Tommy is a fast-talking New Yorker, and he knows his stuff.
His dad was a NYC officer who, in an attempt to prepare for retirement, bought a restaurant called the Sugar Bowl, where Tommy worked during his summers.
Tommy moved to Charlotte to attend college. He saw the opportunity and development happening in the late 80s – much like there is today – and although it was unlike anything he was used to in Breezy Point, Queens, he instantly recognized the need for it.
In 1988, his first year out of college, he decided to take a risk and pursue his passion. At 22, he partnered up with some college buddies to open an Irish-themed pub.
“Not even close, not even close.” We’re discussing his young start and rise to eventually owning six locations. He can look back on his early years with 20/20 hindsight.
The entry point was low, but the community remained unconvinced that they would stick around, since the location had changed hands four times in the six years prior.
Things turned around 7 months after opening, when they booked 22 Christmas parties in 20 days. They even had 2 or sometimes 3 parties in a single day to make it work.
“It got us on the right track financially, plus that much foot traffic means word of mouth”.
That didn’t mean they were profitable from then on out. It was around their second year that things started to turn around, even though they didn’t know how South End was going to change in the coming years.
“We had no plans to expand. We had our hands full, without a doubt.”
They were approached by some burgeoning real estate owners, who were impressed that the bar was able to turn a profit where no one else could. In need of a complement to their downstairs deli, they offered the college friends a tiny upstairs perfect for a second location.
Inevitably, those deli guys realized they didn’t actually want to slice meat all day, but they did believe in Tommy’s bar, so they stayed in as silent partners.
Those humble beginnings spawned Tyber Creek Pub in South End, The Workman’s Friend in Plaza Midwood, and Connolly’s Irish Pub, Prohibition, and Dandelion Market, all in Uptown.
How’d they scale up to 6 successful locations in less than 20 years?
“We were always big on ‘we’re the bartender, we’re the manager; we close down every night’. That’s what you really have to do if you’re in this business, you have to do that for a long time, sometimes you don’t get out of that. If we only had 1 or 2 locations, we’d probably still be doing that now.”
Because they wanted to keep growing, they realized they needed to move from behind the bar to the back office. They recognized their weaknesses and knew they needed to find corresponding strengths when they brought general managers in.
“There’s obviously a financial layout you have to justify, but you also have to find the right people, which as you know is the hardest part in any business.”
With new locations popping up just before an area really starts to develop, I have to wonder how they choose their locations. They go by their gut.
“We love density, we love trying to be in the center of everything. We’ve gotten lucky a few times getting in before the curve, but timing is as we always say: a little vision and a lot of luck.”
The growth in business has corresponded with a growth in food culture. Tommy explains that people’s taste buds have evolved. We’re traveling more, and taking pictures of our food on Instagram. Good food is more accessible.
“There’s definitely more cost there, but the return is greater because people have shown they will pay more for quality.”
It’s always been about quality and passion for Tommy.
“If you don’t have a passion for this business, it will wear you out because it’s late hours, you can’t just hire people to take care of it, and if you’re not around to get to know your customers, you won’t be around.”
Tommy still stops into his locations on weekends to check in on the bars and see the customers, but he also prioritizes spending time with his family during the week. As a new father with a young family, he is focused on balance.