Restaurateur Johnny Vassallo—or Johnny V. as he is known to his friends—was born into the food-service business. The son of an Italian immigrant father and an Irish-American mother, Vassallo grew up above a restaurant and became a dishwasher at age 13. “I worked in restaurants throughout school and by the time I was 16 I was working 60 hours a week,” he says. He became a bartender at 21 and within a few years he opened his first bar, Johnny V.’s Social Club, at 10th Street and Lincoln Ave. in Milwaukee. “I am a serial entrepreneur. I like doing deals and I am particularly fond of restaurants and the potential I see in them. My family and I have owned and operated just about everything from coffee shops to an Italian restaurant called Mo’s Cucina, a seafood restaurant called Moceans, and three Asian restaurants called Monsoon, which we actually sold to SURG Restaurant Group out of Milwaukee,” Vassallo explains.
After a few hits and misses with various businesses, in 1999 Vassallo launched Mo’s…A Place for Steaks in a downtown area of Milwaukee that people were initially skeptical about. “They didn’t think it would take off, but we did about $600,000 our first year and $5 million by our third year,” he says. “It has become a popular a la carte steakhouse. In 2003, we opened a second location in Indianapolis and in 2008 we opened our first steakhouse in Houston.” In 2003, Vassallo launched Mo’s Irish Pub, an authentic Irish-style pub-restaurant known for its spirits, foods and live musical entertainment. “We have been operating these restaurants for more than a decade and through the recession we settled on our two best brands: the steakhouse and the Irish pub.”
Opportunist: Is there a story behind your company’s name?
Vassallo: My mother’s name is Maureen, so we decided to call our company Mo’s—a nickname for Maureen—in her honor.
Opportunist: Your steaks have been named the best in Milwaukee. Please tell us about your concept.
Vassallo: We serve prime steaks that we buy from Stock Yards out of Chicago. They have been in business for over 100 years and offer delicious high-end steaks. We also have great sides and a fabulous wine list. I believe the details are in the minutiae—I am a neurotic perfectionist—so we provide white coat table service. Our goal for our a la carte steakhouse was to customize dining experiences, so we are really into understanding what guests are looking for—whether they have come out for a quiet meal or a business deal—and we really want to take someone from a customer to a regular to a friend.
Opportunist: What made you decide to open an Irish pub?
Vassallo: I had always wanted to own and operate an authentic style Irish pub, so I went over to Ireland and learned how to do it from the experts.
Opportunist: The Irish really take their pubs seriously, don’t they?
Vassallo: Yes. Until about 2004, Guinness had a program to teach people how to do everything from soup to nuts. The concept is based on seven critical factors to opening an Irish pub, such as live music, good food, sports and so forth. We were literally in the classroom all day. They even brought in architects and specialists proficient in everything from how to keep your coolers clean to understanding the importance of how different smells in can affect and permeate the beer lines and affect how beer tastes. We learned how often we should clean our beer lines and all about the stainless steel fobs, which are basically cylinders with stainless steel tops that beer runs through and how it shuts off the flow when a keg empties out and you end up with cleaner beer and you save time and a lot of beer too.
We also learned what we should be looking for in terms of different sporting events, live music and food. At night they took us out to different bars that were really busy and those that weren’t and the next day we were talking about why some were busy and others weren’t.
Opportunist: Why do you think some were packed and others weren’t?
Vassallo: A lot of it is based on the gregariousness of the staff.
We were also introduced to different builders and, actually, our first bar was built over in Ireland and shipped here and installed. That was really cool. It’s a beautiful bar similar to the Whiskey Bar in downtown Dublin.
Opportunist: How many Mo’s Pubs are there and is each one company owned?
Vassallo: We currently have three pubs: one in Milwaukee, one in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and another in Noblesville, Indiana, which is about 30 minutes outside downtown Indianapolis. We are about to open one leased deal and another ground-up, build-to-suit location that are both in Texas. We have a partnership that owns the real estate piece on our build project but all the operations are owned by our company.
Opportunist: Please tell us about your ground-up project.
Vassallo: We are building a 7,200-square-foot freestanding facility that will be out on a hard corner of a busy intersection with its own freeway off-ramp from Highway 290 in Nueschke, Texas. It will have about 150 patio seats and should open in July of 2014. We are also going into a mall called Vintage Park on Highway 249 and Luetta in another suburb of Houston.
Opportunist: Are franchise opportunities in the company’s future?
Vassallo: We would like to do license deals, and I think that would make a lot of sense. People love Irish pubs and we think we have a great formula.
Opportunist: Who is your competition?
Vassallo: Buffalo Wild Wings, BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse, Baker Street Pub & Grill down in Texas, and Granite City in the Midwest.
Opportunist: What sets your restaurants apart?
