Pub chain P.J. Whelihan's got there, largely by winging it

Bob Platzer (left) and Jim Fris at the P.J. Whelihan's location in Oaks, Montgomery County, on Dec. 15, 2016. ( Michael Klein / Staff )

In late 1983, Bob Platzer drove to Lehighton, in the Poconos, based on a lead about a restaurant for sale. "Before I left that day, I had bought a restaurant," he said.

The restaurant, which he named after himself (Platz's), led to a second restaurant in Allentown that specialized in burgers, wings, and beer. This was the start of a pub empire in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that now includes 14 P.J. Whelihan's sports bars; three branches of Pour House, a beer specialist; the fine-dining restaurant Chophouse; and Treno Pizza Bar. Among its distinctions: P.J. Whelihan's provides the wings used in SportsRadio 94 WIP's Wing Bowl.

Platzer, 65, and his right-hand man, Jim Fris, chatted at the newest P.J. Whelihan's location, in Oaks, Montgomery County.

How did you get the name?

This is before the internet and cellphones, that I knew of, at least. I wanted to name it an Irish name, so we sent to Ireland for a few phone books. Everything was like P.T. Callahan, F.J. Maloney. We always called my grandfather on my mother's side P.J. His name was P.J. Whelihan. I said, "Well, we might as well name it after P.J. "He was a professional pub person, so it was fitting, and we went from there. After that, we came to Haddonfield, and that was the same formula as Allentown. It worked. From there, we got on a roll. We did Maple Shade, Cherry Hill, Washington Township - all pretty quickly.

How did you afford to open all of these?

There was owner financing involved in three of those four [New Jersey locations]. I was getting mortgages with people rather than banks, because I wasn't really mortgage-able. That was a good way for me to get started. That was really the catalyst of the whole thing. They were all successful. Therefore, now the banks would lend me money. That's how we continued to grow.

Your nephews were helping you. How did Jim get into the mix?

In 2004, I knew we needed someone to start getting out to all the restaurants. I was busy running a restaurant at a time, in the office and things like that. I asked our food purveyor if they knew anybody out there that could help me run operations. Jim's wife had worked for Sysco, so the president of Sysco says, "Yes, I know a guy who's a possibility for you; think he's a good fit. " Jim came in. I always tell the story that Jim walked right into the trap. Jim having big corporate experience was exactly what we needed to start getting ourselves straightened out as far as the way we were buying, the way we were contracting. Jim had expertise in that field. Jim came in with a suit and tie. I told him, "Lose the tie and the jacket. " The rest is how it rolled. Soon, Jim recognized we needed some more expertise in the office, financially. We brought in a CFO. He had just retired, Bill Love. Bill said, "Well, I want to stay retired, but I'll help you out for six months. " Bill's still here.

What happened then?

We were able to get this thing on a real roll and we did pretty well. Then we laid low during the recession - '08 and '09, I think, we were pretty quiet. In about '10, we really hockey-sticked the organization. We were really grooving and shaking. From 2010 through '16, every year we were opening a restaurant. We attacked Chester County with a Downingtown P.J.'s, West Chester P.J.'s, Exton Pour House. We added to the Lehigh Valley with a Bethlehem P.J.'s, Reading P.J.'s.

P.J.'s was always the mother lode. Then we started noticing that there were opportunities in our market. It was starting to bother us that we had to pass them up, because we were already there. We said, "Why don't we come up with another concept, because we already know these are great markets? If we don't take it, our competitors are. "

That's how we got on that roll with Pour House. We found out that they do work in the city market. We differentiate them as much as we can. P.J.'s - many more televisions, sports-driven. Pour House was much more craft-beer-driven at the time. We were early with that. Now, everybody's a little bit of a craft beer house.

How do you find locations?

Jim Fris: Bob is really, really good at site selection. We'll look across the street and there's a brand-new Sheetz and a brand-new Wawa, and a Wegmans. They already did the homework. We don't need to do it again. The way Gino's used to follow McDonald's around back in the day. This year, we brought in a director of IT and marketing. She's been very active in really looking at where our customers are coming from, who our customers are, why are they coming. . . . Parking's everything for us.

Who are your customers?

Bob Platzer: P.J.'s is very unique where we get everybody. The door is open to a business lunch that quickly moves on to the midafternoon soccer moms in the neighborhood, which leads into a corporate happy hour, which then goes into family dining. At 10 [p.m.] to 2 [a.m.], like any place, it tends to get younger. If there's sports, it's packed from the minute the doors open. Literally, if there's a big Eagles game at 1, at 12:30 there's not a seat in any P.J.'s.

Jim Fris: We really pride ourselves in tying ourselves into the communities wherever we're at. That sets the tone.

Bob Platzer: Jim used to tell the story if there's a high school near us, we love it. We get involved with the high school right away. Then there's going to be sports events. There's going to be people that are coming over and the neighbors get to know us.

Your biggest seller is wings?

Platzer: In excess of 10 million wings this year at P.J.'s.

I guess you get a good price.

I wish I could say we do. ... Wings is our No. 1 item. That's a commodity-driven market. Obviously, we buy them straight from the manufacturer in North Carolina. Shipped up every day. At Pour House, it's burger-driven. They also have a good oyster following.

In terms of beer at P.J.'s?

No. 1 is Miller Lite. No. 2 is P.J.'s Copper Lager, our own in-house beer, brewed by Victory. Roll it back 10 years ago, it was probably No. 30.

What do you attribute that growth to?

It's a great craft beer, brewed by a great craft brewer. You get 22 ounces for $4. The price has never changed in the 10 years.

How about at Pour House?

Pour House, it's obviously because we have rotating taps. We're constantly changing taps. I would say some of the top sellers, Allagash White, Bell's Two Hearted, Dogfish 60 Minute.