Chain Profile: Bar 145 Finds Its Niche

“Burgers, Bands and Bourbon” sum up the appeal of this Ohio-based gastropub.

The chain uses exposed metal ductwork to establish an industrial feel, which is balanced out by warmer wood tones in the tables and bar.Children and college students aren't the only people who like to have fun. Adults also want to go out for a good meal and a good time. But finding a place that can offer both, or sometimes even one, can be a challenge in many municipalities.

That's the market need Bar 145 seeks to address. At this gastropub, people with full lives and careers can eat good food (think duck confit disguised as buffalo wings), enjoy a cocktail, listen to live music and even dance the night away.

Founded in 2011, Bar 145 traces its roots back to Put-in-Bay, Ohio, a township comprised of a series of islands on Lake Erie, just a few miles from the Canadian border. Put-in-Bay serves as a popular vacation and recreation spot for many in Ohio and beyond — "The Key West of the North," says Jeremy Fitzgerald, Bar 145's cofounder.

Fitzgerald grew up in Put-in-Bay, where his family owns restaurants and a hotel. It was in these establishments that he got his start in the hospitality industry, first bussing tables and washing dishes and eventually serving as general manager over all the operations.

Creating and franchising a concept had always been a draw for Fitzgerald, however. The idea of developing something new and helping it grow appealed to him so much, in fact, that at age 23 he bought a Subway franchise largely to get a better understanding of how that world worked.

Fitzgerald also met his eventual Bar 145 cofounder, George Simon, and corporate chef, Robby Lucas, at Put-in-Bay. The idea for the chain started a few years ago, with Simon and Fitzgerald talking about a place that served gourmet burgers (Simon's idea) in a fun environment (Fitzgerald's). It was then that Lucas entered the conversation.

The chain’s two dominant features are its bar, which sits partway on the outdoor patio, and its stage."I explained [to Lucas] that I wanted high-end bar food in a fun, higher-end atmosphere," recalls Fitzgerald. "He said, 'You're talking about a gastropub.' At the time I had no idea what a gastropub was. Basically his vision, my vision and George's vision came up with this concept. Bar 145 is a destination spot where you can get fresh food with local ingredients [made in] a scratch kitchen. And then you can stick around and watch a fun band at night."

After nailing down the concept, the trio opened the first Bar 145 in Toledo in May 2011. The partners opened a second store in January 2013, which they sold to their first franchisee just a few months later. Today Bar 145 has six units system wide (one corporate, five franchised) located in small to mid-sized markets in Ohio and Indiana.

Two Taglines

It's pretty standard for a restaurant to have a catchphrase that expresses what it wants to be for customers: "Welcome to the Neighborhood," "Have It Your Way," "When You're Here, You're Family" and so on. Bar 145 has not one, but two catchphrases: "Burgers, Bands and Bourbon," and "Red Chucks, White China."

The first is easy to understand. Bar 145 offers good burgers (and other bar food) and live music, along with a big bourbon selection. The choice to feature bourbon, says Fitzgerald, is a little unusual. "It was just something different. I wanted something catchier . . . It's a very American restaurant focused on burgers and high-quality bar food. What better drink than a true American drink, which is bourbon?"

"Red Chucks, White China" is higher concept, but captures the overall spirit of Bar 145 well. "Chucks," says Fitzgerald, refers to the classic Chuck Taylor All-Stars sneakers that staff wear (always in red) and reflects the fun and relaxed atmosphere at Bar 145. Meanwhile, the chain serves its meals on white china, symbolizing how seriously the concept takes it food.

And of course, the spirit of Bar 145 appears in its decor and design choices, both large and small. Overall, Bar 145 sports a slightly industrial appearance: exposed ductwork of galvanized metal; tables and chairs with black metal bases and a mix of light and dark hardwood tops and seats/seatbacks; vinyl plank flooring designed to look like concrete. Some touches add to the fun atmosphere. Cut-glass bourbon bottles serve as light fixtures, and one location features uncut bourbon bottles set into the limestone rock walls.

