When Joanne Jordan, who represents the P.J.W. Restaurant Group, invited me to come check out the annual Pour-a-Palooza beer fest at The Pour House in Westmont, it gave me the excuse I was looking for to visit a South Jersey craft beer icon.
I knew I’d be tasting some great beer, but Jordan had another treat for me that I wasn’t expecting, and it wasn’t even a beer.
Hot and steamy weather was no match for a live band and a parking lot full of beers to taste. Enthusiasm reigned. Unlike many beer events, the breweries represented themselves with some of the finest they have to offer. Allagash Brewing (Portland, ME) showed up with Victor and Victoria, Belgian-style strong ales made with cabernet and chardonnay grapes, respectively. Then there was Kane Brewing (Ocean, NJ) who offered up their much sought after, and rarely found, Mexican Brunch. It’s an imperial porter with maple syrup and ancho chilies. I won’t taunt you with the entire list, but I mention them to make a point.
Mike Chapman, the general manager for The Pour House in Westmont, went to great lengths to personally curate a top notch line up. Attendees where even given a tri-fold list of beers and a pencil to keep track of them. Thoughtful touch. He told me that at least a quarter of the attendees are Pour House regulars. The number of t-shirts from Pour-a-Paloozas past on the backs of attendees seemed to bear that out. The party was as much for the regulars as anyone else. Despite being part of a 16-restaurant group, each J.P. Whelihan’s location maintains a neighborhood vibe. Chapman explained that some of the proceeds of the event go to the local fire department which is, quite literally, next door. That’s community involvement!
That’s one reason why they are able to have that local feel. The other is Bob.
And that’s exactly how he introduced himself. Bob, with his kindly expression and regular guy demeanor, is also known as Robert Platz, founder and CEO of the P.J.W. Restaurant Group. If there ever was a guy you’d love to sit down and have a beer with, it’s him. “My employees don’t jump when I show up.” Bob explained, “We’re all family here.” In many instances that is literally the case. His children, nieces, and nephews all have a hand in the business and a lot of the staff are children of previous servers and bartenders as well. Clearly this is no soul-less corporate enterprise.
Once I sat down with Mr. Platz, the stories flowed like craft beer from the tap. It really was a treat. Bob worked a lot of jobs, including a stint as a teamster, but ever since his first experience as a dishwasher in a restaurant he knew he wanted to own a bar. So he quit his teamster gig with the modest dream of owning a bar where he could live upstairs with his family.
Without much in the way of money, or even a loan, Platz approached a woman with the improbable name of Jadwiga (I’m almost certain that is spelled wrong!) ,who was looking to sell her bar. He bought it with a handshake and a promise to pay her for it (which he did) while she held the mortgage separately. That bar eventually became the Haddon Township P.J.’s. It just so happened that old Jadwiga had a bar-owning neighbor who was also interested in getting out of the business. That neighbor asked Bob for the same deal and 18 months after getting his first bar, Bob Platz had two. Now there are 18, composed of four brands: P.J. Whelihan’s, The Pour House, Treno (an Italian restaurant) and The ChopHouse (and American steak and seafood place), and he never took a bank loan or an outside investor. That is the definition of a self-made man if ever there was one.
Without an outside influence, Bob Platz has been able to hold onto his concept of a string of beer centric, branded bar/restaurants where each location maintains a sense of place and local flavor. There’s a sense of history, too. Wednesday is “Buck-a-Shuck” night when you can pick from eight or nine varieties of oysters for a dollar each and have them shucked by the Pour House’s own nationally ranked oyster shucker! They all are served from a raw bar that was part of the original bar, which Platz retained.
Haddon Avenue is becoming a bit of a good beer mecca and the Pour House is the epicenter. As I learned, their impressive beer menu is not the only reason to pay them a visit.
And say hi to Bob for me.