TINLEY PARK, IL
Crafting South Chicago: Talking shop with Julia & Patrick Bisch of the The Open Bottle
INTERVIEWED APRIL 23RD, 2016
AT The OPEN BOTTLE - TINLEY PARK
We know it well–craft breweries are on the rise nationwide. So, it should come as no surprise that places that sell all of these regional breweries' goods are also starting to expand their footprint. Consumers are no longer satisfied with the minimal, unchanging and often out-of-date selection at the local grocery store. People want a quality, comfortable, and beautiful outlet to drink–and then, take home that beer.
The Open Bottle, in neighboring Tinley Park, is one of several Chicagoland destinations that satisfy that demand. Owners Julia and Patrick Bisch have created their own unique take on the modern craft beer "slashie," in a suburb amidst its own craft beer renaissance. During a recent trip to Tinley Park, we sat down with the couple to discuss how a Michigan brewery inspired their dream shop, the state of craft beer in the southwest 'burbs, and what it's been like filling a gap.
The Open Bottle has been open nearly a year and a half. What were you each doing prior to opening the shop?
Julia: Well my background was in hotel sales before this. So I had a little bit of a hospitality background.
Yes, I worked at different hotels in the city. I grew up in Palos Heights which is about 15 minutes north of here. Patrick grew up 15 minutes south of here. Tinley Park is right in the middle, and right off the expressway. People from the city can get here pretty easily.
Any chance us city folks can get here on the Metra?
Patrick: It's about a mile away. I've had people tell me they've walked it before. For us, we were more trying to get people to come out here right off the expressway. That's why we chose this location.
Julia: Yea, people are buying so much stuff to go, it would be hard to carry it on the Metra.
Well, you could just drink it on the train home.
Patrick, what's your background?
Patrick: Mine is completely out of left field. Actually, like a lot of people who are jumping into the craft beer industry, my background was IT support for a company downtown. I think some people get into craft beer because they geek out about one thing, like computers and are tech savvy, and then they get into craft beer because it's so complex.
How was Tinley Park during your build out? Pretty welcoming?
Julia: Yes and no.
Patrick: Yea, we always say yes and no. When we first approached them, they were skeptical of the idea. I think they really didn't understand our vision and what we wanted this to be. So when we sat down with them we said, "We want to open up a beer shop." They thought that meant a brewery. We're not brewing beer here. There are some people that still don't know the difference.
Julia: Yea, we have people come in and say, "Oh, you brew your own beer here?" Well... no.
Patrick: I like to say we're an aggregator of all the different SKU's available in Chicago. So they didn't necessarily have a problem with us once they understood what we were doing. There were some limitations that we had to agree upon, like our hours, for instance.
Julia: We have retail hours because they didn't want us to be a late night bar, primarily because we don't have a kitchen. We have some snack bites, and we let people bring in their own food, but we don't have a full kitchen. Therefore, we have to close the doors at 9 o'clock at the latest.
Patrick: And we don't want that anyway. We love our hours. We're able to call last call around 8:30, and people usually clear out around 9. It's perfect.
This place doesn't have a 'bar' vibe anyway.
Patrick: No, we never went into this thinking we wanted to have a bar. It was, let's open up a craft beer shop. Well now let's toy around with the on-premise idea too.
Julia: We were trying to think of things that we like, or would like to see. We want to be able to go to the shop, try the beer, and possibly get a six-pack. Even if you don't get a full pour, you can sample it, and if you like it, maybe you'll get something to go.
This place is beautifully put together. From where did you draw inspiration?
Julia: We drew it from around the country, and locally. We've been going to Beer Temple since it first opened. It's a lot smaller than we are, but they have great daily tastings and are very knowledgeable about craft beer. We went up there multiple times a week when we were living downtown. There's also a place in California called City Beer Store, as well as hundreds of other "slashies" in California.
Back in November, we traveled to San Francisco. They have a lot of slashies out there. Almost every bottle shop is on and off-premise. We traveled an hour or two outside San Francisco to maybe 15 different shops to see what they were doing and what we could take from them to make the shop better. We're always about making the shop better.
So The Open Bottle has been a long time coming from your perspective.
