DES MOINES, Iowa — Jeff “Bruno” Bruning swore he wouldn’t do another -– not one more restaurant.
“I said ‘I’ll listen to what you have to say but I’m gonna tell you right now I’m not gonna do your project.’”
But Drake University and the Neighborhood Development Corporation were persistent. This old place was perfect for Bruning –- it had a story.
“I started hearing about it,” Bruning explained. “It was Crazy Horse Guitars, but (before that) it was Last Chance Guitars, and then before that it was People’s Music and then before that it was Music Circuit…”
And thus Bruno’s heartstrings were stretched to the point he couldn’t say no. After all, this is what he and the group of restaurateurs known as Full Court Press does best.
“We take a really nice old building and transform them into something new,” Bruning says.
In an industry where strikeouts vastly outnumber hits, Full Court Press is somehow batting close to 1.000.
Fifteen establishments now…in classic buildings…each distinctive…some downright quirky.
Chinese pizza, 70’s kitsch, and so on.
“They capiltalize on that really well,” says Iowa Restaurant Association president, Jessica Dunker, “By giving an experience that’s different really from anything else they offer, or that other people offer.”
“We felt like a lot of our opportunity for success was in being different,” says Full Court Press’ Andy Massoth, “and for a little bit of the shock factor.”
It was 18 years ago that Massoth and company shocked Des Moines by opening its first bar that didn’t serve Bud Light.
Really — that’s what started the Royal Mile. They later followed with the Bud Light-free High Life Lounge.
“We’d tell them that we didn’t have it and they’d have a shocked look on their face,” Massoth laughs, “and they’d go back and talk to their group about it and say ‘what do we do now?’ and they next thing you know they’d have a little bucket of those little pony Miller High Lifes and they had one of the best times they’d had in a long time.”
If these places make this life look easy, it’s because they’ve first taken care of that which makes it so hard.
“They are universal within their organization in being very well-run businesses,” Dunker points out. “And what people forget about the restaurant industry is that it’s a business first.”
In Iowa, restaurants average a net profit of about 5%. That’s about $100 a day.
Bruning says he often fields questions from would-be restaurateurs.
“Anyone who ever asks me ‘should I open up a bar? Should I open up this restaurant?’ I always tell them ‘no.’”
Slim margins. 80-hour weeks. And recently, an unemployment rate that might look good on paper (2.5%) but is killing this industry.
“I know places in Des Moines that have literally closed down because they just didn’t have employees,” Bruning says.
“Staffing is very difficult — the worst we’ve ever seen right now,” adds Massoth.
And there’s this: last year, 34 restaurants opened in the Des Moines metro.
When asked if the Des Moines metro is over-saturated with restaurants and bars, he laughs.
“Yes! It absolutely is -– has been for a while.”
“We’ve been at a point for a while where we are growing restaurant seats at a much faster rate than we’re growing population,” Dunker says.
And so it makes sense that Bruno and his associates were hesitant to open one more place. But here they go again. Crazy Horse Beer and Burgers will open this spring at 24th and University in the Drake neighborhood.
In the Full Court Press fashion, the old brickwork has been revealed and original woodwork and ceiling restored.
“Really old 1880s building,” Bruning points out as he walks us through the space. “It’ll have an 1880s bar installed, too.”
It’ll fit Full Court Press’s theme: take an old place and make it new.
Let the good times be had by all.
“We all love Des Moines,” says Massoth, “and we all feel like we’re doing something to better where we live.”