Welcome back to IBJ’s video feature “Inside Dish: The Business of Running Restaurants.”
Our subject this week is The Willard, a 25-year-old neighborhood eatery in Franklin with roots in the community reaching back to the 19th century. The core of the structure is a red-brick home built in 1860. In 1922, new owner Eliza Patterson Willard constructed a hotel—aptly named The Willard Hotel—on the property, completely integrating the original home. In 1986, entrepreneurs John Limp and John Wright renovated the ground floor of the then-shuttered hotel and served up the current brew-and-bar-food business.
In 1990, Bob Schofield and business partner Don Henry took over the eatery. “I think every man wants to own a bar at some point,” said Schofield, 72, who was looking for a change of pace after working in auto sales for Sharp Ford in Indianapolis.
Schofield and Henry bought the business from Limp and Wright for $350,000, and in 1995 purchased the entire structure on contract for $400,000.
Patronage perked up in 1998 with the construction of a veranda on the north side of the building, adding 60-some seats to the multi-room eatery that already could serve more than 150. (Henry, who had resisted such a move, died in 1997, leaving Schofield as the sole owner.)
“The veranda increased our business exponentially,” said Stacy Hicks, who co-manages the restaurant with Schofield’s stepson Tony Priola.
The addition also reshaped operations at the restaurant. More servers and kitchen staff were needed for the warm-weather months when the veranda was open. The increased demand on The Willard’s two-room kitchen required the creation of a third room for food prep, creating a labyrinthine and tightly packed back-of-house.
On weekend nights, separate rooms are devoted to making pizzas, chicken wings and the rest of the menu. Load-bearing interior walls nixed significant remodeling.
“It’s just what we have to deal with, having an old building,” said Priola. “We don’t have the conventional style with one line, like a chain restaurant will have.”
Gross sales in spring and summer typically range from $28,000 to $32,000 per week; cold-weather months bring sales of $18,000 to $22,000 per week, according to Priola. The Willard carries about 35 employees during its busy season, and 20 when business slows.
The Willard recently enjoyed another boost in business after the city of Franklin expanded an existing smoking ban in June 2009 to include 21-and-over establishments, including bars and clubs. Initially fearing a big dip in sales, management at The Willard decided to open the restaurant—which previously was adults-only—to all ages and try to appeal to families.
“That’s been big for us,” Priola said. “We’ve said that if the city of Franklin went to smoking again, we would stay nonsmoking and still allow families to keep coming here.” Gross sales in 2010 jumped to $1.38 million, from about $1.2 million in 2009.
Now that The Willard fully fills out the property’s footprint, Priola and Hicks have begun eyeing the building’s upper floors for future expansion.
“There are 32 hotel rooms upstairs on six levels, so there is a lot of square footage,” Priola said. “It’d be a perfect space for larger private parties, wedding receptions, rehearsal dinners. To have a banquet hall is kind of what we’re hoping for.”
About five years ago, The Willard tried to capitalize on its dilapidated hotel wing by staging a haunted house attraction on those floors during autumn. It proved too time-intensive, so the managers passed it off on an independent operator. They also tried to drum up sales and exposure by creating a chicken-wing concessions wagon (custom built for about $5,000) that would set up at the Johnson County Fair and other local events.
“It was more a pain in the butt than it was a money-maker,” Priola said. “We put a for-sale sign on it, and we thank goodness we had a buyer.”
Schofield has been approached about creating another Willard location, but the consensus is that the restaurant’s historic and cozy vibe would be too hard to replicate.
“I think we’re looking more at expanding up right now,” Priola said. Added Hicks: “But let’s not rule anything out.”