Julia: We always had the idea to do the on and off-premise bottle shop and bar, but we always pushed it to the back burner. We had good jobs, we don't want to put the money into it. But we were watching the Michigan Beer Film and the story of Greenbush specifically. It was so inspirational that we both got in our car after watching it and decided to do this.
Patrick: This really did happen. I know it sounds like we're making it up.
That's a great film. So that really was the catalyst for you then?
Julia: You basically watch them start Greenbush from the ground up. So you see them as a young family, with little kids climbing the walls, starting with nothing. They started their dream and built it to what it is now.
Patrick: On June 11th, we're doing a full tap takeover with them, and their brisket food truck will be parked out back. We're kind of bringing Greenbush to us.
And now you guys have built your own dream. That must have been a pretty intimidating first step...
Julia: It was always an idea but we always came up with reasons not to. Oh, we're getting married, that costs money. Oh, we're buying a house, that costs money. We always had a reason to do it next year. But after seeing the movie, there's nothing to lose, let's go for it. If it works out, great, if not, oh well.
So what's the story with this building? It looks pretty new.
Patrick: It was built in 2008. But no one had ever been in this specific space.
Julia: Literally nothing was in here. None of these walls were even up. We didn't have bathrooms, we built it from scratch.
You have a big space here but there's just so much beer available in Chicagoland. How are you deciding what fills your shelves?
Julia: Sometimes we know the brewery and love what they do. Like Alpine, we know they're good with IPA's. Other times, it's brewers we want to support. We have Hailstorm about a mile away, and they do awesome beers. They're actually our number two account here. We have an entire section dedicated to Illinois breweries. Other times, we have no idea about the brewery but we just want to try it ourselves.
Patrick: Yea, there's a few factors. Our relationship with the brewery and the distributor. The general public's perception of that beer. We know that beers people have been asking us about are going to be better than random beers we've never heard of.
Julia: All of our shelves are arranged alphabetically, which distributors really appreciate. Another thing we've learned is that while we do like supporting local breweries, a lot of their beers sold at Jewel Osco's don't move so well here because we can't match the discount that they have. Some of them we still keep around, but we notice that the beer we're throwing out in our monthly inventories are the ones people can get down the street at Jewel.
Is there a brewery you don't have in that you'd really like to get your hands on?
So after you'd convinced the city you weren't a bar, how was the reception?
Patrick: Once we got over that hurdle, they were a lot more accepting. They really loved the idea of having a bottle shop.
Julia: We also told them we didn't want to do any wine or hard liquor — we just wanted to do beer and cider.
Patrick: Our liquor license is actually written that we can serve on-premise beer and cider, and that's it. To-go sales, we could do wine, mead, beer, cider. It's a custom license that they wrote for us.
Wow, so this is really a revolutionary concept for the area.
Julia: Yea, people always say they had to go to the city to get something like this.
Patrick: We hear all the time, "You guys should be in the city." Well, we're here and that's on purpose. It's not like we accidently ended up in Tinley Park.
Julia: It's not just a bar, it's not just a retail store. It's a combination that people love.
Patrick: Ever since we've had the store open, Tinley has been awesome to work with. It was just getting over that initial perception of what we wanted to be.
So we know about the growler debate in Illinois, but can I mix my own six-pack?
Julia: We'll allow you to pull anything off the shelf and make your own six-pack.
Patrick: People are more willing to take one bottle than a six pack because it's less of a risk. What's interesting about the whole make your own six-pack mentality is that you'll find there are two different approaches to it. There's the big retail stores that have make your own six-pack for one set price. $9.99! But you're going to find crappy old beer. We look at it as a luxury to be able to do that. We charge a slight increase per bottle to be able to make your own, because it's a luxury.
Julia: So here we have 3 prices for everything. The six-pack price, single bottle to-go price, and the "drink-it-here" price.
Patrick: We talk to other retailers, and they're amazed we do that.
Craft beer education must be a huge part of what you do here. What do you tell a customer that comes in looking for a Miller Lite?
