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Renovated Hartford Pub Awaits New Tenant

By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN | Courant Staff Writer

April 08, 2008

Commercial real estate owners like to joke about the best kind of deal: taking over a renovated property where someone else has already done all the work.

If so, the next occupant of 31 Pratt St. in downtown Hartford should be very happy.

When Joe Black's Restaurant and Pub closed March 29, the owners left behind an 18,000-square-foot space into which they had poured $4.1 million to transform a bank building from the 1890s into an Irish pub and banquet hall.

It was an enormous investment: nearly $230 a square foot, almost twice what the typical downtown Hartford restaurant would spend to renovate a space. In the end, the heavy debt proved to be too much.

Now the space provides an opportunity for a new tenant to work with recent renovations but without the debt. However, it also has some challenges: working in a large, unconventional space and putting distance between a new venture and the failure of Joe Black's.

"Given the incredible investment and the physical space, it's got to be a similar type thing, a restaurant-banquet hall," said Jay Wamester, a commercial broker at Colliers Dow & Condon in Hartford.

His sentiment is echoed by other real estate experts and restaurateurs. Philip Schonberger, the building's co-owner, said he's had at least 10 callers express interest in reusing the space. He declined to identify them.

Joe Black's opened in 2006 with a broad vision of becoming an Irish pub with a regional reputation. Some say, however, that its identity never became clear. While it looked like an Irish pub, its menu didn't always follow through on the theme.

Owners John Duffy, who put up $3.25 million in private equity for the project, and Michael McEveney, who ran the operation, declined to comment through their lawyer, Brendan M. Fox.

The extent of the renovation is hard to miss, even to the casual observer.

The space was expanded by adding a 3,000-square-foot mezzanine with a sweeping, curved oak staircase. Gilded iron scrollwork and damask drapes were a nod to the building's past as headquarters for the venerable Society for Savings.

Elements of the original bank lobby black marble columns and a coffered ceiling embellished with a mural were incorporated into the design.

While attractive, the renovations could be a challenge for the next tenant.

Much of the interior is distinctive to the image Joe Black's was trying to convey, and enough changes need to be made so diners aren't reminded of Joe Black's when they walk in the door, said Kevin McEvoy, a professor of marketing at the University of Connecticut in Stamford who spent 25 years in the restaurant industry.

"They have to personalize it enough so it doesn't look like 'Joe Black's: The Sequel,'" McEvoy said.

Richard Rosenthal, president of the Max Restaurant Group, which operates Max Downtown and Trumbull Kitchen nearby, said he looked at the building originally and passed on it, sensing the investment that would be needed. But he said he might take another look at it now.

Rosenthal estimated that Joe Black's would have needed to pull in total revenue of at least $4 million a year based on the initial investment. Some restaurants can do that, he said, but it's a challenge in a city the size of Hartford.

"Hartford just isn't as big as Manhattan or Atlanta," Rosenthal said.

Duffy and McEveney closed Joe Black's with an upbeat message tacked on entrances: "Joe Black's is closed. Thank you. We had a good time." But court documents show that it was a struggle financially almost from the beginning. According to a lawsuit filed in housing court in Hartford, Joe Black's, controlled by parent company Mac Duff Inc., began falling behind in rent payments in October 2006, less than a year after opening.

The restaurant ended up owing more than $300,000 in rent when it closed, according to a lawsuit by Schonberger and co-owner Konover Investments Corp. that sought payment.

Schonberger said he tried to work with the restaurant owners as much as he could until at last, as bills mounted, that was no longer possible.

Though one restaurant failed in the space. Schonberger is optimistic about the future.

"I feel sad, but I'm confident we'll have the building back open very promptly," Schonberger said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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