Let it ride
Owners of popular craft-beer bar parlay success into second eatery
As the old adage goes, lightning never strikes in the same place twice. Science has proven that’s not entirely true, but the saying persists as sage advice to maintain reasonable expectations after a single stroke of particularly good fortune.
Carolyn and Brian Kanabrocki apparently never placed much stake in that proverb, and have together accomplished something statistically akin to repeated rare weather phenomena. In a span of just three years, in a recovering economy and without the benefit of extensive service-industry experience, the couple have opened two successful drinking and dining establishments, The Handle Bar and Midtown Local.
During a recent visit to the Kanabrockis’ most recent venture, the Midtown Local café on East Sixth Street, they explained how they didn’t defy just conventional wisdom, but also sound advice from well-meaning friends and family before they opened The Handle Bar, a craft beer tavern on the outskirts of Chico’s commercial-heavy south end.
“We financed everything ourselves. I sold my car and he quit his job and cashed in his retirement funds,” Carolyn said. The couple were engaged then and both worked in the beer business—he as a distributor and she in Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s accounting department. They had good contacts in the industry and faith in their belief Chico was ready to catch up with the craft beer revolution brewing in bigger cities, but loved ones expressed concerns over their location and lack of experience. “Everyone kept telling us we were throwing our money away.”
They persisted, and opened the bar in late 2012, opting to serve food to accompany what Carolyn characterized as an “adventurous” assortment of tapped beers.
“We knew that in order to be a responsible bar we needed to have food of some sort, but didn’t know what it would look like.” They opted to bring in Jeff Vandegrift to help them develop a menu filled with exceptional Geman-inspired pub grub.
“It did well off the bat, but wasn’t a big success right away,” Brian recalled of the bar’s early days. “There were plenty of slow times when we’d just look at each other and wonder if we should have listened to what everybody said.”
But business picked up after about nine months, he said, as word spread and the public’s thirst for craft beers grew. By the end of the first year—a landmark for new restaurateurs—business was booming, and the couple celebrated their wedding.
Bolstered by the success of The Handle Bar, the pair started thinking about a second business venture, a plan that started coming into focus when they heard Café Flo was for sale. Again, the Kanabrockis decided to lay it all on the line, liquidizing assets and losing their proverbial safety net as Carolyn quit her job at the brewery to fully invest her energy into the dual ventures.
Midtown Local opened last summer, and this time the couple drew from Brian’s previous experience at Peet’s Coffee & Tea and chose coffee as the focus. Vandegrift went to work developing a menu, and still works in both kitchens.
The couple again found themselves working 80-hour weeks and dealing with unforeseen troubles. Upon plugging in all of the new restaurant’s equipment, they discovered the building’s wiring was old and in need of immediate upgrading. A month into its opening, the café’s pizza oven, a focal point of its menu, died. A replacement took months to arrive.
Carolyn pinpointed last Thanksgiving as a turning point for the café and said that, after the initial growing pains, things have started running quite nicely. Though it may be too early to predict the café’s long-term success, both Kanabrockis said they’re happy with how it continues to evolve.
Carolyn noted some differences between the two venues. The Handle Bar is somewhat of a destination, drawing clientele from all corners of Chico and beyond, while the café is intended to be a neighborhood gathering place. She also noted the café has more of a family atmosphere that’s allowed their 11-year-old daughter, Hannah, to get more involved.
“Enter as strangers, leave as friends,” reads a sign hanging on one wall of the comfortably appointed dining area of Midtown Local, which is also decorated with old black and white photos of Chico through the years. It’s not just a randomly chosen motto, but rather relates to the philosophy the Kanabrockis credit to their success.
“We wanted to open places where we would like to hang out,” Brian said. “We’re casual people, and I think that’s pretty typical and indicative of Chico life. The factor that ties both places together is they’re comfortable and casual.”
“It’s important to us that [the businesses] are not pretentious,” Carolyn added. “We want people to be able to walk in from One-Mile and not feel out of place, and at the same time we want someone to be able to bring a date and also not feel out of place.”
The Kanabrockis offered some other advice to would-be entrepreneurs: “If you have a good idea, don’t be dissuaded by what other people have to say,” Brian said. “The initial opening is probably the craziest thing you’ll ever do, and you’ll probably be more stressed than at any other time in your life, but the sense of accomplishment is worth it.
“It’s like going all in on a hand of cards, and winning.”