Robert Platzer isn’t one to rest on his laurels.
Over the past 33 years, he’s grown his business from a single restaurant into an enterprise with more than $80 million in annual sales and nearly 1,600 full-time and part-time workers at 18 full-service eateries, three arena concession or bar units, and a catering truck. And now? “We think we’re ready for prime time,” Platzer says with a laugh.
Never mind that the company, PJW Restaurant Group, already has dotted the map across Greater Philadelphia with its four brands, led by flagship P.J. Whelihan’s Pub and Restaurant—a favorite for chicken wings and beer. There’s still room to grow, CEO Platzer notes.
PJW anticipates $100 million in sales by 2020, with plans to add three new units every two years for the foreseeable future.
The company’s specialty has been turning closed or troubled restaurants into profitable eateries. It’s built only two from the ground up, although the business is developing a restaurant design for possible new units to be constructed from scratch. “At this point, we are looking to take prime sites and increase our brand image,” Platzer says. And while there are plenty of potential locations within its existing region for new units, he acknowledges the company is also looking at points slightly farther away. “To make us viable to people who make [financial] decisions, you have to show you have legs beyond your area.”
Just as impressive as the company’s growth is that PJW has never closed any of its restaurants. A couple locations changed concepts, but remained open. Also, “we’ve never had a down year” in sales, Platzer explains, despite the recession and many competitors entering the market. Positioning P.J. Whelihan’s as a sports bar and grill focusing on wings, burgers, cheesesteak and beer—especially craft beer—has put the chain in good stead.
The key to PJW’s strength has been solid operations and building a strong relationship with local communities. The company looks to sponsor a local sports team and hire local employees while creating the kind of atmosphere where people want to work.
“I like to think our restaurants are neighborhood places where longtime employees are able to build strong relationships with guests,” Platzer says. “I know it’s corny, but we really are like ‘Cheers,’ a comfortable place where we know our guests.”
The South New Jersey native, now 64, has been in the restaurant business for 50 years, working his way up from busboy to running a kitchen. In 1982, a friend told him about a small bar 150 miles away at the edge of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains. He drove up and put down $72,000 to buy the four-story Victorian building housing the one-room bar. Platzer and his wife resided above the bar, renamed Platz’s Inn, initially cooking food in an upstairs kitchen. They eventually expanded the bar to a full restaurant.
The business remained a single-unit operation until 1993 when Platzer decided to open a new restaurant and bar in nearby Allentown, Pennsylvania.
He named the new place after his grandfather, P.J. Whelihan, “who was a great pub person,” Platzer says wryly, and, chose to focus on the growing popularity of pubs featuring chicken wings, burgers, and beer. A of couple years later, he opened a Whelihan’s closer to his native South Jersey. By 2002, with six Whelihan’s, including the Platz’s Inn that had changed its name, he decided to try his hand at an upscale steakhouse, opening The ChopHouse in Gibbsboro, New Jersey. Over the past decade, he’s added two other concepts, The Pour House beer bar, and Treno Pizza Bar, a wood-fired and brick-fired pizza brand.
The latter two grew out of two other concepts launched just as the economy was starting to turn south in the mid 2000s. Kitchen 233, a pricey seafood house, changed course to Treno, and Dockhoppers, a clam and oyster bar, became The Pour House.
“That’s the thing about being a sole owner; I can make a change if necessary,” Platzer notes. And while The ChopHouse and Treno should remain stand-alone units, The Pour House—now at three units—will be a PJW growth engine along with P.J. Whelihan’s.
He’s hired a number of hands to help grow the company, including Chief Operating Officer Jim Fris. His wife left the business a decade ago, but the staff now includes his daughter, Jacky, the assistant culinary directory, and two nephews, Jake Karley, special projects and beverage manager, and Chris Webb, one of two area operations directors.
The Pour House concept was developed in large part by Jacky Platzer and Karley, although the boss required the oyster bar to remain.
The restaurants feature craft beers—up to 39 beers on tap and more than 100 in bottles—along with sandwiches, burgers, the oysters, and rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia on the walls. It has a slightly higher beverage blend than PJW’s 65-35 percent food-to-beverage mix.
P.J. Whelihan’s features lots of TVs to watch sports, especially Philadelphia-area teams. Along with the wings—some 10 million have been sold—there are dozens of beer varieties, including PJW Copper Lager, made for the chain by local Victory Brewing Co.
“The two [concepts] are different enough that they don’t cannibalize one another,” the CEO adds.
Despite approaching the traditional retirement age, Platzer says he has no thoughts of leaving the business any time soon.
“I have a good 10 years working left,” he states emphatically. “I’ve never had a day that I’ve not wanted to come to work, and I don’t think that’s about to change.”
By Barney Wolf