills, private booths, and transaction counters. All this metal makes for a very cold space, so wood was added throughout for warmth.

And much attention was paid to the women’s bathroom.

“We wanted to make a splash with the women’s bathrooms because it’s so important to women,” Mering says. “There are eight stalls so there’s never a wait, even when we’re busy.”

And focus groups that were done before the restaurant opened showed women wanted restrooms to be clean, fabulous and fast.

The bathrooms were lined with marble and contain the private booths from the former bank as stalls. At the same time, they are plush, with comfortable seating, warm lighting, and deep colors.

Another benefit of the focus groups was to figure out who the core customer was, according to Mering.

“It was 25- to 35-year-old professional females with disposable income. There’s a real lack of options for that customer set. There are a lot of nightclubs, a lot of sports bars, but not much in between. We focused on women and realized that if you get them, the men will follow.”

Salita Development also looked into what this demographic is seeking. “We tried to put ourselves in the shoes of the customer,” Mering says.

“A lot of variables go into where people want to eat and socialize, and it’s more than just the actual food and ambiance of an establishment,” he adds. “We learned people were really influenced by pressure from their peer groups and even aspirational factors.”

Learning this meant the initial marketing for The Bedford could be very targeted. It was somewhat traditional but also used social media, Mering says. One very successful campaign was through Twitter.

“We encouraged Twitter users to Tweet a message for the chance to receive an invitation to our exclusive ‘Under Lock + Key’ opening event,” he explains. “Over 25 percent of the attendees at that event were Twitter followers. Not only did we attract potential customers, but these people were also the ‘influencers’ or ‘mavens’ that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in The Tipping Point.”

The restaurant also has a good relationship with the concierges in town and even held a party early this year for about 80 of them. “Once you have them in, and take care of them, and they understand the product, they’re very willing to send people here.”

So despite a few obstacles before the doors were opened, The Bedford has proven to be a success, and an exciting one for everyone.

Says Mering, “As far as a development project goes, this is about as fun and interesting as it gets.”

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Feature, NextGen Casual