By Amy J. Barry
Phil Barnett ’97 worked his way through Central as a busboy at a small local restaurant. The young Marketing major could not have imagined that 25 years later he would co-own the Hartford Restaurant Group, a $32 million business with 800 employees.
Barnett explains how Central put him on the path to a career that has never lost its appeal.
“I grew up in Willimantic, and Eastern Connecticut was close by — but I didn’t want to stay in the same town and UConn was too big. I felt Central had what I was looking for and was the right size school,” he says.
Barnett was interested in marketing and business and knew he wanted to become an entrepreneur.
“I really love sports and thought it would be cool to open a sports store, but Dick’s Sporting Goods opened about that time, and I knew it would be hard to compete with. My mom said, ‘Why don’t you open your own restaurant instead?’ but I didn’t know if that’s what I wanted to do.”
However, Barnett’s mom had placed a bug in his ear and when a college bar in Hartford he’d been bartending at closed and became an Irish pub, the owner asked Barnett if he wanted to become his partner. With the support of his girlfriend at the time — now his wife and the mother of their four children — Barnett bought into the business. Less than one year out of Central, Barnett was on the road to becoming an entrepreneur on a grander scale than he’d ever dreamed of back in college.
Barnett met his business partner, Mike Hamlin, while living in a house with several roommates. Both had worked in the restaurant business, and they became friends. Hamlin came across a property he thought would make an ideal restaurant location and convinced Barnett to go in with him. In 2002, along with two other partners, they opened their first Wood-n-Tap restaurant.
Twelve years later, after their other partners left the group, Barnett and Hamlin became the sole proprietors of what is now nine Wood-n-Tap restaurants in Connecticut plus another in Springfield, Mass. Their eleventh restaurant is slated to open in Rhode Island next fall.
Hospitable business philosophy
“Mike and I have a similar vision, Hamlin says. “We’re in the hospitality business to take care of our guests, and along with great food, create a great environment, service, music, lighting — which equals great value.”
Barnett believes another reason for their success is recipe integrity across all locations. “We’re still a ‘scratch kitchen,’ he says. “We make all our own soups, sauces, dressings, desserts.”
At a time when turnover is high in restaurants and it’s challenging to find experienced staff, Barnett and Hamlin’s business model is an exception.
“Our CFO has been with us for over 21 years, accounts payable almost 20 years, IT almost 19 years, our culinary director over 16 years. In all 10 locations there hasn’t been one kitchen manager with us less than 10 years, and one has been with us for 21 years,” Barnett says.
“We’re like a family,” he says. “We take care of each other, we’re willing to coach, teach, and get people where they want to go as individuals.”
Over the years, Hartford Restaurant Group has identified local charities, hospitals, and nonprofits in need and donated Wood-n-Tap gift cards worth millions of dollars via “Giveback Nights” during which the community organizations take home 15 percent of sales. On Veterans Day this year, the restaurant group offered complimentary meals to all veterans.
“It’s important to give back to the communities that support us, and taking care of others is our philosophical belief,” Barnett says.
This holiday season, they’ve already raised almost $10,000 for Saint Jude Children’s Hospital and expect to reach $30,00 by the end of year.
“We ask everyone who walks into the restaurants if they want to give, and we give as a company,” he explains.
Barnett notes that they are also supporting local and state economies.
“We say we have 800 employees, but it’s more like 1,600 to 2,000 because whole families depend on our paychecks, and we take that seriously when we’re making financial decisions,” he says.
Barnett says he and Hamlin feel fortunate to be where they are today.
“At the top of the list is our wives and children, and then our fellow workers,” he says. “It’s very cliché, but you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and it’s been great to see all the individuals supporting our vision.”