Chris Bisaillon, left, and Nathan Hilding are scouting new urban markets to expand their Pour House brand.
Call it a journey from small-town America to big-city business.
About 75 miles from where the two childhood friends used to walk soybean fields in rural Kankakee County, Nathan Hilding and Chris Bisaillon are piloting one of Chicago’s most ambitious chains of bars and restaurants as partners in Bottleneck Management Inc.
And even with seven separate eateries and watering holes located around Chicago’s poshest neighborhoods, the restaurateurs say more is to come, both in Chicagoland and beyond.
That was the topic of discussion over lunch at their newest venture, Howells & Hood, a sprawling American-style restaurant, filled with the Loop’s 9-to-5 and tourists alike, at the base of the Tribune Tower on North Michigan Avenue.
Located in one of the most iconic stretches of real estate in the Windy City, Howells & Hood is praised for its beer selection with 114 — yes, exactly 114 — unique brews on tap. It seats 700 during the summer, thanks to a 5,700-square-foot outdoor patio just north of the Chicago River at the entrance of The Magnificent Mile.
There’s no shortage of impressive numbers, ones that have grown regardless of the economic climate. Between Howells & Hood and its sister locations, the group employs 660 and even more during the warmer months. If you count the patio area, no North Michigan Avenue dining spot has more seats than this one.
And few were likely as expensive to launch. Hilding said Howells & Hood cost more than $10 million.
But back to the soybeans for a moment.
When he was in the fifth grade, Hilding’s family moved to Herscher, a farm town with 1,500 residents in western Kankakee County. He learned the value of respect and integrity from his father, a Methodist minister, but learned business while working at the Herscher Grain Company, located at both the literal and symbolic centers of the community.
Bisaillon, meanwhile, learned from his own father, who owned a construction company. Neither have forgotten those blue-collar lessons.
"They’re hard-working, genuine, respectful people who will give you the shirt off their back," Bisaillon said of his hometown. "We, in our own way, try to do that. We’re trying to operate with that same ambition, drive and work ethic."
Hilding and Bisaillon now reside in the western suburbs. They met the group’s third owner, Jason Akemann, while in college at Illinois Wesleyan University. All three played football — Bisaillon went on to record numerous NCAA receiving records while at Illinois Wesleyan and is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame — but now they’re trying to win a different game.
Corporate executive chef Paul Katz joined the team two years ago and now oversees the group’s head chefs and kitchens, as well as the restaurants’ American-themed menus. Think comfort food classics with a twist: Lamb meatballs, bacon-wrapped shrimp and pork belly grilled cheese join more burgers, fresh salads and wraps than you can count on two hands.
And for dessert, hot pumpkin doughnuts with a dark chocolate ganache and cranberry honey.
Back at Howells & Hood, Hilding and Bisaillon describe the restaurant’s cooler that houses up to 760 kegs. But don’t worry, there’s more than beer here. Both old and new world wines and specialty cocktails are plentiful. Or try a unique cider like the Totally Roasted recipe from Spring Lake, Mich., which features four pounds of cinnamon-roasted pecans in each 30-gallon batch of apple cider.
After lunch, Hilding pulls out his smartphone, which keeps him connected to each of the businesses in real time, via video and metrics that can measure every last drop of alcohol. That might sound like overkill, but it’s the kind of connectivity that allows them to work remotely and spend more time with their families. Hilding, 40, lives with his wife, Jennifer, and their children in suburban Oak Brook. Bisaillon, 42, his wife, Amy, and their children live in suburban Hinsdale.
Though the combination of work and family life might sound overwhelming, these two aren’t satisfied. Instead, they’re scouting new urban markets to expand their Pour House brand. Prospective cities include Denver, Dallas, Boston and Washington, D.C.
"I’d love to look back in 10 years," Bisaillon said, "and have 30 restaurants."
Originally published in the May 2014 edition of Yes! Magazine and The Daily Journal.