A Kid Walks Into a Bar, Creates an Empire
Teddy Sourias doesn’t ponder the past or pause to acknowledge his accomplishments. He skims the present and focuses on the future instead, always looking at the next possibility. He’s too humble to brag, and he refuses to take all the credit. “Everyone has a purpose. Every person I meet along the road of my life, I learn from. There is no one way to run the proper bar. A lot of people think they have the formula, but I learn from the people I bring in. We work as a whole, a team, and that makes a place successful.”
Clearly, he earned his knowledge by degrees even though he doesn’t have a piece of paper that says he possesses one from a particular college. He gained a little here, a little there. Add it up and it makes the man he is today: owner of two thriving restaurants and one slated to open winter 2014.
What is he proud of? “I don’t know; that’s a tough question. I don’t spend a lot of time looking back, because I’m always looking forward.” Instead, he launches into his vision for his businesses. “Complacency is the enemy. Gotta keep going forward.” He looks over his shoulder at the massive custom-made copper beer keg. “Brü was my vision and my concept. When I bought Finn’s, I was a 25-year-old kid running a night club. That was cool, but. . .” he shrugs.
“I had just turned 20 when the place was for sale. I was in college; I didn’t know much about the restaurant business then. My father had bartended at the Marriott since 1980, and he inspired me. The area on Sansom and 12th was undeveloped. I had money saved because I’d been working since I was 13, and I was able to get a loan. So I bought McCool’s and bartended there for 13 years. I kinda got thrown to the wolves, but I made it work. I learned by doing.”
He sat in college classes reflecting that he had dreamed of being a doctor, though he never felt drawn to medical school. In fact, his major was Business. Like many college students, he wanted to do something. In his father, Sourias saw a successful man who happened to be a bartender. He didn’t take that lightly.
“People looked down on me. They’d ask what my real job was. When I told them I was also the owner, not only did they look down on me, then they didn’t want to tip the owner.”
As he peers into the past, I realize that, while it bothered him then, it certainly doesn’t now. I observe the thriving second restaurant that pulses behind him. He built his dreams as he went, and he’s still going. Along the way, he realized he wanted to build restaurants from the ground up. That’s especially ironic now, given that U-Bahn will be underground, its name taken from Berlin’s subway system.
Eventually, Sourias saved enough so that, when the building at 118 South 12th Street went up for sale in 2007 he bought it. After renovations, the bar reopened as a trendier Irish bar with a lounge (Room 12/Prime Lounge) on the second floor with rental properties above. It was another of many stepping stones in Sourias’ path to success.
While Finn McCool’s was under renovation, he worked at a German bar called Ludwig’s. He loved its concept and from that begat Brü. While Sourias poured drinks and paid off loans for Finn’s, the vision of Brü ran in the back of his mind: a German beer garden in the center of Philadelphia. In 2012, the time was right and he found the perfect location.
The building on Chestnut and 13th has front and back entrances. This affords Brü the opportunity to open the garage door when the weather is perfect; guests spill onto the patio to enjoy beer and bratwurst across the street from McGillin’s, the oldest bar in Philadelphia.
In truth, Sourias doesn’t know much about beer or sausage. But he does know how to surround himself with trustworthy, passionate people. He met Alex, the general manager of Brü, whose prowess as a beer cicerone (expert in beer, like a wine sommelier) led to him taking over as GM.
Sourias worried that Finn’s would lose customers when he opened Brü. But he discovered that there is no competition in the restaurant business. Finn’s is a neighborhood bar, “like Cheers. It’s the place where everybody knows your name. We want more places to open around here,” he adds. “Unique restaurants make the area a destination. The more places there are, the more people come. Brü is unique,” he nods to customers as they enter. “There’s no place like it in Philly.
Brü sells Haus Keys, which work like gift cards. Customers put money on them and visit the bank of iPads installed in the copper beer vat. They insert their Haus Keys at one of the six beer stations to pour, and they pay per ounce. The beers change daily, sometimes several times per day. Customers can try any of the six beers on tap and then pour glasses of their favorites. When the money on the Haus Key is depleted, they can reload it. Furthermore, Brü tracks what beers customers drink, how many ounces, what dates. That way, when customers return, Brü reminds them of their favorites.
Customers can share their keys, too. For instance, when large groups come for Happy Hour, parties, business dinners, they can put, say $1,000, on the key and pass it around all night. This concept is unique to Brü, down to the copper vat that the Irish company custom-made in-house.
Sourias steps behind the long marble bar as more Brü customers arrive. “What can I get you, man?”
They order mixed drinks; Sourias grabs bottles, glasses, ice and I barely blink by the time he shakes and pours. The young owner of Finn McCool’s at the corner of Sansom and 12th Street (www.finnmccoolsphilly.com), Brü at 1318 Chestnut (bruphilly.com), and the new U-Bahn that will open next to Brü spent 13 years as an owner/bartender of his first venture and learned the business by doing it. He knows the hard work of success and doesn’t take it for granted.
Teddy Sourias’ long view is to open Brüs in other major cities across the country. But right now his focus is his new venture: U-Bahn. His hope was to have it open before the end of summer, but he’s been through renovations enough times to realize that construction always introduces new issues. He hopes for a winter 2014 opening.
By Jann Simmons Andiamo