Booze Banter

Bar Business Banter with Jim Fris, C.O.O. of P.J. Whelihan’s Group


molly-schuyler-wing-bowl-xxiv-champion

Molly Schuyler, Wing Bowl XXIV Champion

Five short hours ago (6 AM EST for you non-Eastern Seaboard residents) marked the kickoff of Wing Bowl XXV at the Wells Fargo Center, the Official unofficial kick-off of Super Bowl weekend in Philly. For those of you that know not of this Wing Bowl thing, here are a few facts and figures:

  • The very first Wing Bowl, which took place in 1993, was held in the lobby of the Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel in Center City Philadelphia. There were 2 competitors. The winner ate 100 wings.
  • About 150 people attended the first Wing Bowl and the winner received a hibachi.
  • Attendance for what is billed as the final Wing Bowl will be well over 20,000 people and the winner will receive a Hyundai Santa Fe, $10,000 in cash and a Wing Bowl 25 Championship ring and medal.
  • Bill “El Wingador” Simmons (not to be confused with the other Bill Simmons), a 5 time Wing Bowl Champion, is the only Philly native to ever win this competition.
  • Molly Schuyler devoured 429 chicken wings in 26 minutes to become the 2016 Wing Bowl Champion (Ms. Schuyler was the champ in 2014 and the runner-up in 2015).
  • Over 10,000 chicken wings are consumed by contestants over the course of the event. Since 2008, every last one of them has been made by P.J. Whelihan’s in Haddon Township, NJ. And speaking of P.J. Whelihan’s

pj-whelihans-groupThis past December, we received an email from Food Shelter PR announcing the official opening of P.J. Whelihan’s 14th location in Oaks, PA. In the email, we were made an offer that we simply couldn’t refuse, i.e. the opportunity to interview Jim Fris, Chief Operating Officer of P.J. Whelihan’s Group. Our goal for this interview was simple: to get an insider’s perspective of a major, local restaurant group.

As Philadelphia natives, Limpd and I have witnessed the growth of P.J. Whelihan’s Group from one brand with just a few locations scattered around the Philadelphia suburbs, to a company that manages four distinct brands and over 20 venues with locations as far east as the Jersey Shore and as far north as the Pocono Mountains. Mr. Fris, who has 40+ years of hospitality industry experience, is one of the key players behind the steady growth of this company, therefore, he is the perfect person to give us the behind-the-scenes insight that we crave. Let’s get on with the Q&A….

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Jim Fris, Chief Operating Office of P.J. Whelihan’s Group

Question 1: Oaks, PA marks the 14th PJ Whelihan’s location. After perusing the PJ’s website, most of your locations appear to be housed in former pubs and restaurants which we’re thinking dramatically cuts down on your start-up costs, i.e. renovate an existing space and purchase the existing equipment vs. starting from scratch. Are we correct in our assumptions, and if so, how do you determine which locations you choose when opening a new Pub?

While many of the spaces were once former pubs, it’s by far the least considered factor when we scout areas. For us, it’s closely evaluating the community and whether it will enable us with the ability to form a closely-knit bond from a customer and employee standpoint for generations. It’s one of our key differentiators, and it’s crucial for success within the fickle and competitive hospitality industry, which is why we’ve never had to shut a restaurant in our company’s entire history. It also might surprise you that many times, it actually cost us more to renovate and elevate someone else’s ideas to our standards than if we just started from the ground up, so despite us wishing it would affect startup costs, it usually doesn’t end up that way.

Question 2: When you first launched The Pour House in Westmont, our impression was that it set itself apart from the PJ Whelihan’s down the street by offering a wider variety of Craft Beer choices and more eclectic food choices (the Raw Bar is one example) while downplaying the Macro Beer (Bud/Miller/Coors etc.) selections. Now that PJ’s offers a wide selection of Craft Beer in addition to the usual Macro Beers, what’s the real difference between your PJ Whelihan’s Pub and The Pour House concepts?

Change is constant. The Pour House Westmont is currently celebrating its tenth year this year. In that decade, the craft beer market has completely changed, giving us more opportunity to do pairings and hyper-local tap takeovers in both PA and NJ while staying married to the original variety and cuisine it’s become known for. That decade has also seen a dramatic change in PJ’s clientele. Those fans still want Miller Lite, but they now also want PJ’s Copper Lager. To adapt and meet the growing and diverse consumer needs, we thought we would expand upon the existing PJ’s concept by adding some select, craft offerings where it made sense for those who may want them, but at the same time keep The Pour House about everything Craft beer has to offer. Our beverage director takes serious and thoughtful consideration on what brands go where and why.

Question 3: While there are two PJ Whelihan’s arena venues in Philadelphia, there are no standalone pubs in Philly proper. Are there any Philly PJ’s in the works, and if not, what’s keeping you from opening a standalone pub within the city limits? Are there too many Pubs, a plethora of “pain in the ass” regulations, and a lack of satisfactory locations standing in your way?

That’s a very interesting question and one we discuss and explore all the time internally. Again, it needs to make sense for us overall. The arena venues have that set community of sports fans who we already know enjoy our concepts. We need to feel we can create the fun, family-friendly, dining destinations people would feel comfortable in, and working at, time and time again for many years. If we could find a space in Philadelphia that lent itself to those ideals, and it made sense regulatory and locale wise, we would certainly explore it.

Question 4: What’s the deal with Treno and The ChopHouse? Will they remain as individual restaurants or are there expansion plans for them as well?

For now, they remain as successful, individual restaurants. Our overall expansion plans include 3 new restaurants per year moving forward. Is there room for another Treno or ChopHouse within those plans? Again, depends on the community, current market and timing.

Question 5: We recently interviewed cocktail legend Dale DeGroff and had a lengthy discussion about the growth of whisky and cocktail bars that pair their drink offerings with small bites prepared in a pantry setting vs. a full blown kitchen with a large staff. What do you think of this concept? Has the PJ Whelihan’s Group ever considered opening a venue like this?

It’s an interesting concept and an interesting time for distillers. As part of what we do every single day, we like to observe and analyze trends and services that are doing well, or are interesting, because it creates a better understanding of the hospitality industry for us. It hasn’t been a recent consideration, but the idea certainly is thought provoking and quickly growing for sure.

Question 6: I don’t know about you, but after a long day at work, we like to wind down with a drink. We usually have a beer or a dram of whisky, and we’ll occasionally have a cocktail. What’s your drink of choice after a long day at work?

Depends on how long a day and what I’ve endured. I’ll probably be at one of our restaurants when the day ends – and not because we own them, it’s because we purposely created these places so one could feel at home and I do. What am I ordering? At PJ’s, it’s a Copper Lager; at The Pour House it depends what’s on tap; at Treno it’s a chianti or a nice, hearty red and at The ChopHouse it could be one of the really great reds they have in their cellar or something that goes well with a steak.

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Many thanks to Jim Fris and Food Shelter PR for making this interview happen!

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