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Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint

Aaron Ludwig and Mike Sabin’s “simple burger joint” in Harrisonburg, VA, has grown into a small empire, with a sister restaurant and 16 locations.

Jack Brown’s Beer & Burger Joint and its sister operation, Billy Jack’s Wing and Draft House, are the epitome of your neighborhood hangout. Locals come for the food—fun twists on America’s favorite comfort foods—and the lively atmosphere: rooms filled with music and decorated with eclectic hand-picked antiques and the pair’s old beer can collection. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the owners have made a number of creative pivots, and are coming out on top.

“When we opened the first Jack Brown’s in 2009, we wanted it to be a cozy hole-in-the-wall kind of place,” says Ludwig. “We knew we wanted to serve craft beer and burgers and keep things really simple. Then we came up with the idea of using wagyu beef. For the first six to eight months, we literally had a hamburger, cheeseburger, French fries and a deep-fried Oreo on the menu.”

The concept worked. Soon Jack Brown’s was so crowded they were turning diners away. In 2011, when the opportunity came up to lease the space two doors down from the restaurant, the partners jumped on it, and opened the first Billy Jack’s, with its wings and brews focus. “At Billy Jack’s, we had chicken, salads, burritos, brunch—a little bit more extensive of a menu,” Ludwig says, “and that did really well with the college kids in town.”

After the duo opened Billy Jack’s, they planned to launch just a few more Jack Brown’s locations around Virginia. Partnering with Sysco helped make even greater expansion dreams a reality. By early 2020, they had 13 Jack Brown’s locations, three Billy Jack’s, and had just picked up a lease in Huntsville, Alabama when the pandemic began.

“We had signed the lease before COVID started, so we were kind of on the hook,” Ludwig says. “We thought it would be better to go ahead and try to open and get some sort of business out of it.” To their happy surprise, the location has done well!

The next location to open will be in Cincinnati. “We’re opening in January, and it’s uber simple because our [current] Sysco Operation Site has reached out to the Cincinnati Operation Site, so they already know what products we need to bring in,” says Ludwig. “Sysco really helps take that stress away from opening a new restaurant and expanding a business, because we know what products we’re going to get.”

Whenever Jack Brown’s opens a new location, “I work with each Sysco Operation Site and each new Sales Consultant to make sure they’re bringing the right products into stock, whether it’s Heinz Ketchup or Snake River Beef,” says Sysco Sales Consultant Karen Earle. “I’ve been working with them since the beginning, and they [Aaron and Mike] are so specific about the products they use—they want to make sure there is consistency across the board.”

When Nashville was hit by a tornado before the pandemic, the Jack Brown’s restaurant there was still open and in need of deliveries but the local Sysco Site was hit hard. Ludwig explains that the Birmingham Site stepped in and made the deliveries instead. “That is a legit partner move,” he says. As for Sales Consultant Karen Earle, Ludwig says, “She is just amazing. She always has our back.”

Earle also helped the restaurant adjust during the pandemic by finding cost-effective and earth-friendly solutions for things like takeout containers, gloves, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies for the front and back of house, and explore options for outdoor dining when the weather began to cool.

Ludwig’s own attitude during COVID-19 has been one of perseverance and flexibility—pivoting to takeout and putting idling bartenders on delivery duty. “We went through a lot of challenging times. Our whole staff came together, everyone tightened their belts. And thank goodness for the PPP (Payroll Protection Program loan), that really helped us.”

In addition to expanding their takeout and delivery operation, the partners took over a parking lot next door to Jack Brown’s in Harrisonburg to use for festive outdoor dining. “We bought 12 new umbrellas for each of the tables. We bought flower planters and ran Christmas lights all the way around them. We worked with a local florist who outfitted all the flowerpots for us,” Ludwig says. They expanded into a space between the two original restaurants, which allowed them to spread out tables according to state guidelines.

“This pandemic has cemented our belief that our employees are our most important asset, and as challenging as it is when we have 400 employees, we’re still able to broadcast that message,” Ludwig says.

What other message does Ludwig give to his staff? No matter what’s happening in the world, treat guests just like you’re welcoming them into your own house. “We want to show them a good time. At the end of the day, that’s what we do.”