A trio of bars and restaurants new to the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City market are proven commodities as born and bred Quad Cities businesses. Both the Barrel House and Unimpaired Dry Bar have opened locations in the past year in the Corridor, a short trip east on Interstate 80 from their Quad Cities home. The new […]
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A trio of bars and restaurants new to the Cedar Rapids/Iowa City market are proven commodities as born and bred Quad Cities businesses.
Both the Barrel House and Unimpaired Dry Bar have opened locations in the past year in the Corridor, a short trip east on Interstate 80 from their Quad Cities home. The new locations are the first step in their separate plans to franchise nationally. In addition, Foundry Food + Tap is considering even more regional growth after a successful six-month start up in Coralville.
Barrel House celebrated a grand opening in Cedar Rapids in May – and ended the month by breaking ground on a 7,680-square foot building with GLD Commercial Real Estate in Coralville. The new development will house the emerging chain’s newest location with several other tenants across Coral Ridge Avenue from the new Foundry in Coralville.
Unimpaired’s official ribbon cutting showcased that Cinco de Mayo can be celebrated without tequila in the Margaritas. The non-alcoholic alternative first opened in October 2021 – and the first school year proved so successful that the company has designs to open in other Big Ten Conference college party towns.
Both Barrel House (established in 2011) and Unimpaired (started in September 2020) began in downtown Davenport. Foundry’s birth came in 2019 outside Bettendorf’s newly opened TBK Bank Sports Complex when owner Michael DeWitte broke from the Barrel House to start his latest business venture.
“There’s kind of a trend to do that now,” Unimpaired co-founder Amber Haines said of local businesses operating in both the Quad Cities and Cedar Rapids/Iowa City.
Ms. Haines also points to Symmetry Beauty Lounge as another recent Davenport-to-Iowa City export. Same for Top Shape Gym, which was profiled over the winter by the QCBJ, a sister publication to the Corridor Business Journal (CBJ).
“There are a lot of people that are back and forth between the two communities because they are so close,” said Bailey Thompson, brand & social media director for Foundry operator Platinum Management QCA. “So, it makes sense as a business knowing if people love your place, they can always go there no matter if they’re in the Quad Cities or Iowa City/Cedar Rapids.”
With an hour to 90 minutes drive Barrel House and Foundry also use that close proximity to help combat the biggest issue facing restaurants right now – staffing shortages. By sharing staff as needed in their chain, both also build their teams and future leaders, which only helps with retention efforts.
“We really try to make it a family effort to enjoy working with each other and being able to visit different locations to meet new people, take on new roles, and learn new skills,” said Chris Posey, director of marketing & franchise sales for Barrel House.
“We want to enable anybody within the Barrel House family that wants to grow and move up to have the ability to be successful with us … and transfer to – or even take on – a franchise location someday.”
The markets’ similarity is one reason Foundry expanded to the Corridor. However, there are subtle differences.
“We have people say all the time – ‘What’s your best seller?’ – and the answer is it depends on what market you’re in,” Mr. Posey said.
“If anybody said operating in multiple markets is not a challenge they’re lying. But the issues are the same as if you had two restaurants in the same town. You’re not managing one spot with one set of people. A lot of plates are spinning.
“But there’s a lot of benefit, too, a lot of synergy between locations and trying out things that can work elsewhere, too.”
That is especially true in downtown Iowa City, which is geared more toward the massive student population and college community at the University of Iowa.
Unimpaired’s path clear
“We get the question a lot,” admitted Angie Chaplin, who heads up Unimpaired Iowa City. “Why put an alcohol-free bar in the middle of one of the biggest college drinking towns in America?
“And the answer is because there needs to be options for students, as well as businesses, families and community members where they can enjoy an outing or night out without feeling the need to drink – or worry about the behaviors you think of when the night rolls in at a standard bar.”
Ms. Haines had her sights set on Iowa City precisely to work with the 18-to-21-year-old crowd when she founded Unimpaired Davenport in 2020 with her partner Jim Thomson.
