P.J. Whelihan CEO tapped into his childhood dream - owning a bar
When Bob Platzer was a kid growing up in Jersey, he'd go to work with his Dad, who ran a warehouse. On the way home, they'd stop at the local taproom. Something about the atmosphere grabbed Platzer, long before he hit drinking age - something that would lead Platzer, now 66, to run a business that brings in $78 million a year and employs 1,600 people.
How many people do you know who caught a dream at an early age and never stopped loving it? You think about sports people. It applies to lots of people in journalism, myself included.
Also to Bob Platzer, 66, who opened a bar in Lehighton in 1983 and grew it into a 20-restaurant chain — P.J. Whelihan's, The ChopHouse, The Pour House, and Treno Pizza Bar. Headquartered in Westmont, P. J. W Restaurant Group now has 1,600 employees and Platzer is proud that he's never had to close a restaurant.
"I just thought I would be a great tap room owner, and that was my niche," Platzer said during our interview published in the Philadelphia Inquirer's business section on Sunday.
Why did you think you would be a good tap room owner?
My father used to stop in tap rooms all the time. I was one of seven. So, he would take me a lot of times. I just really always liked the atmosphere. It was friendly, and it was nice. You know, the bar owners always were pretty jolly guys. I think I always had a pretty welcoming personality. I just knew I would be good at it. I loved the restaurant business my whole life. At 14, I became a dishwasher, and I did other things throughout the restaurant career.
What was your dad’s business?
My dad was the manager of a warehouse for a stationary company — before Staples and Office Warehouse — in Philadelphia. He had one job his entire life. He ran a warehouse for a company that grew from one person to quite a large company. He worked for Philadelphia Stationers, it was called. They started off on Arch Street. Then they moved to Whitaker Avenue. Then they moved up to the Northeast right off the Boulevard. He stayed with them a lot of years. He was a warehouse worker. He never made a lot of money. He had seven kids. He had a great work ethic. He went to work every day, came home, we had dinner every night at a quarter to six. Then, in between, I would go with him in the summer, because my mom needed him to take somebody. I would go and sweep the floors. We would stop at tap rooms on the way home. I just remember it. I had an uncle who had one. He was a great guy. He had a corner bar and he was a great guy. From 14, I started washing dishes. Before the Garden State Racetrack burned down, it was surrounded by all high-end restaurants and the Latin Casino. It was pretty fancy, and it was a cool place to work. I worked at The Rickshaw for a lot of years.
You were a dishwasher?
No, there I was a busboy. Then on Sundays and weekends, I would be a carhop, but I got to see the good life. I felt it was a fit for me.
What did you like about it?
Action. There was action every night. You got paid every night. I was making great money. I liked rubbing elbows with the people who go out and eat lobster on Tuesday nights back in the 60s. That was something I hadn't seen before. So, I liked it. All of the people from The Latin, the big showplace, they would come and stay at the Rickshaw, and they would eat at the Rickshaw. So, it was kind of like you were around famous people. I had great people I worked for. You get to meet a lot of people that you never would have met otherwise. So, I really got to enjoy it, the waiters were all characters too. I mean they were in the same boat. They were getting paid every night. I liked it for a lot of the wrong reasons in the beginning. You got done with work late. People went to bars and you did all of these things.
What’s wrong with having fun?
No, there's nothing.
Why was that a wrong reason?
Well, I think, look, they did everything back in the day. There was everything going on. They gambled. They drank. They didn't go home. A lot of things. I was single and young then. So, I thought that was really attractive. I think, in general, I loved the restaurant business and the bar business, and I knew I could be successful at it. It was in my mind forever. I never knew it would get to the point that it is today. I thought one place would be fine, because back in the day if you owned one restaurant like the Rickshaw, that was a big deal. So, to think that one day I would be able to own a restaurant was incredible to me. Then once I did, I stayed with just one for 10 years.
How did you get the first restaurant? Did you buy it from someone else?
I did. I bought the restaurant up in the Poconos. I wanted to be in this business. I didn't know how I would do it, because things were expensive in South Jersey and the Philadelphia market. Someone told me about a building for sale up in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. I went up and a couple of days later I bought that building for $72,000. That was 1983. Unheard of down here. Then I was able to live upstairs and develop the business. It took me ten years to develop it to where it needed to be and be sustainable. We weren't profitable for a lot of years.
How did you manage?
We lived upstairs. It was just a bar room in the beginning, a 14-seat bar room with a couple tables. That's what we worked with. One room at a time, we redid rooms. About five or six years into it, I guess, I added a kitchen. It never had a commercial kitchen. I added a commercial kitchen and that's where we started to pick up steam. We lived off beer and pizza sales. We made enough, because we could live upstairs. So, I was paying the mortgage and, quite frankly, it was tough to pay the mortgage the first five years. It was a struggle. It was my wife and I and a couple people working for us. We really struggled. I wanted out, but everybody kept saying "Next year's your year. Next year's your year. You're getting there. You're getting there."
Who encouraged you?
My brothers-in-law, my wife, my sisters, you know, people that were close to me just kept telling me to hang in. I didn't really have a big picture when I started. Quite honestly, when I bought it, I just thought it would be really cool to live upstairs from a bar. I was 33 years old. So, I was a little late. I didn't know how to cook, although I knew, eventually, I would. We couldn't afford to put the kitchen in for a few years. Finally, we decided we had to do it. The Allentown Restaurant and Bar Supply fronted me a kitchen. That was the beginning of our success.
Luckily, you had somebody who would front you.
Yeah, it was a $12,000 investment back then, to put it in perspective. So, I didn't have $12,000, but he set me up with a hood, a grill, a stove, and a Charbroiler and a fryer. Then we just built off of that steadily. After 10 years, I bought my second restaurant — in Allentown. It was a flop house, like I said, and I went in and I cleaned it up. People were living upstairs paying $40, you know. It was a disaster. When they left, it took a gas mask to go up there and get rid of the mattresses and the things. It was pretty sad. The guy was making a living off of shift workers. I cleaned it up and started putting in buffalo wings and burgers, and friendly staff. That's when we really took off. We haven't turned back since.