Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Beer Bistro North Opens in Lincoln Park

With an extensive background in the craft beer industry and a love of bringing quality beer and food to the masses, owner Bob McDermott has established the The Beer Bistro brand as a premiere destination for beer lovers. Whether you’re visiting the Madison location or the newly opened Fullerton location, you’ll find a feel-good atmosphere that is homey, welcoming, and unpretentious. Bob McDermott and his staff pride themselves on having a neighborhood approach - they offer a rotating selection of high-end beers, but will never look down at you for ordering a Miller High Life.
We met up with Bob at The Beer Bistro North on Fullerton to check out the new location and talk about their recent expansion.

H2TA: Bob, I understand you have quite a background in the restaurant industry. What led you to focus on brewpubs in particular?

Bob McDermott: I’ve worked at a lot of Chicago institutions over the years. My love of craft beer exploded when I was working at Goose Island on Clybourn and also helped open the Wrigleyville location. I then went on to run a larger national chain of restaurants. I learned an awful lot through those places - what to do, what not to do. Like any business you have to make a lot of mistakes before you get decent at it, that’s how you learn.

As far as what drew me to brewpubs, I’m a big fan of variety. I don’t want a beer all night long, it’s just not my style. I like to be able to have options - different IPAs, seasonal styles, really big beers to balance my day or night. Most brewpubs are pretty laid back and casual, which is how I am, not white collar and stuffy. I like the idea of hosting a party every day and I like that my party offers more variety than other places can.

H2TA: In 2005 you were one of the first to bring the artisan food and craft beer concept to the West Loop. How has the scene changed and what still makes The Beer Bistro unique?

Bob: The Beer Bistro didn’t start off saying “we’re going to be THE beer bar in the West Loop” and cut our niche. I opened it up as a neighborhood bar with a good beer list. Luckily the people in the neighborhood and those going back and forth to the United Center for games have learned about The Beer Bistro and use it as their stepping stone to learn about craft beer. We try to be very inclusive, rather than exclusive, and that goes for my staff. It’s important to have knowledge about what you’re selling but don’t be an asshole to people who don’t know, bring them into the fold because then they’ll come back and want to learn more about craft beer. Right now, craft beer in the West Loop is on fire - Haymarket, The Publican, Girl & The Goat, Paramount Room, Twisted Spoke – they all have great beer lists. We were fortunate enough to open up when the neighborhood was starting to change and were the first bar on the street. This neighborhood has helped us be who we are and what we are.

H2TA: This past spring you purchased Small Bar Fullerton as your second location and opened The Beer Bistro North in ten days - an incredible feat in this industry! Can you tell me a little bit about the space and what made it the ideal location?

Bob: Small Bar was already established and very successful. They have a great brand and did a good job of putting the bones in place. There’s a lot of history in this building - it used to be St Paul’s Billiards back in the day, where The Color Of Money was filmed. When I was younger, I used to hang out here because they sold $1.75 bottles of Miller High Life and $2 an hour to play pool. As a kid growing up in the city that was a pretty good deal. As an adult, it’s an odd feeling to actually be working here now, even though it looks different, because I know what was here. It’s in the middle of a neighborhood that wants to do more, surrounded by some great restaurants. I’m happy to be up here on the Northside and I think there’s a lot of potential. You can see we didn’t do an excessive amount of work to Small Bar, we just broke up some of the hard lines and made it a little softer and more homey.

H2TA: The West Loop is known as being a community of serious foodies and “hop-heads”. Is your approach at The Beer Bistro North any different than at the original location? What are you finding the Northside clientele are looking for?

Bob: We’re still feeling out the Northside clientele. They’re not as hop-driven as the West Loop. The West Loop can’t seem to get enough. When we did a tap takeover for IPA day we went through 4 barrels of Hopothesis in 3 hours, it was awesome. We’re learning up here (Northside) that sours and some other things we’re trying are well received. There are different distributors between the two locations so we’re able to bring in some unique beer at different times.

