At the table / Dan Hagen & Jake Strawser
The duo running Billy Club play to their strengths, among them, a smart business plan
Photos by Stephen Gabris
Name: Dan Hagen
Current title: Bar manager and owner, Billy Club; billyclubbuffalo.com
Years in the business: On and off for about 17 years; eight full time.
Employment history: Spent a decade as a technician and installer in mobile electronics. Upon returning to school for accounting (UB), he took up tending bar. He worked at Faherty’s, Aroma on Bryant, and, most recently, Toutant.
Name: Robert “Jake” Strawser
Current title: GM and owner, Billy Club; billyclubbuffalo.com
Years in the business: 10
Employment history: Finance at M&T Bank (2008-current), touring musician, bartender.
What do you get when an accounting major and a finance professional open a bar? One of the more tightly run ships in the Buffalo restaurant industry, that’s what. It also happens to be the sole Allentown operator offering this alluring set of options: a modern interior, exciting food, cool-kid wines, canned beer, and excellent craft cocktails. Dan Hagen and Jake Strawser’s Billy Club sports subtly nautical decor, farm-fresh fare produced by chef Nate Beardsley, and a level of both friendliness and sophistication that render the diminutive hotspot a go-to for urban thirty-somethings, longtime Allentown denizens, and restaurant professionals.
When Billy Club first opened, people were surprised a swanky cocktail bar would aim for Allentown.
Dan Hagen: We basically opened the antithesis of what Allentown has been. It wasn’t with malice, though. We’re in proximity to Kleinhan’s and downtown for events, and there is a crowd on any given night that may want to mix it up a little before sauntering to The Pink to round the night out.
Jake Strawser: There’s no pretension here. Just because it looks nice doesn’t mean you can’t order a vodka soda or a beer. At the end of the day, we just wanted BC to be a comfortable atmosphere and give the neighborhood something new.
You guys opened a couple years ago on the heels of an initial wave of former chefs and bartenders opening their own places. What sets you apart?
DH: I worked through the opening of Toutant, and watching that machine operate was mindblowing. We’re a really small, tight-knit family; including Jake and I, only eleven people work here. I have a series of regular guests here who have commented on seeing the same faces behind the bar and in the dining room as they did when we first opened. That’s uncommon given the turnover in the industry, and I think it creates a level of comfort with the service here.
If you could give advice to other bartenders longing for their own place, what would it be?
DH: Saddle up for a long ride. If you aren’t 110 percent passionate about your career, brand, concept, or any other factor of your business model, this probably isn’t for you. Honestly, get into something that services restaurants, like hood cleaning.
JS: Ha! I was recently asked to help a friend looking to open a place and my initial reaction was: “Don’t.” For the sake of being more cooperative, I amended that to: “Make sure you have a very intelligent business plan.”
Owning a business as a duo is hard. How do you guys split up the tasks?
JS: We take on what is natural based on our previous experience. I’m HR, payroll, and other administrative chores. Because of his accounting background, Dan takes care of ordering, inventory, and things of the sort.
Pretend I haven’t spent a ridiculous amount of time lounging on one of your barstools. How do the food and drink programs work together?
JS: One of the most important things is the thought we put into the ingredients and how they work in unison with one another. We have a very small staff that really cares about what we do. Whether it’s a cocktail or a dish, everyone is involved in its development.
What’s your preferred after work beverage?
JS: Ninety-five percent of the time it’s wine, four percent an Aged Rum Daiquiri, one percent a Negroni.
DH: Amstel Light and a shot of Four Roses.