Kevin Doherty was a Chicago fireman when he helped start Emmit’s Irish Pub & Eatery in 1996. And he’s still a fireman today. Meanwhile, he and his partner, Ron Halvorsen (retired Chicago fireman), have turned Emmit’s into a popular and successful neighborhood pub. Popular enough that movie and television bar scenes are routinely shot there (Uncle Buck, Only the Lonely, Blink, Backdraft, two episodes of the Untouchables, Oceans Eleven, Oceans Twelve, and many more). The coolest part about Kevin’s story was hearing him talk about keeping things simple, having a clear focus on how important his staff is, and not being afraid to work really, really hard.
You Don’t Have To have Experience – We were both Chicago firemen when we got started. I still am. So we went into it with very little experience. The only experience Ronnie had in a restaurant was being a waiter at IHOP when he was in high school. I was a sales rep at the time, and worked with the Chicago fire department. When we initially opened, the cash registers weren’t even hooked up yet. So it was trial by fire. We were both willing to jump in without a net, and work real hard. And that’s pretty much it. And we learned as we went. And then just through determination and hard work, and making mistakes, and learning from a lot of mistakes that we made, we just keep the plates spinning and keep moving forward. And fortunately we’ve been fairly successful. The recession has hurt us a little bit, but we operate lean enough where we’re able to manage.
KYFS (Keep Your Fundamentals Simple) – Our fundamentals were real simple: Be a neighborhood pub in an area that’s quickly becoming a neighborhood, and treat people like you want to be treated. It wasn’t much of a neighborhood when we got started, but we knew it had potential. It’s real close to downtown, and not too many places downtown would buy a regular a drink. So we try to maintain that level of service to the people in the neighborhood that come in. We try to instill in the staff to know what they drink, to know their names, to welcome them when they walk in the door, and just don’t take any of that for granted.
Trust In And Empower Your Staff – We hired a staff that took ownership. We told them to run it as if it’s your own. We monitor obviously everything pretty closely, but we give them the freedom to operate as if it was their own. It’s a very non-corporate type of atmosphere. And because of that, we’ve got staff that’s been here since we opened. We’ve got waitresses that have been here twelve years.
Use Your Marketing Budget On Comps – We haven’t ever spent a lot of money in marketing. I always thought that instead of marketing to the unknown, we’d spend that money and market it to the people that were coming in. And how we do that is, we comp a lot of drinks for people. If they have a certain amount, of if there’s a celebration, we comp it, and we make sure it’s on their tab so they can see that they’re being comped. I don’t know where you grew up, but did you ever go into a neighborhood bar after a softball game, and after three of four beers, the neighborhood bar would buy you one? Well it seems like a lot of establishments, especially downtown, got away from that. So we try to incorporate that into our philosophy.
Want A Partner? Find The Ying To Your Yang – You’ve gotta be opposites. It’s almost like a marriage. I think opposites attract. Because partnerships are extremely tough. And first and foremost, there’s got to be an unbelievable trust between the two partners. The other thing is, there’s certain aspects that some are going to be better at than others. Ronnie is kind of a character larger than life, and he’s very social. Myself, I’m more the bookkeeper. I’m social enough, but I don’t need to be up and meetin’ and greetin’. I’d rather come in in the morning, get the books done, get the orders in, and then get out of here by six o’clock. Ronnie is the opposite. Ronnie will be sitting up at the corner of the bar, and greeting people as they come in the door. And if there’s a celebration, he’ll be buying a round of shots. And he’s pretty much the face of the place, and I’m kind of the guy behind the scenes. And that’s worked out.
Your Staff Will Let You Know Who Needs To Go – You don’t know in the hiring process. You do the best you can, and you really have to have somebody work a few months to see how they’re gonna work out. And I’m not here as often as a lot of the other staff, so I think everything is hunky dory, and then the staff starts – no one wants to rat anybody out – but the staff starts policing. I’ll get little tidbits here and there, and that will turn a light on. And then I’ll inquire with some other people, and they’ll say, “Yeah, you know what? It’s just not working out.”
The Staff Makes All Of The Difference – Yeah, that’s the bottom line. I’m not behind the bar and I’m not serving the dishes. I’m just doing the books and placing the orders. So that’s what’s gonna make you or break you, is the staff.
Be Ready To Be At Your Restaurant. Constantly. – I think the number one reason restaurants fail is the owners not being willing to put in what it takes. The hard work. It takes long hours and complete dedication. In the initial start-up stages, that’s what it requires. You almost have to be there all of the time. Because if you don’t have your finger on the pulse…no one’s gonna operate your business – I don’t care who they are – they same way you are. When you walk in the door, you’re gonna see different things that they don’t see. Whether it’s a light that’s burnt out. Whether it’s a napkin on the floor. Whether it’s that a chair is not aligned properly. When it’s your own business, you just pick up on that. And no one else is going to. I don’t care how good your manager is.
Got A Family? Think Before You Leap – If somebody asked me about starting a restaurant, I would first would find out what their family life is like. If they’re married. If they’re dating. If they plan on getting married shortly. And make sure your significant other is fully on board. I know I was dating when we opened this place. And for a while there, I wasn’t married. I don’t think I would have been able to do it if I was married, because it consumes all of your time. So I was fortunate.
The Careful Balancing Act Of Pricing – You have t watch your prices all of the time, because our prices are constantly changing. And they’re all going up. Whether it be the taxes or the price of liquor. So, yeah, it’s a balancing act. And I don’t want to raise the prices more than I have to, because that can shun people away. And yet I don’t want to put specials out there. A lot of places are doing these specials all of the time, and I don’t know if that necessarily works. I don’t want the customers to get so used to these low cost specials that when they get charged a regular price, they feel like they’re getting short changed.
Buy Your Building – So we’re looking to expand. And again, it’s all about the real estate. I’ve had other firemen that say, “I’m thinking about opening up a bar.” And I always tell everybody, “If you can’t afford to buy the real estate, or the property, along with the build out and opening your business, I don’t think it’s worth it.” There’s some good restaurants, and famous restaurants, in Chicago that are closing and looking for new locations. And I talked to one of their financial guys, and he said, “You know, back fifteen years ago, when we negotiated the lease, we negotiated a great lease. However, fifteen years later, our lease is up, and now the landlord is really whacking us.” So I look at it from the standpoint of a real estate investment. I know that’s crazy now, because real estate’s in the tank. But I look at the property first, and then the business second. That’s what we did here. And that’s what we’re gonna do over there.
Kevin, we’re stoked that you and Ronnie are opening a second location, and we can’t wait to have the chance to hang out with you two one day.
The Schedulefly Crew