“A lot of kids have said that they didn’t even try alcohol until they went away to college with the peer pressures there,” said Ms. Haines, who is four years sober after losing her father to alcoholism when she was 22 and seeing her brother struggle with the disease.
“So, we wanted to be there as a positive influence and just show them, ‘Hey, you can go out and socialize and gather with your peers and you can have fun without drinking.’”
Ms. Chaplin, whose son Jeremy is an offensive lineman for the Iowa Hawkeyes, has been sober for over two years after “nearly dying” several times, she said, because of alcohol addiction.
Like Ms. Haines, Ms. Chaplin still enjoys social outings, though, and originally approached Unimpaired to sponsor a sober Hawkeyes tailgating club.
Instead, that idea eventually led to Ms. Chaplin moving to a loft apartment above the downtown Iowa City location to be its events and engagement manager.
Unimpaired Iowa City discovered immediate success by partnering with campus communities and offering venue rentals for groups from 20-200, and catering non-alcoholic special events.
In late April, Ms. Chaplin was appointed vice president for franchise & organization development to take the Iowa City blueprint nationally.
Unimpaired Davenport is surrounded by colleges, too – but Iowa’s enrollment is larger and more centralized than St. Ambrose University, Augustana College, Black Hawk College, Scott Community College, and the riverfront satellite campus for Western Illinois University.
“A lot of Davenport’s business is more of an older crowd and Alcoholics Anonymous-based,” Ms. Haines said. “But Iowa City is a college crowd, and we’ve done a lot of events in partnership with the university.”
The biggest chunk of business comes from the school’s Student Life Department.
“We never realized we were going to have such a strong relationship with the university itself,” said Ms. Haines, who also owns a wet bar and restaurant in her small hometown of Blue Grass, Iowa.
“They have grant money they were having to send back every year for after-hour activities for students because it can only be held at venues that don’t carry a liquor license. Even hotels carry a liquor license, so it was tricky for them finding space to rent, and they were limited to movie theaters or places on campus.
“So, we give them a little bit different atmosphere – and donate back a percentage of those non-alcoholic drink sales to a good cause. It’s been very fun and rewarding.”
The last school year also taught Unimpaired “how we could do the same thing at some other big universities,” she added.
Included on the list of possible expansion markets are Big Ten haunts such as Madison, Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin); Minneapolis, Minnesota (University of Minnesota); Chicago, Illinois (Northwestern University neighborhood); Lincoln or Omaha, Nebraska (University of Nebraska); and Ann Arbor and East Lansing in Michigan (Michigan and Michigan State, respectively).
“We do plan on going to Des Moines next,” Ms. Haines said. “We already have some things lined up and some interest there. I bet we are up and running there by the beginning of next year.
“We’ll have all of our franchise arrangements by this summer so we can start to sell franchises – but it really depends on the interest that we have from potential partners.”
Rolling like a barrel
Ditto for the Barrel House, which currently operates in five locations – two in Davenport and one each in Dubuque, Marion and Cedar Rapids.
A sixth location in the East Village of Des Moines should be open by mid-summer, Mr. Posey said, when the first official franchise location in Bloomington, Ill., also is expected to open.
However, Barrel House decided against reopening a QC location closed since the start of the pandemic. Moline, Illinois was part of the first wave of Barrel House expansion in 2015-16, along with Dubuque and uptown Davenport.
“We decided to close that location permanently when we became a franchise brand,” Mr. Posey said. “It just didn’t really fit into the new model.”
Jimmy Holt, Barrel House’s CEO and president, decided during the pandemic to buck the restaurant industry’s slowdown trend with a bold and aggressive vision for growth. The strategy targeted spots of revitalization where communities planned to reinvest money.
So, while the emerging brand was getting approved and registered for franchises in 37 states, the Cedar Rapids and Des Moines locations were acquired as potential “turnkey” options for interested franchisee partners, Mr. Posey added.
“That’s why we have these new locations – we didn’t want to lose out on them,” Mr. Posey said. “We didn’t want to get two years down the road and be like, ‘That spot would have been great for a Barrel House.’