On the larger scale, two features dominate the restaurant: the stage and the bar. While its size varies by unit, the stage generally runs about 12 feet by 15 feet. During the lunch and dinner peaks, it remains mostly empty, with some chairs and tables sitting right in front. As the evening wears on, though, staff dim the lights and move the tables to open up a dance floor before a band takes the stage at around 10 p.m.

And Bar 145 does not schedule sloppy garage bands, Fitzgerald adds. They're popular acts from around Ohio and places like Chicago and Nashville. Among them are cover bands and other themed acts, allowing Bar 145 to host '80s nights, disco dance parties and dueling pianos. While the stage uses space that would normally go to revenue-generating tables, the investment "is definitely worth it. The bands bring in the partiers . . . A lot of our sales come after 10 o'clock," says Fitzgerald.

The bar becomes the concept's other dominating, and distinctive, feature. Essentially an island, one-third of the bar sits out on the patio while the rest sits inside the restaurant. This design, Fitzgerald says, helps create a unified space. "Sitting outside, you can stare in and see the rest of the bar. You could be outside on the patio and still feel like you're part of the inside. You can see the customers, you can see the band and everything that's going on."

Cooking with Energy

Bar-145-cooklineWhen space is at a premium, the chain swaps out its six-foot chargrill for a five-foot infrared grill, which cooks fast enough to make up for its smaller size.With energy and atmosphere so important to Bar 145, the chain adds to its overall experience by operating an open kitchen. Staff handle kitchen duties brigade style, with one to two cooks responsible for everything at their stations. Instead of using screens and ticket-splitting software, an expediter runs the kitchen operations, calling out to each station what to cook and when to cook it.

The cooking area consists of five stations along two straight lines that share a walkway. Hot equipment sits on one line, while cold equipment and worktables sit on the other.

Starting out the cold side, the plating station faces a window to the front of the house. Here team members receive dishes from the other stations and finish them with traditional toppings like lettuce and tomatoes for burgers, as well as nontraditional toppings, like spicy baked apple slices for the apple pie burger. This station consists of a 48-inch refrigerated table for cold toppings and a 6-foot worktable at which team members can plate items that don't require refrigerated additions.

Opposite the plating area on the hot line resides the protein station, where staff cook gourmet burgers, chicken sandwiches and veggie burgers and also roast vegetables. This station centers on either a 6-foot chargrill or, if space is limited, a 5-foot infrared grill with grates. Both sit above undercounter refrigeration used for holding proteins. While one might think the smaller unit couldn't produce as many items, that's not the case, Lucas says. Since the infrared grill operates at high temperatures, it cooks food quickly enough to make up for its smaller cooking surface.

Next comes the sauté station, which utilizes equipment on both the hot and cold lines. The key to this station is an eight-burner range sitting on top of a conventional oven. Here chefs make dishes to order, like maple bacon mac-and-cheese; goat cheese and chicken macaroni; chorizo mussels; and baccalà tacos (salted cod rinsed and served with olive oil, garlic and cilantro on fresh corn tortillas). Staff use the oven to cook chicken and salmon and make dishes like roasted bone marrow with sweet pepper giardiniera and grilled focaccia. Above this unit sits a salamander. Much like the plating station, the sauté station's cold-line equipment includes another refrigerated table and a small worktable, which hold ingredients for use during cooking as well as sauces, garnishes and more.

The next station, used for hot sides, also straddles the hot and cold lines. Under the hood sits a steam table for soups and hot sauces and two to three fryers (each using oil with duck fat added for flavor). This station's cold equipment consists of just a speed rack that holds sheet pans of ingredients destined for the fryers, like blanched cut potatoes.

At the final station, garde manger, staff produce cold items like appetizers, sides, salads and desserts and prep flat breads for finishing on the sauté station. The station consists simply of a 24- to 48-inch refrigerated table that, depending on space, either sits on the cold table or around a corner toward the prep area.