Vassallo: I think it’s our four core values: competitiveness, high standards, hospitality and being a lifetime learner. I believe you’re either learning or dying, so we’re continuously talking with guests and vendors and staff and figuring out what the marketplace wants. I feel we are nimble enough to deliver what they want and we are always pushing for value. I’m a frugal guy, so we are striving diligently every day to deliver a great product for a very good value. And from a staffing standpoint, we like hiring people who like taking care of other people. We emphasize spirited hospitality because there is no business without the customer and without the staff there is no business. We like to work with the staff and help them grow and learn how to deal with people and build relationships and show them a good time and be passionate about what they do. As the recession is winding down, frugality remains in fashion. Our restaurants are the perfect place for people to entertain and enjoy themselves.
Opportunist: Does Mo’s Pub offer traditional Irish fare?
Vassallo: Vassallo: Mo’s Irish pubs are Irish-American sports pubs and we have a certified master chef that oversees each location. There are only 67 certified master chefs in the world, and Ken Arnone is the one we work with. He is responsible for taking any thoughts and ideas and turning out an amazing result. For our French fries, for example, he tried 60 different kinds. And he tested 200 different kinds of hamburger meat to get out steak burger just right. He spent three years on our chicken tenders.
At the pub level we really think we are doing something special because 80 percent of our food is made from scratch. Our menu features traditional corned beef and cabbage that is slow-roasted in-house and sliced fresh. We also feature the boxty, a traditional Irish potato pancake that we sell with different meats and seafood. We also have great chicken wings with different sauces, a Santa Fe chicken sandwich and a sunflower seed and cranberry wheat bread turkey sandwich with bacon that is just delicious. Mac n’ Chicken is one of our favorite dishes. It’s a pasta dish that’s definitely not going to be on your diet’s ledger but it’s craveable and just delicious. Each morning we start our chicken dumpling soup with broth and boil the dumplings. Our secret recipe roasted tomato soup is on the menu daily and is served with our special three-cheese avocado, bacon and tomato grilled cheese sandwich. We also have a classic appetizer of guacamole made to order, and we make our chips from scratch. Our homemade chocolate chip cookies and apple cobbler served with ice cream are sinfully delicious.
We are developing teams of people to execute Ken’s recipes in a highly spirited, fun sporting environment. We have live music four nights a week as well as sporting events on TV and a fun crew that is focused on getting to know their guests and making people comfortable while having fun and watching their favorite team or seeing their favorite band.
Opportunist: Do you feature a variety of beers as well?
Vassallo: Each place offers at least 30 different kinds of beer and we try to stay as local as possible in addition to having Irish greats like Guinness, Smithwicks and Harp. The beer has been a revolution. Everybody is just really into all kinds of craft beer and we have worked hard on educating ourselves on what kind of beer goes what kind of food.
Opportunist: Do you have special events?
Vassallo: We obviously have a St. Patrick’s Day event, and in fact our website counts down the days until the 17th of March. In downtown Milwaukee, between 300 and 400 people are lined up by 3 p.m. waiting to get inside. So we make sure we have the hats and party favors and things needed to celebrate the fact that they have made it to another St. Patrick’s Day. We also have a huge Halloween party, and an anniversary party for every year we are in business. In Indianapolis we do a big Make-A-Wish event and a Cancer Sucks party. We also sell T-shirt and hats and each year we pick a new slogan so people will have a different T-shirt every year.
Opportunist: How do you determine the markets in which to place your restaurants?
Vassallo: We are looking for markets with a higher density of people 25 to 55 years old that we believe is the demographic that enjoys beer and good food and sporting events. We’ve stayed close to home. I currently live in Houston, so we are researching the demographics and planning to open locations close to people and traffic. As we work on our demographics blueprint, which is similar to those we already opened, I believe we will have the Rosetta Stone, so to speak, that reveals where we should open other units.
Opportunist: What’s a typical day for you, Johnny?
Vassallo: I start off by reviewing sales for all the restaurants. Then I check my email and put out any fires. During the day I generally work on site acquisition and finance and have conversations with my managers. My nights are typically spent in the restaurants trying food and talking with guests and staff and working on grooming them or entertaining potential investors or current investors. That is my routine for six or seven days a week. This is a people business and I really enjoy that aspect. I really like our staff and our managers and watching people grow. I also like the culinary aspect and the atmosphere. People have lots of choices, so when they choose to come to one of our restaurants it makes me feel like I have done a good job.
Opportunist: What’s on the horizon for 2014 and beyond?
Vassallo: Our goal is to have 20 units in the next five years and take it from there. With franchising and licensing, we will probably do 20 and try to get to 50 while licensing our pubs in different markets to folks to help us expand. Ultimately, I would like to see 100 units. There really isn’t a national Irish pub. Bennigan’s was good for a while and Houlihan’s but that was more mainstream. I believe the opportunity is there to end up with 100 and then franchise units.
We are currently focusing on three units and establishing another two as well and hope to have three or four more units by 2015. We would explore any and all avenues to be properly funded, including the public markets.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @les7989.
Mo’s Restaurants - www.mosrestaurants.com