Front Range

Learning Curve

How a local entrepreneur created a bar empire—the hard way.

September 2011

When Frank Schultz returned to his hometown of Denver from Philadelphia in 1996, the scrap-metal salvaging businessman didn’t know a lick about owning a bar. So when he helped his mom open her first watering hole, the Soiled Dove, in 1997, there were a few hitches. Even so, more than a decade later, Schultz has built a mini-empire with 535 employees, a live music venue, a country rock bar, and six popular Tavern locations (Downtown, Uptown, Lowry, Tech Center, Wash Park, and just-opened Littleton). And with each new venture, he learns from his mistakes. Here, he shares some hard-earned business lessons.

Mistake: Opening the Soiled Dove, a dueling piano bar in LoDo, just after Sing Sing, a dueling piano bar in LoDo, opened in 1997.

Lesson learned: Bring in live music. In 2000, Schultz got rid of the pianos and brought in live music acts like John Mayer, Blues Traveler, Susan Tedeschi, and the Indigo Girls. Even MTV took notice.

Mistake: Expanding the Tavern concept into a chain.

Lesson learned: Treat each space separately. As Schultz started planning his second bar, he discovered that the appeal of a neighborhood bar is unique to its location. Thus, no two Taverns are exactly alike. The Tavern Downtown, located across from Coors Field, caters to sports fans with an 11,000 square foot rooftop patio and two eight-foot projection screens, while Tavern Wash Park provides a more intimate atmosphere for family dinners with kids. “Listen to your customers, take every comment personally, and always strive to do better,” Schultz says.

Mistake: Uptown Tavern, born in 2002, was immediately popular, except for one thing: boring bar food (wings, burgers, and fries) that you could find everywhere.

Lesson learned: Focus on the food. “Revenue comes from drinking, but good food brings more people,” Schultz says. In 2005, Schultz recruited Bill Schallmoser, former general managing partner of the Denver ChopHouse to revamp the menu with everything from grilled artichokes to specialty pizzas.

Mistake: Continuing to operate as a mom-and-pop franchise during expansion.

Lesson learned: Bring in experts. With no previous experience in the restaurant or bar industry, Schultz and his mom, Terry Papay, realized in 2006 they needed a more corporate but-not-too-corporate structure if their brand continued to grow. They brought in Schallmoser as managing partner and hired a marketing manager in 2007. It worked. They’ve opened five more locations since 2006.

Mistake: Not hiring enough staff with service experience.

Lesson learned: Raise the standards for staff service. In the restaurant business, Schultz learned he had to surround himself with good people. “You’re only as good as your employees,” he says. The company has very little management turnover and now has more than 500 employees. Bonus: Schultz likes to promote from within, meaning that even bus boys can have a career plan.