“We decided we could either sit and be stagnant and see what happens – or we could use this time to catapult ourselves into a future, and that’s what we wanted for our brand. So, we doubled down and decided to make a real leap by franchising with a new model and an overall standard brand aesthetic to carry over into all the locations.”
The motivation was simple.
“People had cabin fever for two years and we thought they would want to go out and have a good time when the pandemic ended,” Mr. Posey said. “So many people had to get out of the business because the pandemic crushed them and so we are now filling a big void. And even though there’s a cost of inflation now with the rising cost of food and labor, people are still itching to go back out and eat and have fun.”
The original Barrel House in downtown Davenport is the last to be remodeled, with neon bar signs replaced by classic Edison bulbs and the logo-inspired Whiskey Barrel chandeliers. The floor plans include separate bar and dining areas, where music mixes with sports games on TV.
“We really wanted to kind of mesh together the best parts of both the bar and the dining world,” Mr. Posey said. “We wanted to have a place where everybody could go.”
Barrel House also was positioned for the post-pandemic with patios already built into their business model. Now, patios are considered essential to success in the restaurant industry, Mr. Posey added.
The company also invested heavily into technology to help operate a far-flung, multi-site business — as well as streamline deliveries and orders at each location.
Guests can download on their cell phones the Barrel House app on the IOS Apple or Android store. The app allows guests to receive in-house rewards while skipping the third-party delivery services.
“There’s been an insane increase of to-go and delivery orders and we wanted to make sure that we were at the forefront of those changing times,” Mr. Posey said.
Barrel House hopes to see 5-7 new franchises each year and between 30-50 locations nationwide in multiple states before the end of this decade.
Mr. Posey reports talks already with prospective franchisees in Wisconsin, southern Illinois, and Texas, among others.
“We’re very excited and very fortunate to be on the path that we’re on,” he added. “But it goes both ways when you’re selling a franchise – as much as somebody is interested, we also have to vet those people and meet with them and see if they’re as good a fit for us as we are for them.”
Foundry goes another way
Foundry is on a different growth path, with Mr. DeWitte recently opening a new venture in Bettendorf – besides also having another on the way.
Mio Russo, an upscale Sicilian pizza and pasta restaurant, opened on 53rd Street in the building that formerly housed Crust. The new addition honors the family tradition and recipes passed down through the generations from the original Russo pizza restaurants located in Cedar Rapids in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Mr. DeWitte also is working on a modern Japanese Steakhouse and Sushi Bar called YoSo, which expects to open by this fall or winter in the new TBK Bank building in downtown Bettendorf.
“He’s always thought this concept (for the Foundry) will work in multiple markets, so we will continue to expand on it eventually – but we’re not even set on a location yet for Foundry 3,” Ms. Thompson said, noting Marion among the communities mentioned.
“We want to get Coralville fully functioning and get the other babies up and running and then go from there. But regional expansion is definitely on the radar.
“Once we get those others going? Who knows? They might become something bigger, too. It took about two years with the pandemic to figure out the Foundry – then it was time to expand. So, maybe we’ll get there with the other ones, but right now they’re too new for us to know.”
Foundry Coralville opened in Nov. 2021 with Mr. DeWitte selecting the site near construction of a new hospital in a rapidly growing area. That offered a similar dynamic to Bettendorf, where a large and diverse crowd is available nearby at the sports complex – as well as the housing developments to come soon.
“We are so close to the ballparks, we see a lot of families coming from games,” Ms. Thompson said. “The moms and dads are able to get what they want – but the kids are getting what they want, too, and that’s often different items. That’s why we’ve been so successful there and you can see the same sort of traffic coming from the hospital and the businesses being built around that.”
Mr. DeWitte said the new Foundry also would fulfill a need.
“We have so many options for different types of food on our menu – and there wasn’t a ton of that in Iowa City and Coralville,” Ms. Thompson said. “There’s lots of very small, very precise restaurants that are good at what they do, but nothing that really covers it all other than the chains like Chili’s or Applebee’s – and our food is so much better than that. So, that’s what he wanted to bring to this area – a high quality, huge menu place.” QCBJ