Spotlight On… P.J. Whelihan’s
If you’ve lived in the South Jersey/Eastern Pennsylvania area over the past twenty years or so, there’s a name you’ve come to recognize, synonymous with good food, friendly service, and a killer beer selection.
P.J. Whelihan’s — with twenty-two locations, including The Pour House, The ChopHouse, and Treno Pizza Bar — has made a name for itself through a very simple and time-tested method: remaining true to its ideals.
We got together with a few of the folks from the PJW Restaurant Group to grab some tasty food and get the skinny on this powerhouse of a Philly-area institution: Jake Karley, Special Projects and Beverage Manager; Jessica Breslow, Director of Marketing and Technology; and Tim Donnellon, Digital Marketing Manager.
We met up at the Haddonfield location — their first in New Jersey and third restaurant overall. The first location, originally called Platz’s, opened in Lehighton, PA — up in the Poconos — in 1983. When owner Bob Platzer looked to open a more Irish-themed bar in Allentown, he began the search for a name.
“Peter Joseph Whelihan was our owner’s grandfather’s name,” Jake explains. “When Bob decided he wanted to open a second location, he didn’t feel like Platz’s was really a name that said ‘bar’, so he actually called Ireland to have all of these phone books come over.”
“He thought, ‘Well, I might as well use my grandfather’s name,’” Jake says, “and that was it.”
Since then, the P.J. Whelihan’s group has expanded to an astounding twenty-two locations throughout South Jersey and Pennsylvania with four distinct dining concepts. The brands include the eponymous P.J. Whelihan’s, a casual pub and eatery; The Pour House, offering the best in craft beer and unique pub food; Treno Pizza Bar, a wood- and brick-fired pizza bar offering authentic Italian fare; and The ChopHouse, a lakeside steak and seafood restaurant with an upscale yet friendly atmosphere.
With so many locations, it might be easy to think that the restaurants operate in a cold, corporate climate. Jake tells us that couldn’t be further from the case — he was a “21-year-old, bright-eyed manager” when he started, right out of college, and has now been with the company almost twenty years.
“Our staff is family,” he says. “I started working at [the Haddonfield] store in 1999. I walk in here today, and there’s still people working here from when I started. It’s such a family environment; everyone feels like they’re part of it.”
And you can tell. We could tell that our server, Bailey, was genuinely happy to be working. We sat at a table with three relatively high-ranking individuals in the organization, and they all knew her name. Jake is literally a member of the family — he’s Bob’s nephew. Throughout the course of the interview, Jessica received word that Bob’s daughter, Jacky, a member of the culinary team, got engaged to her long-time boyfriend Bruce, and she was visibly moved by the news.
This type of company culture isn’t something you can fake. It’s either there or it’s not. If it’s not — particularly in the restaurant business — good luck making it out of your first year alive. If it’s there, expanding to twenty-two locations is a genuine possibility — and the reality of P.J. Whelihan’s.
Even turnover — notoriously high in the restaurant industry — is practically unheard of at P.J.’s.
“Obviously hostesses change,” Jake says, “but hosts become servers who become bartenders. At a typical P.J.’s, we might have to hire a bartender once every other year.”
In fact, the general manager of their most recent location in Lancaster, PA, started as a hostess at the Downingtown location thirteen years ago.
“They come and they stay,” Jake says. “They stay because of us. They stay because of our owner.”
Bob is a fixture of the organization. Throughout our discussion, we definitely noticed a parallel between their Bob and our own Mop Man.
“When we were at three locations, everyone knew him,” Jake says. “At twenty-two locations, everyone knows him.”
And each location has its own feel, its own spirit. The one in Haddonfield, they characterize as “dinner-heavy”. However, some of the other locations, particularly those near shopping centers, are lunch-heavy. Others, they may schedule local bands and have more of a nightlife feel.
One of the distinctive things about P.J.’s locations is that they’re specifically not distinctive. Were it not for the sign outside, you wouldn’t be able to tell that a specific location is a P.J.’s simply by looking at it. Where other casual dining restaurant chains tend to look cookie-cutter and generic, P.J.s are unique, each with its own look.
“We typically buy pre-existing locations,” Jake explains, “and make them into P.J.s. This one, this was a liquor store.”
“There’s no box,” Jessica says. “Our newest location in Lancaster is in a brand new shopping center; the one before that in Malvern looks brand new, too. They’re a little bit more modern: there’s not as much sports memorabilia, but they’re still different from each other. The things that are consistent are the food, the TV packages, the beer, and the people.”
“Outdoor spaces have become very important to us,” Jessica says. “A lot of our stores will have a four-seasons room, with the ability to open the walls and windows.”
