With license to brew, Beverly pub gets hopping
BY STEVE METSCH firstname.lastname@example.org April 8, 2013 11:48AM
Updated: May 8, 2013 6:23AM
Neil Byers is smiling a lot these days.
He recently received his brewing license from the city of Chicago, which allows him to brew beer at his new restaurant, Horse Thief Hollow, at 10426 S. Western Ave. in the Beverly community.
That’s one reason he’s smiling. He also is doing what he loves. There’s another reason.
Best of all, residents of the 19th Ward have quickly become fans of the restaurant.
Byers, 30, is a local guy. He grew up in Beverly and walks to work. He graduated from St. Barnabas School and Mount Carmel High School. He still has the strong build from his high school wrestling days, but now he’s grappling with bottom lines and knowing what to order when, all while trying to make a new business take flight.
Two months into it, things are going well.
The first night, the wait was 45 minutes for a table. By the end of that first week, he had to lock the doors at 9 p.m. “because we were running out of food and beer,” he said.
On a recent late afternoon, just before the dinner rush, Byers sat at the lacquered bar and discussed his brave endeavor, and still was smiling after revealing he’s on the hook for “hundreds of thousands” from investors who helped fund the launch.
“The banks? They laughed at me,” he said. “There’s no better time to do this. I don’t have any kids yet and I don’t have a mortgage.”
He does have the coveted brewing license.
A chef himself, Byers also made sure to hire quality people. What started as a work force of 25 has grown to 46.
“I’m proud of that. Now my goal is to keep business up so they stay employed and stay happy,” he said.
His chefs are given room to roam in the kitchen. They don’t warm up frozen items; they make meals from scratch. That includes the sausage served in the gumbo.
“They love that,” Byers said of the chefs having no creative barriers.
Brewer David Williams, president of the Chicago Homebrew Alchemists of Suds Brew Club, is in charge of brewing the beers and ales, some of which pair nicely with the gumbo.
“That’s Old Man Tom’s gumbo. A buddy of mine named Old Man Tom, that’s his recipe,” Byers said.
Being able to count on his employees allows Byers to take off a day a week to help fiancee Fran Buckingham plan their August wedding.
“I’m doing what I’ve wanted to do. I made myself breakfast, scrambled eggs, when I was 6 years old. This is what I know,” said Byers, who brewed his first beer with an at-home kit given to Fran five years ago.
Byers, who fine-tuned his skills at a culinary school and while working in South Carolina and Michigan, still wanders into the kitchen now and then.
“I believe in offering food and drink in this neighborhood that isn’t manufactured someplace else. That’s basically it. It’s just being stubborn. I wear a T-shirt once in a while that says, ‘Warning: Irish temper and German stubbornness,’ ” he said.
Horse Thief Hollow is where Chatham Rugs had been for decades. Carpet customers would have a hard time recognizing the place, as a tin ceiling was removed to reveal a lovely wooden ceiling.
Byers acquired the 5,900-square-foot space two years ago. Renovations started in 2012 and took seven months.
“The wood for (behind) the bar is from some pine flooring we found here. The wood for the bar was donated by a firefighter who lives at 111th and Maplewood,” he said. “What’s nice is this is a 2-month-old place, but there’s a warm, comfortable feeling to it. That’s how this neighborhood is.”
The neighborhood’s response “has been amazing,” he said. “I never envisioned this much support so soon.”
He’s not trying to swipe customers from other bars on the west side of Western Avenue, and wouldn’t mind if his customers visit those place after they first visit Horse Thief Hollow.
“I close at 10 o’clock during the week and midnight on weekends. I’m not trying to become a big drinking place,” he said. “Do you want to try to be everything or do you want to focus on what you’re good at? There’s a lot of places with televisions and cheap beer on Western Avenue. I don’t need to compete with that. But if they want something to eat and drink while watching the game ... ”
But what about that name?
“Horse Thief Hollow was what this area was called in the 1850s. Horse thieves would hide here before taking their horses to the city to sell,” he said.