Dream comes true for local entrepreneur
It all happened the day before Thanksgiving 2009. That was the day that, for Chris Armington, owner of The Tavern Company, a longtime dream was finally realized. After more than a dozen years working as a server, bartender and, eventually, a manager at Brennan’s Colony, he finally had a spot to call his own.
“I always wanted to own my own restaurant, but didn’t know if it was realistic or feasible,” said Armington.
Now that roughly two and a half years have elapsed since its grand reopening, things at the Lee Road restaurant are going fairly well—no small feat, given the restaurant’s popularity under its previous ownership. Customers have commented that the food has improved and the nightly specials have become popular among patrons.
The Tuesday night trivia games are a consistent draw for the post-dinner crowd.
Once Armington took over the establishment from former proprietor John McMahon, making it all work, from a financial standpoint, wasn’t easy. Armington ended up finding a family friend to walk him through the business side of small business ownership.
“I thought I could attract investors based on longstanding relationships, but I found out it wasn’t that easy,” he said. “I found out the value of having a business plan as a tool to attract investors. Banks don’t easily lend money to restaurants, because of their failure rate, so I took the friends-and-family approach.”
Once the papers had been signed, Armington shut down the restaurant for weeks to perform repairs to the building and clean it from top to bottom. When it reopened, he and Chef Jamie Wynbrandt set about the business of putting their personal signatures on the restaurant’s offerings, which they characterize as all-American culinary creations with a twist.
“I wanted to improve the food quality and take it to the next level,” said Armington, “Jamie and I, being good friends and working together for 10 years, it was really cool to collaborate with him. We wanted good quality bar food, but it goes way beyond that. Nobody was going to say no to either of us, so it gave us the freedom to be creative and to come up with a cool bar menu."
Armington subscribes to the buy-local ethos when purchasing food, and says that everything served at Tavern Company is fresh, never frozen. The menu features unique flatbreads, a pulled short rib sandwich, a variety of hearty soups, a delicious hangar steak entree, burgers, salads and more.
Tavco'success is aided, in no small part, by the efforts of Armington’s girlfriend and manager, Sarah Brewer. She’s the perky blonde with the perpetual smile who is always on the move. She regularly puts in four nights a week, not only providing enthusiastic customer service, but also handling all the marketing and community relations, which include the many local charitable events that ask for support.
Brewer also maintains the toy chest at the front of the dining room, a Christmas gift from Armington’s mom, and popular among the restaurant’s youngest patrons. It features a variety of pre-wrapped gifts for young people, ten for boys and ten for girls. The chest is fully stocked on a nightly basis.
“The kids have become quite familiar," said Brewer, adding, “they just love it. Kids make a beeline to the front of the dining room every night.”
Armington remains humble about his entrepreneurial venture and credits the local community for whatever success he enjoys.
“The fact is that the loyal patronage of Cleveland Heights and University Heights residents has helped mitigate the stress of ownership in terms of maintaining a consistent customer base. Without them, I’m not sure where we’d be. People who remember me from the Colony still walk in and ask, 'what are you doing here?' It’s a rewarding feeling when they tell me how much they enjoyed the experience.”
Richard Stewart is president of Digizoom Media, a Cleveland Heights-based video production company, and a FutureHeights board member.