Bar Louie.
Bar Louie

Prior to bankruptcy, Bar Louie had 134 locations, but now it stands at roughly 70.

Bar Louie's New CEO is 'Knee Deep' into Building a Comeback

The NextGen Casual is working with design firms on a new store layout and expects growth to return by mid-to-late 2023. 

When Brian Wright chatted with a couple of his peers about taking over as Bar Louie’s CEO, each expressed how much potential the brand has. They were all reminded of positive, entertaining experiences at the chain, and so was Wright.

He remembers visiting Bar Louie for the first time 15 years ago. The industry veteran recalls watching a show and speaking with bartenders and team members about how proud they were of their craft cocktails and food. That’s how most conversations seem to begin with Bar Louie—by going back in time.

“People are well aware of the challenges the brand has faced over the last couple of years, but I think most people go back to the past and they always want to reference a time—whether it was a company function or they were just out for a cocktail with maybe their spouse or with some friends—they always want to talk about that fond memory they have of Bar Louie and talk about the show,” Wright says. “Being a bar-first concept, we always want to talk about the show, ‘Oh gosh, I remember sitting at the bar and the bartender making me the most incredible martini I've ever had and we sit there and we share a couple appetizers, but the environment, the music, it was just fantastic.’”

The challenges Wright describes date back to January 2020 when the company filed bankruptcy. Prior to court proceedings, Bar Louie had 134 locations, but now it stands at roughly 70. The chain was founded in the early 1990s and expanded to 31 restaurants by 2010. It proceeded to open 110 corporate units and 24 franchises in 26 states in the next nine years. With such swift growth, Bar Louie became burdened with several underperforming locations, and it didn’t have enough cash on hand to fix the issues, Howard Meitner, managing director at Carl Marks Advisors and chief restructuring officer of the bankruptcy case, told FSR in October 2020.

The filing stated Bar Louie suffered from “an inconsistent brand experience.” Wright, who’s been on the job since early September, is zeroing in on that problem. The CEO says the brand was challenged by the pandemic like many, but that it has a storied history to fall back on.

One of the biggest opportunities is leaning into Bar Louie’s bar-forward, late-night environment, something brands seemed to have abandoned because of COVID, Wright says. Almost all Bar Louie locations are open until 2 a.m. and serve the full menu right up until closing. Thanks to a selection of handcrafted cocktails, over 20 taps of local and regional beers, and wine, 23 percent of its sales come after 10 p.m. Bar Louie recently added new beverages to its core menu this summer, including the Porch Pounder (Knob Creek Bourbon and fresh brewed iced tea) and Second Wind (the chain’s take on the espresso martini).

The chain is spread across the country, with locations from California to New Jersey. It’s biggest presence is in Texas with 12 units.

“It's that place to go when you want to have fun, whether it's a gathering of two or gathering of 20—just a great culture, great environment for good beverage, good food. And so over the last couple of weeks, what we've been looking at is really, what are the next steps for Bar Louie? How do you take a look at this brand and say, ‘If we were down the road two years from now, looking back what we what would we see?’”

Bar Louie

A redesigned restaurant in Denver. 

“I just think the way that Bar Louie has embraced the culture of bar first with an amazing food menu slightly behind that, I think it's a unique position for this brand, and I think it's one of the things that allows it to succeed for the future," says Bar Louie CEO Brian Wright. 

In recent weeks Bar Louie has seen its traffic slow because of inflationary pricing, but not in the double digits. Wright attributes it to the fact that Bar Louie gives customers an experiential place for friends/family to gather, as opposed to simply offering a dining out occasion.

“We're clearly a brand, there's no doubt across 20 states, but at the end of the day, we want to feel like your community bar and your community-gathering space,” Wright says. “And even a lot of our locations, which is part of our strategy going forward, you'll find murals that tie it to that location or some of the surrounding area that makes it feel like it's your local Bar Louis. I think that's one of the things that has helped us through even these challenging times here as of recent is, sometimes people just shake off the stresses of the day or the time and they love to just go out and go to that getaway for a few moments.”

Wright entered Bar Louie with more than 35 years of experience, including past stops as CEO of Tijuana Flats and Bertucci’s, COO of Au Bon Pain, president of Chevys Fresh Mex Restaurants, senior vice president of operations for Einstein Bros Bagels, and vice president of operations for Boston Market. In those decades of leadership, he first and foremost learned the value of building people and culture, and Bar Louie holds the same priority. In January, the chain announced a new General Manager Benefits Program in which leaders are eligible for a three-week sabbatical every three years, continuing educational support, an annual vacation subsidy, and a $500 quarterly wellness allowance.  

The executive also wants to work on redesigning layouts and aesthetics. In December 2021, Bar Louie revealed an enhanced prototype in Denver, with new colors, lighting, booths, tables, chairs, and barstools, renovated bathrooms, a takeout/delivery station, and upgraded kitchen equipment. To incorporate a neighborhood feel, the restaurant enlisted famous Denver muralist Randy Segura to paint a floor-to-ceiling art piece. 

Wright is concerned with evolving and modernization because he knows franchisees are, as well. Many operators are already inquiring about growth plans—both existing and prospective.

“We have a number of people who have purchased nicer hotels and are wanting Bar Louis to be the concept tied to it,” Wright says. “In addition to that, we're getting calls from a number of airports where they would like to have a Bar Louis in their airports. So not only just that traditional piece of real estate on the corner of main and main, but all of these different nontraditional types of growth patterns or growth opportunities. It was a very pleasant surprise. Not that I didn't think people were attracted to the brand, I just didn't know that many people were knocking on our door, so that was exciting.”

Wright says Bar Louie is still “knee deep in the overall architecture of the plan,” but he would like to see new stores starting in the mid-to-late part of 2023, and acceleration from there. The company is setting up meetings with design firms and looking at several ways the chain could look in the future.

“I just think the way that Bar Louie has embraced the culture of bar first with an amazing food menu slightly behind that, I think it's a unique position for this brand, and I think it's one of the things that allows it to succeed for the future," Wright says.