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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Award-winning Crew Bar & Grill celebrates 10 years
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2014-06-20

This article shared 1505 times since Fri Jun 20, 2014
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Brian Wells was, back in the 1990s, the executive director for Chicagoland CARSTAR, running the marketing coop for 33 franchise stores in the Chicago DMA.

"I had wanted to go into the restaurant and bar business, [so] I decided to leave my marketing job and started working on a business plan for a gay sports bar," he said. "At the time, 1999, there were no real gay sports bars [in Chicago]."

But before jumping into the liquid hospitality industry, he realized he better get experience—"to see if I really liked it," he said.

So he went to work at Roscoe's Tavern in Lakeview, and that's where he met Steve Milford—and the two quickly realized that they had the same core beliefs and both liked sports.

"I shared the plan I was working on [with Milford] and we decided to team up," Wells said.

Their gay sports bar was in the works from 1999 until 2004, as they searched for the prime location, raised needed funds, and more.

"It is scary to make that jump from dream to reality," Wells said.

On July 19, 2004, Crew Bar & Grill opened in Uptown.

"It's exciting to think we have made it 10 years," Wells said. "We have so many memories and thoughts about former staff who have moved on, along with customers. Much has changed in the 10-year period and I think we have had a big impact on the community and created great memories."

A few weeks after opening, Crew got its liquor license—and Milford was working behind the bar that day when the first alcoholic drink was ordered, a Long Island Iced Tea.

"Our vision for Crew was our mission statement—to provide quality food and drinks and great customer service in a welcoming environment. We also have wanted to be part of the community, [and] I think we have done that in so many ways. We had so many naysayers at the beginning. We just wanted to create a friendly environment where all sports fans are welcomed. Our great mix of customers, neighbors, gay and straight, nearby workers, out of towners, etc. is a testament to that."

Crew encompasses about 3,000 square-feet, with inside seating for 108 and 24 outside, 21 televisions and more than 60 beers. The bar's No. 1 drink is its "world-famous beergarita, with over 35,000 pints sold over the 10 years," Wells said of the draft mix of beer and margarita. The top food item is Buffalo wings, and just as popular, perhaps more so at times, is its double fisted burger, a half-pound beef bomb

Crew has about 10 full-time employees and about 15 part-timers. And four of the staff have been there since almost day one: JJ Jaffee ( bartender and server who also manages ), Jessica Smedick ( bartender ), Bobby Marley ( VJ ), Krystyna Bachryj ( maintenance mostly ).

Wells, 49, who lives in Edgewater, is a Crew co-founder with Milford. He worked as co-owner until January, 2010. He is now the director of operations for Uptown Management Group, which was created in 2010 when Mike Sullivan and Mark Robertson bought controlling interest in Crew Bar & Grill. UMG provides management support and services to restaurants and bars, most notably Crew and The SoFo Tap, Wells said.

Milford now handles the scheduling, alcohol purchasing, events promotions and oversees training, among other chores.

Robertson has been the president since January 2010. He is in charge of all financial operations and has a CPA.

Sullivan is the vice president and though he also works full time as an attorney, he is involved in operations, including hiring, scheduling … and as its proof-reader.

Crew's four-person management team is all gay. Sullivan and Robertson are a couple.

Wells said there have been "so many" fond memories, fun nights, fanatic sports fans at the bar over the past decade. Take, for instance, when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, there was a "great crowd" at Crew for the deciding game, Wells said.

Crew also has quickly become the go-to bar for Chicago Blackhawks games.

The Gay Games in Chicago in 2006 also were quite memorable, especially when the West Hollywood Water Polo Team arrived.

"There was a line to get in and it was 'nuts to butts' inside," Wells recalled of that 2006 night. "The team was about two hours late, which caused everyone to be very restless. There was nothing we could do, but once they showed up, it was crazy."

The blizzard of 2011 also was a memorable time.

"I closed [the bar] the night [the snow] started … and almost couldn't get the door locked due to snow," Wells said. "I walked across the street in knee-deep snow to get a drink at the Uptown Lounge. I left there at midnight and was afraid to walk home in the blizzard, but was having no luck getting a cab. Finally a bus pulled up and dropped me off.

"The next day we opened for business. We were one of the few places open. There were four of us working there that day, and we ran around like crazy. We were packed and everyone was drinking and eating. It took about four hours before we could get any reinforcements. It was hell, but our customers had fun."

Crew, which once was the home to Red's Top Fashions, has had countless successful Jock Contests—its longest-running promotion. It features the first sidewalk café in the neighborhood and about 90 percent of Crew's menu is made in-house.

Wells confirmed that expansion of the Crew concept into other cities is in the works, though no timetable has been announced.

Crew this spring was ranked No. 7 among the city's top 10 sports bars, according to USA Today's travel and lifestyle department.

"Billed as Chicago's premiere gay sports bar, a loyal LGBT customer base frequents Crew for games and grub," USA Today said. "But it's also straight-friendly. So regardless of your orientation, sports fans come to this friendly spot for televised sports and far better food than you'd find in your average sports bar."

The top 10 was led by the Westend Bar & Grille in the West Loop.

Wells said the ranking is "very exciting."

"We are serious about providing the best game-watching experience," he said. "It is more than just throwing up televisions. We are fans and approach it that way

"It's nice to be recognized for [our] hard work. It is really a team effort. We are only as good as our people on the floor and in the kitchen. It takes everyone working together and understanding their role to make it a success."


This article shared 1505 times since Fri Jun 20, 2014
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