The RailyardNovember 16, 2011
Small Wonder Bar of the Year Entry
Name of Bar: The Railyard
Location: Houston, Texas
Ownership/Parent Company: Bar Barons LLC
Square Footage: 1,600
Open Date: June 18, 2010
We opened the Railyard back in June 2010, and after taking over the space, which had been the infamous Roll-N-Saloon for 40 years (the little beer bar had even found itself in Playboy one year), we weren’t really sure what to expect. It was my first venture into sole proprietorship of a bar. Originally, the Roll-N had been a neighborhood bar with an old “large-screen TV," neon sign at the street and lots of canned and bottled beers in addition to liquor on the back shelf. It was a dive bar at best. What we tried to do was take that neighborhood feel it had in our shopping-center location and transform it into a bar for the 21st century while still playing on the traditions of the old bar, which once stood there. The bar had a lot of wood paneling that was reclaimed, sanded and revarnished to use for various wooden areas of the restroom vestibules and even the exterior “building” we built inside the bar, which acts as a rail station dock while doubling as the entrance to the restroom facilities of the bar. We kept a lot of the original 1950s brick from the shopping center, and that with the concrete walls really adds to the train warehouse 1950s feel we tried to achieve inside the space. The bar is not very large; probably has 17 bar stools, and we have several tables on a raised platform with chairs to create a separate seating area from the bar. Like most bars, we have some diversion arcade games from Beer Ball, which we saw at the Nightclub & Bar Convention and Trade Show last year, to an old-time photo booth, which guests really seem to enjoy. We even post their pictures on our wall as a way of allowing our patrons a buy-in to the personal space.
The concept of the bar is fairly simple. It’s a neighborhood bar, but our personal twist beyond the televisions and projectors for game watching most bars implore is the train theming which not only carries over from the exterior location near a live, active railroad track but inside the bar to the walls with vintage train posters of Las Vegas, Russia, Tokyo, etc. and to our cocktail menu, bar logo, and rail-themed specials we do throughout the year. The Railyard has draft beer, bottled beer, full liquor display and a select assortment of reasonably priced wines to offer its patrons. We’re too small to have a kitchen, so we allow people to order in from the restaurants around us if they desire food of some kind.
As stated previously, the train theme of the bar lends itself to a lot of promotional opportunities and drink specials we can run. One of these more famous examples is a “train shot” we serve for $2 in a test tube whenever a train rolls by the bar. I’m still looking for the right bell to hang in the space and ring when it happens, but the bartenders and patrons will yell, “Train,” and our special shots go out to those who request it. Another very unique promotion we have ongoing is what I call the World Famous WhistleStop Tour of the World or simply the Whistlestop Tour. The premise is there’s a fictional train carrying the banner of the Railyard Bar, which searches the globe for new spirits, beer, wine, and other drink offerings to bring back to its patrons. We spend an average of six weeks in every location and try to plan parties, customer specials, as well as try to introduce our patrons to new products they may not be able to get anywhere else or maybe wouldn’t have tried had we not shown it to them. We’ve been to Australia and brought in some interesting wines and beer, Hawaii for Tiki drinks and Kona beer, England, Ireland, Mexico, Canada, and more. Currently, the Whistlestop Tour is “home for the holidays” offering Texas seasonal, winter classics, egg nog, and a couple of other American holiday traditional beverages. Our next stop after the holidays will most likely be Asia for Chinese New Year.
I’ve been very proud of the Whistlestop Tour, and patrons have loved the concept. We did an Australia Day promotion last January for their national holiday with ANZAC Cookies, rugby on TV, decorations, and of course Aussie Beer. People have really enjoyed our theming and love this concept of a train circling the globe for new beers and fun.
When we opened the Railyard, I brought on the same bartenders who had worked at the Roll-N for many years. One had served for seven years and the other for four. They have played an integral role in providing our first-class customer service and hospitality to all of our patrons who live around the corner and those from England, South Africa, and beyond who visit us once or twice a year on oil business. We use the traditional steps of service with all of our patrons, trying to fulfill their individual needs should they be joining us on their own for a couple of beers or wanting to book a birthday party for 20-25 people. We go the extra mile for our customers, from putting their name on our street-side marquee for their birthdays to creating special menus for their functions with drinks named for them, etc. Because the place is fairly small, the bartenders are responsible for all drink making, bussing, serving, as well as waiting the occasional table. It’s a very demanding job, but they do it with a smile and really enjoy what they do and visiting with our customers. Every several of weeks we get together for team meetings and discuss new products, the next Whistlestop Tour, as well as other issues that may arise on a day-to-day basis inside the bar. We keep the communication open two ways for the good of the business, and I think that definitely helps when it comes to dealing with customer issues or just questions in general.
Business-wise, I’m very happy to see the growth in our sales. When we first opened, we were lucky to gross $23,000 a month those first several summer months, but now our bar’s sales over this same period last year are dramatically different to the tune of almost 60%, and we run a very tight ship, netting close to 40% of our gross earnings. We use simple financial fundamentals from controlling liquor and beer costs and inventory, to cutting expenses wherever we can. I’m still proud to say we provide all of these services at a great price to our customers often undercutting our neighborhood competition. We still have great happy hour deals from $2.50 to $3 pints to 25% off wine bottles, and all of this provides a great value to our customers. They can still order the $10 to $12 single malt scotch, but they can also find affordable options throughout our menu offerings.
For the small, 1,600-square-foot size of the space, the Railyard really has done an incredible business. We have gone over our limited seat capacity, but our patrons have still applauded the small bar feel we are able to provide even during these crowded times. The train-theming environment both inside and out along with our promotional drink menus, specials, parties, and impeccable customer service have made the Railyard a neighborhood gem and truly a Small Wonder.