For all of you outside the Philadelphia area, you should forgive my extremely local posting here this morning. But, as I get chores out of the way so that I may have lunch at "my local", TJs in Paoli, I feel inclined to share with you the anatomy of a seven-year-old beer bar in suburban Philadelphia that continues to improve with age. In the ever-competitive Philadelphia world of great beer, this is no easy feat.
If you are local to Philadelphia and are in search of a good beer today, than a car or train ride to Paoli should be at the top of your list. And, to be clear, I don't stand to benefit anything from these effusively glowing words (...no free beer...no free cajun chicken alfredo...mmm, cajun....chicken...alfredo.....must...focus) I write this solely in support of the good people at TJs that are serving up great beer, food, and a special toast at 7pm with a couple of very large bottles of Allagash Tripel (pictured above with Jeff and Teri). They've been doing this sort of thing for many years now and they certainly deserve the attention.
A pictorial review will follow tomorrow. But, as usual, I digress.
I sat down recently with Jeff Miller and tried to wrap up what the last seven years has meant to him and Teri (the first half of TJs....it just wouldn't sound right as JT's now would it?).
Bryan Kolesar/The Brew Lounge: What have been the most noticeable changes in the last seven years?
Jeff Miller, co-Owner TJs: The most astounding change is the sheer number of restaurants/bars within a small radius of TJ’s that have closed or changed hands in the past seven years. It’s over twenty!
TBL: How have you seen the pursuit of craft beer change either for the better or the worse over the past seven years?
JM: There was a period of beer-chasing for us. Having to have the latest and greatest to prove ourselves in the market place. Although we get our fair share of extraordinary beer, I think that we’ve moved away from beer-hunting and into just making sure we have a constant list of quality and diversity. Our guests have come to trust that we aren’t going to put “crap” on tap.
TBL: Has the changing distribution landscape greatly impacted your business plans?
JM: We made a conscious decision ahead of the grocery stores selling beer to shift away from take-out and concentrate towards on-premise sales. We reduced our bottle selection down to one hundred and increased our drafts to twenty-six. The results have been quite remarkable. While I knew our take-out sales would drop, I hadn’t anticipated the draft beer sales increasing so dramatically. We just kicked our 1000th keg of this year a few weeks ago.
TBL: Do you recognize any customers that date back to Day 1 of your opening?
JM: Dick came in about a week before we opened 7 years ago, introduced himself and he’s been coming in at least once a week ever since.
TBL: How has your staff reacted to the surge in craft beer popularity at your bar?
JM: The staff has really embraced the changes over the years. They realize we are constantly improving and there’s something to be said for working somewhere that actually increased its sales during the economic downturn.
TBL: What's been the most challenging aspect of keeping up with the Craft Beer Revolution, or whatever we're calling it?
JM: Staying ahead of the pack and figuring out how to continue to stand out when more and more establishments are embracing the craft beer movement?
TBL: I feel like a reporter asking this question of former President George W. Bush, but here goes: In a period of self-reflection, what has been your biggest mistake and what has been your proudest success?
JM: Outdoor dining was my biggest misstep. We spent several thousand dollars adding it to our liquor license, buying tables, chairs and umbrellas only to find that a very small populace would actually use it.
We are most proud that we have been able to succeed in a location that so many others had failed. We are the sixth restaurant to occupy this space and we are the process of negotiating an additional ten-year lease to expire in 2024.
TBL: What would you change today about your current bar/restaurant operation if you could?
JM: I would eliminate the three smaller dining rooms and make the bar area larger. Our bar area and three dining rooms have an equal number of seats. However, if the bar is absolutely packed four people out front and four people in the back can handle it. If the dining room is full it takes double that number to do the same sales and it’s twice as much work.
TBL: What's the most bizarre thing you've dealt with on the other side of the bar (i.e. customers)?
JM: The “war-room” stories are endless…
TBL: Wow! How to follow that up? So, given those war-room stories, do you prefer the kitchen, the bar, the floor, or your office?
JM: I’m an operations guy. I always have been. Tweak this. Fix that. How can we do this better? While I attempt to make the rounds out front from time to time, my mind is always telling me “you should be doing this or that needs to get done. What are you doing out here? Get back to work!”
TBL: What's your beer du jour? What are you looking forward to trying the most on Saturday that you haven't tasted before?
JM: Goudenband! I’ve got a case of the new batch coming in this week and I have two bottles of the original. I’m looking forward to a side-by-side tasting at the end of the evening. I REALLY hope the new stuff lives up to how I remember the original.
TBL: You know your beer geeks pretty well. What do you think will be the first keg to kick?
JM: Ballast Point Dorado or the Sculpin firkin. The Dorado was a last minute surprise from the Bella Vista boys. It’s a rare sixtel and sure to be a favorite of the evening.
TBL: Will there be any extracurricular activities like body shots or dancing on the bar?
JM: Those were fun times, but TJ’s has long since moved past them. We recently instituted a “no-shot” policy to further enhance the experience of the audience we have built over the past several years and to dissuade the audience we don’t want.
TBL: I should let you go now; you have a lot of work before Saturday. I hope you have some time to enjoy it with your customers.
JM: See you then. It’s going to be nuts.