H2TA: With approximately 200 beers available, The Beer Bistro and The Beer Bistro North are considered prime beer locations. How are you able to consistently bring such a diverse selection of quality beers to your bars?

Bob: We want to have great beer list with variety. Breweries in the Midwest are on fire right now, so it’s not difficult to bring in quality beer. We’re fortunate enough that we have gotten the respect of not only the sales community but customers that come in that we can sell great beer. With this second location we’re learning that the craft beer drinker really is everyone - male, female, 25-75. You’ll get the older gentleman who drinks his High Life and shot of whiskey and then turns around and orders a Lagunitas A Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and you’re thinking - “How does he know about this?” but he does, it’s awesome.

As far as looking ahead to what’s new – we’re just asking, trying and having fun with what we do.

H2TA: And with the diverse selection you have at your fingertips, why was it important for you to have a House Draft? Who brews it and what makes it unique?

Bob: We’ve always done a “Beer Of The Month” special and I wanted to have a beer that we could call our own, one line that could switch out seasonally. We’re not brewers; I’m much better at selling it than making it. Originally, I wanted it to be locally-sourced, but that was in 2009 when Midwest beer was really exploding and breweries were having a hard time keeping up with beer production. We put our feelers out and were able to pair up with Brooklyn Brewery and it’s been a really good partnership for us. Will it always be with them? I don’t know. With the amount happening in Chicago right now, I’d love to see a window open up where we can work with someone locally, but we’ll see.

H2TA: You are known for some pretty fantastic tasting events (Goose Island Bourbon County Stout, Goose Island Fulton & Wood) and tap takeovers (Three Floyds, Two Brothers, Milwaukee Brewing, IPA Day). What is it about these events that draws so much excitement? How important are these events in promoting the local craft beer community?

Bob: Our first tap takeover was Three Floyds and it was not the easiest day for us. We had twenty different beers on tap on at once, which we had never done before. It was a huge investment and our hope was to be out of beer completely at the end of the night. It happened on February 23rd last year, the “thundersnow” day, where there was lightening and thunder in the middle of a snowstorm (which only seemed appropriate for Three Floyds). We were nervous whether people would make it out, but we tapped the beer at 4:30pm and by 5pm it was nuts in here. There were no issues and it was great because everyone was here for the craft beer. We try to offer all of the pints at the same price so that you can taste 8-10 different beers and get more flavors and varieties. The tap takeovers recreate the beer tour experience by bringing everyone to their neighborhood bar and letting them meet the brewers and try beers they haven’t had before.

H2TA: What excites you most about being on the purveyor side of craft beer and where do you see the future of The Beer Bistro/The Beer Bistro North?

Bob: I like to drink it, bottom line. I love craft beer. I’m going to be at a bar no matter what and I enjoy running a business doing it. Otherwise I’d be the bum, the old guy, complaining about the $5 whiskey.

I see the Madison location continuing to do well and hopefully being a mainstay in the neighborhood. At Beer Bistro North, the sky is the limit. We’re just getting started and working on some crazy events. There’s a lot of potential to do some different things up here. You can’t catch lighting in a bottle twice, and I wouldn’t presume to try. I think that’s the downfall of some establishments opening multiple locations - to run on reputation alone. We take advantage of social media, but we don’t pay for advertising, it’s not the way we do things. We’re just getting into the community and involved with this neighborhood. We’re about to hit Fall which is when Chicago comes alive with football, basketball, hockey and we love it. I’m blown away by our city’s ability to adapt and change beyond a Miller/Budweiser city. Chicago is a craft beer city and I’m happy with that.

H2TA: What value do you see in becoming an allied member of the craft beer community?

Bob: I’m not one of the brewers, I’m one of the purveyors and that’s where my strength lies - providing to the masses. I think there’s a huge advantage to being a member of the community beyond networking and shaking hands, it’s much more than that. With the amount of restaurants trying to survive, we felt it was time for us to expand. I have a great management staff in place, Chris Wortendyke is a great asset to my business on Madison. We’re not just selling craft beer, we’re part of the community and living craft beer life.