Matty O’Reilly, shaved clean from his chin to the top of his head, relaxes in a high-back chair at the bar at 318 Café. Behind him, on a narrow stage framed by wood beams and soaked in late-afternoon light, members of the Daisy Dillman Band test their mics and tune their acoustic guitars. A couple of the veteran country-rockers sport serious cowboy ‘staches.
Tom Peterson, O’Reilly’s cousin and business partner for the past ten-plus years at the Excelsior, Minnesota, restaurant, sets a hot thin-crust pizza on the bar. It’s a new recipe the chef is working on that features specially-prepared red peppers. O’Reilly leans in for a slice. “They have a spicy sweetness,” he says, chewing. He decides immediately it should go on the menu. Peterson suggests pricing the pizza at fourteen dollars and O’Reilly shakes his head. Peterson comes down to twelve.
“Nah, let’s do eleven bucks. Eleven’s a good deal,” says O’Reilly, who is always looking for a good deal. After rinsing away the pizza’s peppery heat with a sip of Indeed Brewing Company’s Dandy Lager—he says it’s a good one, with the brewery’s trademark “crazy hop profile” on display—he tells a story.
To hear him tell this story—the one about how he found himself at 40 years old living in a freshman dorm at Hamline University with his wife, one-year-old daughter and dog—you might think his plans hadn’t worked out like he’d hoped. You might even wonder if he’d neglected to make any plans at all. But the truth is, O’Reilly, who’s now 44, a father of two, and the owner of a café, three pubs, a food truck, plus a home in St. Paul’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood, is a master planner. And he’s just plain thrifty.
“My wife, Jayne, is finishing her PhD this month,” he explains. “She was studying and working for the school, so for the first six years of our marriage we lived rent-free.” Campus housing was too good a deal to pass up, he admits, and this same practicality, which is marked by his tendency to spend carefully, exercise patience, and stick to a plan, has guided O’Reilly’s business decisions.
Take Republic at Seven Corners, for example, which is celebrating its fourth anniversary this month. O’Reilly launched the pub and restaurant in 2011 with high-school pal Rick Guntzel, taking over the old West Bank space formerly occupied by Sgt. Preston’s. Rather than going after a massive bank loan to finance the purchase and an unnecessary remodel, O’Reilly and his partner came up with $25,000 apiece by offering a car and a house as collateral, and they left intact the space’s beautiful stained glass windows, tin ceiling and exposed brick walls.
“I only take over existing restaurants,” O’Reilly says. “You already have the tables, chairs and kitchen, so you can save tons of money.” All he did to convert Sgt. Preston’s to Republic, in fact, was take out all the TVs, neon beer signs and punchbowls, throw on a fresh coat of paint, and put out a new menu. He chose to focus on making a strong statement with the food and serving excellent craft beer. The transformation, which undid 38 years of stale stability in less than two weeks, caught some patrons by surprise.
“The people who loved Sgt. Preston’s really didn’t like the change,” O’Reilly says. “They hated that the fishbowls and video games were gone, but those things didn’t fit the aesthetic.” It was slow going for the first few months, mainly because Republic opened its doors the day after graduation and there weren’t many students or faculty around campus, but O’Reilly stayed the course. “It took a lot of restraint not to cave in, but we knew more people would like it once they knew it was there.”
Today, O’Reilly is most surprised by the loyalty Republic has cultivated. “We’re crazy busy lately, beyond expectations.” When the pub first opened, he thought they’d never use the back room—the area where music is staged—believing it’d be a miracle if it were ever filled. “Now, we use the back room for general, everyday seating five days a week.”
Additionally, O’Reilly loves having Republic on the U’s West Bank, which is grad-student territory. “Every three years, there’s a new class and a 100 percent new crowd on that corner. These kids are older. They don’t need 3-for-1s or Ladies’ Night to come in. They’re smart. They want something different.” O’Reilly wants to make Republic part of their college legacy, just like Sgt. Preston’s was for previous students. And it’s all possible because he hasn’t deviated from his original plan: to serve craft beer with integrity, and to make sure the food isn’t secondary.
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