Phil Barnett and his partners in the Hartford Restaurant Group attribute their success to offering old-fashioned hospitality, backed up by the latest in restaurant information technology.
Since they opened the first Wood-n-Tap Bar & Grill in Hartford in 2002, the four partners have opened seven more restaurants, including a Wood-n-Tap in Orange, which debuted in January.
Choosing locations in "working-class" neighborhoods has also helped business, Barnett said.
The owners do more than deliver hearty meals and frosty brews at reasonable prices. They track data their restaurants generate, from best-selling dishes to the most popular red wine. This makes ordering more efficient and leaves managers more time to circulate and troubleshoot.
The four partners have restaurant backgrounds that stretch back decades. Barnett, 36, grew up in Willimantic, and started washing dishes in high school and busing tables when he was in college. He eventually realized that he preferred working in restaurants to jobs he could find in his intended career, the nonprofit business world.
"It's stressful at times, but it's very fun," he said recently, as he scooped up a scrap from the floor of Wood-n-Tap in Hartford and wrapped it carefully in a paper napkin.
He borrowed $10,000 from his then girlfriend (now his wife), opened the Irish Pub in Hartford and decided he had found his calling.
Together with college friend Wil Quijano, Ken McAvoy and Mike Hamlin, he later opened the first Wood-n-Keg on Sisson Avenue in Hartford. "Our slogan was 'come as you are,' " Barnett said. "We're going to give you great value."
Their target clientele was 24 and up. In recent years, as their patrons have grown up and settled down, they've added changing tables to the restrooms and television sets in booths to keep children happy until their food arrives.
They looked for neighborhoods where the rents were reasonable. They branched out into social media, offer "Tappy Hour" discounts after 10 p.m. and contribute heavily to local charities. And they grew.
Today, they have about 500 employees, and did about $20 million in sales in 2010, Barnett said.
The recession didn't hurt them as much as it did more upscale restaurants. "We found people who dined down," said Barnett, though he said that the group's sales are still not back where they were, in part because of higher costs for food and labor.
Several of the restaurants deviate from the cozy pub atmosphere of the Wood-n-Taps. There is Agave, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Hartford, and TD Homer's Grill, a sports bar in Southington. Other Wood-n-Taps are in Vernon, Rocky Hill, Farmington and Southington.
The partners, with offices above the Hartford Wood-n-Tap, are looking ahead to expanding into other areas in the state — near Enfield or perhaps Branford, depending on the market data Hamlin develops, but they expect to continue replicating the Wood-n-Tap model.
"It has such a proven track record. Why mess with it?" McAvoy said. "We set out for a specific market, and that's what we worked towards." At the same time, they are weighing whether New Haven would be a good place for another Agave-type Mexican place.
Barnett said the individual expertise of the four partners strengthened the partnership. They confer frequently, but each has his own area of responsibility. "We bring over 100 years of experience in the restaurant business," said McAvoy. "We never, ever, take our guests for granted. I think a lot of restaurants get complacent.
"Everybody [offers] a Bud and a brownie. Why are they going to come to us? We try to keep things fresh."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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