“Garage doors in some stores,” Jake says, “nano windows in others. Drop-down curtains in some.”
Some of the locations host trivia and game nights, but karaoke seems to be verboten group-wide.
“Almost every location has some sort of special night,” Tim says. “Not karaoke.”
“Oh, come on….” jokes our Marketing Communications Manager, Alicia Grasso.
“I mean, you’re welcome to sing,” Jessica says.
“We just don’t have a microphone for them,” Jake finishes.
There are 40 tap handles at the Haddonfield location, with plans to add four more. A typical P.J.’s has 48 — 85% of P.J. Whelihan’s locations have 48 tap handles.
“They are mandated to have at least six local beers,” Jake tells us, “but each store usually has upwards of ten to twelve.”
“Local” for P.J’s is what their customers feel is local — luckily, they seem to feel that Cape May is local all the way into Pennsylvania, at least at their locations in the five counties around Philadelphia where we distribute.
“We’re going through more Always Ready right now,” Jake tells us, “and IPA. They’re probably our two biggest stars. I see everything come through. Right now, Follow the Gull’s been on in a lot of spots. As a company, we buy a lot of your double IPAs. Coastal Evacuation, we buy a decent amount of Corrosion. Our stores as a whole seem to like those different style beers. It started with us with The Bog — when we first started buying from you guys, everyone was asking for The Bog. Shandies were huge, and everyone was all about The Bog.”
“The Pour House is probably doing something on cask,” Jake says. “Your brewers have put together a few things for us. Your sours do really well there.”
The Pour House also does buck-a-shuck oysters, and they like to market Cape May IPA along with that — our flagship IPA pairs beautifully with oysters.
“Those pictures look great together,” Tim says.
While we were at the Haddonfield P.J.’s location, we feasted on quite a bit of food, and all of it was fantastic. The menus are, for the most part, uniform throughout each location, with a monthly special menu. However, the original location has a few items on the menu that have been there since the very beginning — “grandfathered in,” if you will.
“It’s higher-end pub food,” said our Social Media and Design Alchemist Courtney Rosenberg. “I wouldn’t say that it’s straight-up pub food because when you think of pub food, you think everything’s fried, everything’s played out, but this is higher-end, fresh, and you can tell that there’s care behind it.”
“We try to be innovative,” Jessica said. “Like with the Buffalo Cauliflower, it’s trendy, but it’s also very much us. It’s Buffalo, it has that ‘healthy halo’. Our culinary team tries very hard to keep things fresh, and that’s why we develop new things, to try things differently. We’ll take successful things from the special menu and move it to the placemat menu.”
Jessica points to P.J.’s Stingers — hand-breaded chicken tenders, deep fried and tossed in any of P.J.’s wing sauces — as a recent transfer to the placemat menu. We sampled them in their Sweet Chili sauce — fantastic!
“It’s a great product,” she says, “especially for those of us who like our wings at home, only. It’s a good way to taste it, and now it’s on our main menu and it’s doing just as well as it did when it was on our special menu.”
Yet, the wings at P.J.’s are one of their main draws. They have twelve wing sauces — Mild, Hot, and Inferno, then everything ranging from Chipotle BBQ to Garlic Parm to Kickin’ Korean — and a “wing of the month.”
“Ragin’ Cajun!” Jessica says, jokingly affecting a Louisiana drawl.
The wings are served “classic or naked,” with the classic wings lightly dusted with flour. We opted for the Garlic Parm sauce, which was excellent.
Alicia sampled the Grilled Chicken and Strawberry Salad off the special menu. Fresh, brightly-colored strawberries dotted a bed of ruby arcadian greens, clementine segments, goat cheese, and toasted almond, tossed in a delicious honey-mint vinaigrette.
We even sampled the Beyond™ Burger — a plant-based burger “that looks, cooks, and satisfies like beef.” It’s a fantastic beef substitute for a diehard vegetarian who misses the taste or for someone watching their weight.
Beyond the food, beyond the beer, beyond the cocktails and the locations and the wine, sitting with the crew from P.J.’s, you can immediately tell that these people have pride in what they do. Jake’s literally married into the company. Jessica and Tim not only know their stuff, but obviously love it.
“I get that every day,” Jake says. “‘That sounds like such a fun job! How do I get that?’”
We know the feeling. When you work for Cape May Brewing Company, your friends say the same thing.
We noticed a number of parallels between the two organizations — from the rapid growth trajectory to the fact that Joe Flacco is a regular at the Haddonfield location — his younger brother Mike was an intern here last summer.
But the biggest parallel is the feeling of family. We’re one big family here at CMBC, and we’re honored to have been invited into the P.J. Whelihan’s family.
For more information on P.J. Whelihan’s, see their website at pjspub.com.