Julia: There are two things we'll do. Initially, we did have six-packs like that in the cooler. We weren't sure of the market out here and were told this just wouldn't work. After the first month, we didn't stock that anymore. So when people come in, we try to sway them otherwise. We usually have a light beer on draft and offer them a sample of something like Lagunitas Pils. Sometimes we still get people in whom all they want is a Miller Lite, so we send a lot of people to the liquor store across the street.
Patrick: The guy over there probably doesn't realize it, but we send him a lot of business. We also send him people who come in looking for wine or hard liquor. Our license doesn't allow us to carry liquor but we carried wine for the first year. We stopped selling that because we're beer people. I like telling people a story about the beer, and I can tell you something about every beer in the shop.
We love beer stories at The Hop Review. What's a story that intrigues you?
Patrick: I like to tell people the Pipeworks story. Pipeworks started as a Kickstarter brewery. Their original idea was they would never brew the same beer twice. Obviously that's not what stuck because they have their flagships now. Every brewery needs their flagships. I like the Hailstorm story and we know all their families personally. We care about the stories as much as we care about the beer.
You used to live in the South Loop. Is there any aspect of the city you miss?
Patrick: Well, now that we've opened this place, we satisfied what we would have missed. I say it all the time, but I'd love to come here as Patrick the customer, not Patrick the owner. I almost wish someone built this place and not me... almost.
Conversely, what's special about being out here versus the city?
Julia: It's new out here — people love it. There aren't many places that people around here can go to. There's a lot of people in the Orland/Mokena/Tinley/Frankfort area and there aren't other places a quick walk away. You need to get in your car and drive.
Patrick: I always tell my story of Bob. Bob is probably a 50 year old man who would come in here with his family when we had Miller Light and Bud Light. His son and wife would always drink craft beer. But it always seemed like they were dragging Bob in with them. Bob would come in, go to the back door, bottom shelf, pick up the Bud or Miller Light and drink that beer. Once we stopped carrying it, he was a little upset at first, but he would still come here with his family. Bob is now the most hardcore craft beer drinker I've think we've ever converted. He walks in and says, "What's the most sour beer you guys have on draft?" What? He was just drinking Miller Light a year ago. I love that people can come in here, not know a thing about craft beer, but fast forward a few months and they already have a favorite brewery and favorite beer.
Julia: That's one of the benefits of doing our tastings. We thought originally that we'd have to force people to drink sours. No, people love sours out here, you just couldn't get them anywhere.
Patrick: We're finally seeing this trend of not what IPA do you have, but what sour do you have? And not just any sour, but the most sour beer. Or, what's the most sessionable sour beer?
How would you describe the south suburban beer scene?
Patrick: There are some hardcore people out here. I was surprised. I thought when we opened the shop that everyone who walked into the shop would ask, "What's craft mean?" Having Hailstorm and 350 Brewing already open in Tinley Park helped a lot. You've got a whole spectrum of people. There are those who are looking for the latest and greatest, there are people who are super educated about different types of beer, and there are people that don't know anything and just want to learn more.
What are you drinking at home?
Julia: We have multiple beer fridges at home.
Patrick: I just pulled off two bottles of the Hof Ten Dormaal — New Belgium collaboration.
Patrick: I love Pilsners, I recently threw two cans of Pivo Pils into my fridge at home.
Julia: It's always a hard question to answer as it just depends on my mood. Sometimes I want a dark spicy Stout, but other times a Wit is delicious as well.
You're a year and a half in, and have already made an impressive mark. What does The Open Bottle business look like in the future?
Patrick: The five year goal has always been to open up a new location. At some point I think it would be kind of cool to open up a little satellite location. We'd have three or four beers on draft and half a wall of beer. Just a small store front and a quick in and out.
Julia: Yea, like by a Metra stop or something. I'd also like to do more here. Even if we add multiple shops, this will always be the first one. We always want to make sure this one is never abandoned.
Patrick: Oh yea, I never want people to think the Tinley store has fallen behind. I think we're always trying to make this place better.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
A huge thank you to the soon-to-be parents Julia and Patrick for taking time on a busy Saturday afternoon to sit down and talk shop. The Open Bottle is easily accessible by car from Chicago and is a short cab ride from the Tinley Park Metra station. Be sure to check out our other interview from the day's trip to Tinley at Tribes Beer Co.