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Updated: January 13, 2020

Hartford Restaurant Group quietly builds a $32M Wood-n-Tap empire

wood-n-tap HBJ Photos | Joe Cooper Mike Hamlin (left) and Phil Barnett of Hartford Restaurant Group
Wood-n-Tap locations 
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The co-founders of Wood-n-Tap Bar & Grill made a major financial gamble when they opened their first restaurant in Hartford almost two decades ago.

The four founding partners — only two of which remain today — were ripe with restaurant experience, but initially lacked the financial war chest to get the Sisson Avenue business off the ground.

They pieced together an undisclosed sum from personal savings and credit-card cash advances to launch a self-described “American casual” pub that became the first Wood-n-Tap.

Today, the restaurant franchise is far from a boot-strapped operation. In fact, remaining partners Phil Barnett and Mike Hamlin have built parent company Hartford Restaurant Group into a roughly $32-million business with 10 restaurants and about 700 employees, quietly making them two of the region’s most prolific restaurateurs.

They were also on the forefront of adopting a full-service, fast-casual concept, at a time when detractors said the model wouldn’t be successful.

Their latest investment has been their priciest.

The longtime friends spent $1.3 million in June 2018 to acquire the building and 3.3 acres formerly occupied by the financially troubled Apricots Restaurant in Farmington, and spent millions more to renovate the now 250-seat eatery and events-space known for its sweeping views of the Farmington River.

“Apricots was the place to be in the 1980s and 90s,” Hamlin said. “When I was growing up in West Hartford, if someone said they were going to Apricots, it was a big deal. But I think over the years they never reinvested in the building,” which was constructed in 1880.

HBJ Photo | Joe Cooper
Hartford Restaurant Group spent millions of dollars to renovate the former Apricots Restaurant in Farmington. The 3.3-acre property, sitting across the street from Farmington High School, is located along the Farmington River.

Hartford Restaurant Group’s portfolio has Wood-n-Tap locations in highly dense areas of Newington, Southington, Rocky Hill, Vernon, Wallingford, Hamden and Orange; the company will be adding a Wood-n-Tap in Enfield this spring.

But it hasn’t all been easy for the group.

In late 2016, HRG closed its TD Homer sports bar and grill restaurant in Southington to concentrate on its Wood-n-Tap brand.

In the years before and after the closure, Barnett and Hamlin also split with founding partners Wil Quijano and Kenny McAvoy. Barnett said they were critical to Wood-n-Tap’s development, but had different long-term visions for the business. They also lost Mexican restaurant Agave Grill in downtown Hartford to McAvoy as part of the breakup.

The group in 2018 repurposed its shuttered TD Homer eatery into the Que Whiskey Kitchen, a southern-barbecue restaurant located across the street from a Wood-n-Tap.

Headquartered in Hartford’s ex-Lyman Kitchens manufacturing building on Bartholomew Avenue, HRG uses about 20 percent of its annual profits for capital improvements on its restaurant facilities. That’s part of the way it keeps its competitive edge.

In Farmington in recent years, Barnett and Hamlin had been hoping to expand their 15-year-old restaurant at 1274 Farmington Ave., until they learned Apricots’ 7,800-square-foot location down the road was for sale.

They offered to buy Apricots the next day, then spent more than a year delivering a complete makeover to the two-floor restaurant and its outdoor seating area on Route 4. The restaurant, which also now includes 150 parking spaces, reopened as Wood-n-Tap in October.

Barnett and Hamlin say they splurged in sprucing up the brick, wood and iron-clad eatery.

“One of these days we will figure out how much we spent,” Barnett said laughing in agreement with Hamlin, his long-time friend and partner. “We spent more than we wanted to, but our goal was to do it right.”

Growth strategy

Barnett and Hamlin have plenty of ideas on how to grow a restaurant business. After all, they each spent numerous years in the industry in many entry-level positions.

Barnett, 45, a Windham native, attended Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) for a short stint but ultimately opted for a steady paycheck in the restaurant business moving his way up from a dishwasher, server, bartender and eventually to a partner of The Half Door pub in Hartford in 1998.

Hamlin, 51, also served as a busboy, cook and kitchen manager for a variety of restaurant chains in Greater Hartford and broke into the mortgage business in the late 1990s.

At that time, Barnett and his wife, then his fiance, actually lived in a multifamily house Hamlin built in New Britain around 2000. Hamlin and his now wife also lived there.

HRG began to form around that time with founding partners Barnett and Quijano, who met at CCSU, and Hamlin and McAvoy. The partners in 2002 acquired several buildings that included The Keg, a popular Italian-American family restaurant located on Hartford’s Sisson and Capitol avenues. There, the first Wood-n-Tap was born.

Wood-n-Tap locations vary depending on where you’re dining. Some restaurants are in free-standing buildings (Vernon), while others are in large shopping centers (Newington). HRG owns about half the real estate it occupies.

But all restaurants largely offer a similar experience with reasonably priced pub food, party rooms, outdoor patio seating and food, desserts and dressings all made on-site. Wood-n-Tap has also developed a major takeout and delivery business — one that drew over 14,300 Uber Eats orders at its Hartford location in 2019.

“I think we do a good job at not being just a casual-dining restaurant but a little more upscale, but still offer a value-driven price,” he said. “All of our food is made in-house. Some of our restaurants don’t even have a freezer.”

That recipe fueled the Wood-n-Tap franchise during the fallout of the 2008-2010 Great Recession that wiped out many restaurants across the state.

Wood-n-Tap sales sunk roughly 10 percent in the two years following the housing-market crash, but it survived and grew, Hamlin said, because HRG already had money banked away.

“You could see it coming, but it came fast,” he said. “When you have debt payments, and you lose your profitability, then it really started to become a big issue for a lot of companies.”

Mike Hamlin (left) and Phil Barnett say they are always looking for new opportunities to grow their Wood-n-Tap franchise.

Creating jobs, min. wage impact

In the restaurant industry, Barnett and Hamlin believe developing talented and reliable staff is key to building a successful business.

That’s why the partners are keen on promoting staff internally.

Several employees have worked for the organization from its inception, starting at entry-level positions and ascending to front-office roles. For example, HRG’s current chief financial officer got her start as a server during Wood-n-Tap’s founding in 2002.

“Our goal is to make sure that our employees are well taken care of,” Hamlin said. “In an industry with significant turnover, we think we have had good success keeping people.”

Meantime, Connecticut’s recently adopted minimum-wage increase is largely a non-factor financially for the restaurant group. Approximately 10 percent of its workforce, or about 70 of 700 people, earn the state’s minimum wage, which will reach $15 per hour in July 2022. (There’s an exception for employees who work for tips, including restaurant staff and bartenders, whose wages are frozen at $6.38 and $8.23 per hour, respectively.)

“I think a higher minimum wage is a good thing, because those people can afford to spend more money in the economy and go out to restaurants — and hopefully they come to ours,” said Hamlin, adding that most of HRG’s minimum-wage workers hold entry-level positions.

HRG is also sharing its earnings. The restaurant group has fundraised money and donated Wood-n-Tap gift cards worth millions of dollars to local charities, hospitals and nonprofit organizations through a variety of “Giveback Nights” where community members take home 15 percent of sales on any given day.

Despite their waterfront investment in Farmington, the partners say they are still looking to evolve the business with new recipes and locations across Connecticut or elsewhere.

The hope is that its growth narrative will continue for years to come.

“Hopefully we will be telling everyone about our 50th-year anniversary in 32 years from now,” Barnett said looking at Hamlin. “That would be pretty fun.”

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