Chuck Lager America’s Tavern is based on a real person, but the far-fetched stories behind the man are what bring character to the restaurant.
Like the idea that he was born during a climb up Mount Kilimanjaro and inspired his parents to reach the top. Or that he surfed on the backs of sharks and discovered so many rare artifacts that archaeologists became jealous.
While those are exaggerations, they do truthfully speak to Lager’s love for travel and the many cuisines he’s tasted along the way. His namesake restaurant conveys that passion in its menu. Chuck Lager refers to itself as decidedly American, but the menu features a breadth of international influences, thanks to chef and cofounder Fabio Viviani.
For instance, there’s the Asian Street Taco with grilled marinated shrimp street corn, pickled red onions, cusabi sauce, teriyaki, lime, and cilantro, and the Greek Burger, made with a lamb patty, arugula, cucumbers, tzatziki sauce, diced tomatoes, red onions, and cotija cheese. Complementing the food is a beverage program featuring bourbons, whiskeys, wines, draft beers, and craft cocktails, like the Elegant French (Absolut Vanilla, Chambord, pineapple juice, and prosecco).
“It creates a scenario where if you want to go there with a bunch of friends and join the game, that’s great. But if you want to go with your wife and kids, you can eat on the side of the restaurant that doesn’t look like a sports bar,” Viviani says. “It’s a combination of things we love, things we brought from our cultures, and things that make us giggle and laugh. … It’s an elevated approach to a sports bar.”
Chuck Lager was born from a collaboration between two entities—Fabio Viviani Hospitality and Colby Restaurant Group. Viviani says his business is known for creating “bangers” and “a lot of hype,” across both quick and full service. As Red Robin and Walk-On’s operators, Craig and Michael Colby bring more experience on the franchising side.
The brand began with two corporate stores in Delaware and New Jersey, near the home base of Colby Restaurant Group. Then, Chuck Lager debuted its first franchise unit in Tampa, Florida. Also, former Red Robin president Eric Houseman and former vice president of franchise operations Brad Clawson signed on to build 10 restaurants along Florida’s Atlantic Coast, from Palm County to Key West.
Because of growing interest, the chain decided to invest in a larger restaurant/training facility in Orland Park, Illinois, close to Viviani’s headquarters. Another franchisee is looking to build five units in the Chicagoland market.
“When you buy into a Chuck Lager franchise, you don’t buy a concept. You buy an entire company because we are there every step along the way with the marketing, the PR, the review, the food, the training, the front of the house, the social media, the real estate, the legality, HR—we have everything that a franchise needs to be successful,” Viviani says. “We’re not just handing you off a brand and training you for a month and wishing you luck. You’re part of our operation, and although yes, you own and operate it, we’re going to coddle you like you’re the first-born child.”
Chuck Lager ranges from 4,000 to 6,500 square feet. Vivani says the concept could fit into 3,000 square feet, provided the space includes an outdoor patio and is located in a strong market. The Orland Park store is 12,000-plus square feet because it features two kitchens, an office space, and training facilities. Viviani says a ground-up store can be built for under $2 million and that a unit can fit into a second-generation space for less than $1 million.
In preparation for franchising, the menu was slimmed to 35–40 items that are high quality, but easy to execute, Viviani says. The chef adds that Chuck Lager is using co-packing partners to ensure consistency and using Viviani Hospitality’s marketing and social media prowess to create awareness. Viviani notes that he owns concepts ranging from desserts and fried chicken to high-end steakhouses. The key to pleasing customers but still maintaining a certain price point and profitability is being smart about menu engineering.
“When you taste our food, it tastes like a million bucks, but it doesn’t require a brain surgeon to be able to develop that,” Viviani says. “So my idea, especially post-Covid, is to be able to create incredible offerings with minimal effort. That’s why we are leveraging co-packing. That’s why we are leveraging our purchasing power. That’s why we are leveraging our other restaurant expertise.”
Going forward, Viviani says growth will primarily focus on franchising. As he puts it, it won’t do him any good to have 30 corporate units that are successful and 20 franchised ones that are struggling. His goal is to help “franchisees shine and make a killer amount of money to their bottom line while serving their communities.”
As for Chuck Lager’s white space, Viviani is unsure whether that number is 50, 100, or even 1,000 locations. However, he does know that it wouldn’t be prudent to saturate markets and compromise franchise territories. He believes Chuck Lager has a place in the top 75 U.S. markets but to different extents, like a half-dozen in Chicago but a few less in Tampa. Whatever size the brand ends up being, franchise health will remain a top concern.
“I’m willing to open as many as I can without jeopardizing the territory that we already sell to the franchisees. So if that’s 500, that’s your answer. If that’s 1,000, that’s your answer,” Viviani says. “But [if] I have to question whether this location is too close or it’s going to mess stuff up for one of my current people that believed in us, the answer is [we’re] absolutely not going to do that.”