Bar-145-preplineBar 145’s plating station receives many items from the other cooking stations. Plated food is then passed to the expediter, who assembles trays and directs what dishes should be cooked and when.Bar 145 uses a fairly standard prep area. As part of a scratch kitchen, the combi oven emerges as the real workhorse here. Staff use this unit to cook bacon that Bar 145 cures, seasons and slices in-house; bake focaccia bread and desserts; and even smoke tomatoes for the house-made puree. The space also contains several worktables and countertop equipment like a slicer for meats and cheeses and a high-end food processor, though, "I really try to promote everybody cut everything by hand," says Lucas, the corporate chef.

Storage areas include dry shelving and a walk-in refrigerator that typically measures 18 feet by 11 feet. The stores have no freezers other than a small undercounter unit used to freeze bacon before slicing (which makes pieces more uniform). Bar 145's commitment to fresh food means it receives shipments seven days a week, including daily produce shipments, meat every three days and seafood twice a week — none of it frozen.

To manage the demands of a scratch operation, staff execute the most labor-intensive prep in bulk, Lucas notes. On Mondays for instance, the prep team makes 90 pounds of duck leg confit (for Bar 145's version of wings) that will be used over the course of several days. While this approach helps control labor, it doesn't bring these costs down to the level of restaurants that use prepared foods. But that's a bet the chain is willing to make, says Lucas.

"You have to make a commitment to say we are going to run a little bit higher labor according to industry standards. If everything goes according to plan, you can charge to make up the difference. We're not the cheapest bar and grill on the block, but we're not as expensive as fine dining."

What Market's Best?

So far, Bar 145's bet is paying off. All six of the restaurants continue to thrive. Interestingly, though, the chain has yet to nail down exactly the market types it targets. One unit is near a university and draws a slightly younger, grad school-aged crowd; another is more of a neighborhood spot, while others are in shopping areas.

"They're all working — we're just trying to figure out the best location. Toledo didn't have anything like us that focuses on business clientele and that has entertainment," says Fitzgerald.

Bar 145's existing locations share a few common traits, though. Instead of opening in large cities, the chain has targeted markets with 600,000 to 800,000 people. This approach offers some distinct advantages, says Fitzgerald, including less competition for the entertainment dollar, cheaper rent and advertising and less effort to find and keep good employees.

The chain, Fitzgerald says, seeks to add locations in Ohio and Michigan, at least in the short term. Wherever Bar 145 does expand, though, it gives customers an experience they'd be hard pressed to find anywhere nearby. "Everyone's sick of the white linen cloth, but they want the quality food and experience," says Fitzgerald. "At Bar 145 you're giving them the food, the atmosphere and then the live bands at night. It's very unique." FE&S

 Facts of Note

  • Chain Headquarters: Toledo, Ohio
  • Year Founded: 2011
  • Signature Menu Items: Stack-Your-Own burger menu; Simpleton Burger; confit duck wings; chicken and waffles
  • Number of Units: Six stores (five franchised, one company owned)
  • Average Unit Size: 5,500 square feet
  • Seats Per Unit: 175
  • Total System Sales: $16 million
  • Average Sales: $2.7 million
  • Unit Growth Projections: Three to five new units per year
  • Check Average: $15
  • Equipment Package Cost: $50,000 for kitchen equipment; $20,000 for bar coolers/ice machine
  • Franchisee Fee: $36,000 (fee); $14,000 (grand opening)

Key Players

  • President and Cofounder: Jeremy Fitzgerald
  • Vice President and Cofounder: George Simon
  • Executive Chef: Robby Lucas
  • General Contractor: Ken Russ
  • Kitchen Design Consultant: Jeff Hussar, Burkett Restaurant Equipment and Supply
  • Equipment Dealer: Burkett Restaurant Equipment and Supply (Toledo, Ohio)
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