Two years ago, we opened The Way Back, a sustainable neighborhood bar and restaurant that’s part of a young, new restaurant group called Join or Die Hospitality. We believe there’s an issue with our national food distribution network and system that makes it hard for one to be sustainable on the regional or local level. This was our mission when we opened our restaurant in Denver, but just as we started to pursue our goals, we faced relocating.
In fact, within two years we had shuttered the first Way Back location to open in a more suitable space nearby. While not our original plan, it certainly gave us a crash course in how to select the best restaurant location.
The first year-and-a-half of the Way Back was great. We were gaining traction. We weren’t losing money, but we weren’t making a ton either, and I think a lot had to do with the location. We were in the northwest part of Denver, on 38th Street, which is a pretty busy thoroughfare. It says 35 miles per hour, but I think people go closer to 40 or 50. The old school North Denver neighborhood hadn’t really let go of 38th in terms of dive bars and other places, so I don’t think the community was really comfortable walking around. We just didn’t have any foot traffic.
Relocating was on our minds the start of that second year. Our projections of what we thought we would see, and how business really was with our first year, was our first realization that we needed to make a change if we wanted our restaurant to have a long life.
Living in the neighborhood, and hearing from friends about issues with parking and walkability, we understood that when we took over the space, it was going to be a stretch. We did it for financial reasons, but we just didn’t see the situation changing fast enough for us to be sustainable.
We had to make a decision to close the Way Back and move to Tennyson Street, only six blocks away from our original location, and the main street of the Berkeley neighborhood. Around the same time, we were in negotiations to open another restaurant downtown called Wayward, so it lined up and we had the opportunity to make the move without firing anyone. Our whole staff had the opportunity to move to Wayward for the interim, so we were able to retain our employees. Within six months, we turned the new space around, remodeled it and reopened Way Back 2.0.
“I don’t know if there’s a catch-all of what you should look for when selecting a location, but whatever it is, make sure you spend a lot of time understanding it.” -Kade Gianinetti
It’s been a really cool opportunity to get to open the same restaurant twice. From our restaurant group being really young and not having a ton of experience, we’ve experienced a lot and I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I think the second Way Back really translates that message. I hope when you walk in, you notice how we did a better job of creating the atmosphere and environment that we wanted.
The service, the style, the mood and the music are examples of how our restaurant group has grown, and how we’re translating that bigger dream for the group into this concept. It would be pretty stupid to open up again exactly as we had before. We learned a lot, and we wanted the new space to reflect that.
It was like hitting a refresh button. How can we rethink this? How can we be more effective with our overall mission for the restaurant group? How can we be a better asset to the community? How can we translate our message and our idea into a comfortable, really fun space?
Both Way Back build-outs were great in their own way, but Way Back 2.0 really offers two distinct experiences. We took over an old school Irish bar, so the front has a beautiful, ornate bar and old school booth-style seating. We painted everything black, we turned the lights down low, and it really feels like a place that has a history of a drinking culture, of hanging out. In the back of the space, we were able to create a dining room. We have some really cool light boxes that sort of showcase some of the energy we have going through the restaurant, and some sexy, velvet green booths.
I think the new Way Back has a duality to it. It’s a neighborhood bar and restaurant that you don’t need a reservation for, but it can also provide that experience of having a dinner that takes you to a different place and allows you to be in the moment and experience our food, our service, and our space in a way that’s a little more high end and special.
While we gained valuable experience through our relocation, we’ve learned some lessons to help us avoid having to do this again next time.
You should know the neighborhood and spend more time in it than just a drive-by, eating there, or hanging out for a couple evenings. Talking to your neighbors, understanding the demographics, and really knowing the potential clientele is important.
Different restaurateurs will look for different things. I don’t know if there’s a catch-all of what you should look for when selecting a location, but whatever it is, make sure you spend a lot of time understanding it. And listen to your gut, that feeling of, “Man, this is a great building, but I’m not sure about parking.” Spend the time to wrap your head around where you’re going to be, hopefully for a long time, and to understand the people that are going to impact your business.
One of the biggest mistakes restaurateurs can make is relying heavily on car traffic counts. In the real estate world, it’s easy to say that a million cars drove by this location today. But how fast were they going? Is there parking on the street? Is the sidewalk wide enough to have a family with a stroller and other people walking side by side? Understanding density and traffic counts can be really useful, but if there’s a million cars going by and you’re doing a fast-casual drive thru burger restaurant, that’s probably amazing. If you’re trying to be more of a sit-down, neighborhood place, a million cars going by at 65 miles per hour probably hurts you more than it helps.
Talk to the businesses already established there. If you tell neighbors you want to try a high-end farm-to-table destination restaurant, and they’re not hopeful, listen to them. They know the people and the traffic better than you do. I’m not saying they can’t be proven wrong, but it needs to be part of your consideration process.
Know your strengths, know when to ask for input, and know when it’s time to trust your gut. At the end of the day, hopefully you’ve selected a space where you can grow for years to come.