For most young restaurant companies, beginning to franchise the concept is a huge step. Even for operators who have experience in the field, there always can be surprises. 

So, when former Bar Louie execs Scott Ward and Mark Zych launched Tap House Grill in Chicago’s suburbs a decade ago, they knew that they would need to rely on their years of restaurant industry experience not only to run the gastropub but also to have it grow.

“We patterned it a bit like Bar Louie, but we wanted to do more edgy things and have more fun with it,” Ward says. “It was set up to replicate our previous employer as a chain, but with an important focus on becoming a part of the communities we were in.” 

The concept was driven by the wave of craft beers that Ward saw coming. “I liked the idea of having 40 beers on tap in a gastropub setting,” he says. That included an open kitchen and plenty of food choices. 

And since Ward helped Bar Louie expand its franchise business, he is beginning to do the same with the seven-unit Tap House Grill—the formal name is Tap House Grill Addictive Food/Creative Brews. Its first franchise opened this year in Palatine, Illinois.

“We had operated that restaurant and sold it to its original manager,” Ward notes. “I told him that when he was ready, we would love to sell it to him. That’s what we did.” 

The franchisee, Santino Patragas, was a perfect choice, Ward says, because he had worked for the Tap House Grill restaurants for years and “believed in the procedures.” The parent company picked up some of the paper for the franchisee.

Tap House is now looking at other potential franchisees for units not only in the Chicagoland region, but also elsewhere in Illinois, as well as Wisconsin and Michigan.

Franchising can be tricky business, notes Scottsdale, Arizona-base consultant Warren Ellish. The owners are now in both the restaurant and the franchising businesses.

“It’s very important to make the franchisees—their business partners—more profitable, which is better for everyone,” says Ellish, who also is on the faculty at Cornell University. “They are now in the servicing business and they are servicing their franchisees.”

It’s a lesson Ware learned at Bar Louie. “Franchisees are the world’s greatest marketer of your brand, so if they’re successful, so are you,” he says. “So you need to be supporting them and communication with them constantly.” 

While having a franchisee that actually worked for the restaurant company is a great advantage, that’s not always an option going forward. So choosing the right franchisee with the correct qualifications is critical, Ellish adds. 

“Franchisees must be comfortable adopting to their role,” he notes. “They are not reinventing processes. They need to execute the heck out of systems in place. They also should be self-starters who can motivate others and are willing to work long hours.

Franchisees also need to be aware that changes can come. Tap House Grill already has evolved its culinary style over the years. “Early, execution-wise, it was chef-driven. That works with one or two stores, but execution at a higher level became difficult with more units. We had to simplify our recipes.”

With a 60—40 percent sales split between food—burgers are the most popular—and beverages, Top House Grill continues its strong focus on beer. Last year, its parent company added another concept, brewpub Half Day Brewing Co., in another Chicago suburb.

Plans call for Tap House Grill to have several taps at all its restaurant dedicated to Half Day brews, along with the chain’s other rotating craft and popular beers.

By Barney Wolf

Casual Dining, Chain Restaurants, Industry News, NextGen Casual