A WORLD TOUR
BY THE SEAT OF YOUR PANTS
SLOW EXPANSION AND LONG-STANDING BEER
PROMOTION BREEDS LOYALTY AND STEADY GROWTH.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GEOFFREY WHEELER
It all started one day when a couple of guys from Chicago were sitting around talking, simultaneously developing a craving for pizza from their hometown. Problem was, they were all in Boulder, CO: Frank Day, now chairman, president and CEO of Rock Bottom Restaurants, Inc., and some of his old Chicago cronies. It was 1976, the year they decided it was time to put together a pizza joint that mirrored their old Chicago haunts. That’s the way it started a little bit of nostalgia and a lot of well-directed energy and good planning.
Gary Foreman, vice president development, and Ted willams, vice presidentoperations, of Old Chicago.
At first, there was just one modest pizzeria that incorporated a game arcade with ski ball and one of the most popular of Bally’s pinball machines at the time (Old Chicago), and a small bar. The pinball game provided the restaurant its name and in every unit that opened subsequently, it was the centerpiece of the arcade. Times change, thought, and when the beer renaissance hit in the early eighties, Old Chicago morphed into a champion of beer.
“Our bars started out with eight seats and a cooler the size of a closet,” says Gary Foreman, vice president of development, who has been with the company from the beginning. “Out of that small cooler we served 40 different bottled beers when no one else was doing that. We held beer tastings and were one of the first sponsors of the Great American Beer Festival.”
By 1985, the Old Chicago partners saw that the arcade business was fading, and so they expanded they moved the bar into that space, turning it from an eight to a 60-seat bar area, designed a state-of-the-art backbar cooler with sliding shelves that could be loaded from the back, and installed a draft system of 25 taps. “We sat around one day sampling all these beers, asking ourselves how many beers we should offer. One person thought we should offer 99 beers like the song ‘Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall,’ another suggested 100, and we finally settled on 110 beers,” Foreman explains. “Then another brought up the problem of how we would move all this product, that we might be in a dangerous position where certain beers might not move. The World Beer Tour was then concocted. We put this all together at the same meeting, the synthesis of drinking a number of beers ourselves.”
The genius of the Old Chicago World Beer Tour goes beyond just offering customers a very long list of beers. “We also wanted to be certain to launch the new bar in a way that would allow managers of each place the freedom to change beers. We came up with a numerical data base where each beer would have its own number that would never change. It was a state of the art system at the time,” Foreman adds.
OLD CHICAGO STATS
Number of Units: 45
Average Unit Volume: more than $2 million per restaurant
Total Sales: more than $90 million
Beverage Sales: close to $39 million
Food/Bar Mix: 57 percent/43 percent
Beer Sales: More than $23 million. Sixty-five percent of beverage alcohol sales, 28 percent of total sales. Between 15-20 percent of all beer sold is sold to World Beer Tour members.
The system was computerized from the beginning. Guests who became World Beer Tour members were issued raised-letter credit cards and when they sampled a beer, the card number was entered into the computer by hand. When members reached an award threshold, they received maile from the company acknowledging their participation and achievement.
Things got even more high tech in the early nineties when some employees at the Old Chicago Westminster, CO unit who had a computer company on the side, offered to be the provider for the whole network. “The technology had been around for awhile for amusement park loyalty programs, so we jumped on it,” Foreman says. (There were only six units in operation at the time: Now there are 45 Old Chicagos located in 12 states, mostly Colorado, Nebraska and the Midwest.)
The cards can be used in any restaurant and immediately are tracked via a systemwide network. Some World Beer Tour members take pride not only in trying all the beers sold, but like to drop in at other units to score different beers and pile up a personal unit count as well. “These guys know the program better than I do. Now there’s a big demand to access their progress via a website,” he adds.
New servers and bartenders are certified in NRA’s Bar Code program before they hit the floor. Because there are so many beers in Old Chicago’s system, servers and bartenders aren’t expected to know all the beers at once, but they have to know two to three brews very well and be able to describe them intelligently to customers. “We give them descriptive words to use like ‘hoppy’ and tell them which foods go well with certain beers. We also have daily shift meetings where they get introduced to new beers and the draft ofthe day. It’s especially important for our servers to know their regional and local brews since our customers expect us to be cutting edge on new beers,” says Ted Williams, vice president, operations, who has been with the company since 1982.