PJW Restaurant Group is celebrating its 40th anniversary and spotlighting PJ Whelihan's, its flagship concept known for its wings, craft beer, and deep entrenchment in each of its locales as a neighborhood pub.
Founder Bob Platzer's opened the first restaurant in Lehighton, PA in 1983 named Platz’s, and it still thrives today under the official name PJ Whelihan’s. Today, the concept has 23 restaurants spread across Harrisburg, the Poconos, Lehigh Valley, Philadelphia, and South Jersey regions, alongside three arena locations. It even has some of the employees from its start, with four managers serving for over two decades, and one employee managing the first PJ Whelihan’s in Lehighton for 32 years.
“Our success at PJ Whelihan’s hinges on our commitment to being more than just a sports bar. We strive to be a beloved neighborhood pub where anyone can find a welcoming atmosphere, whether craving our famous wings, stopping by for a post-work beer, or enjoying a salad at lunch,” said Jim Fris, CEO of PJW Restaurant Group, in a press release. “Our team, menu innovation, and strong community ties are the fundamental pillars that have propelled us and will continue to guide our success.”
Since being acquired by Garnett Station Partners in 2021, PJW Restaurant Group has unveiled an ambitious growth strategy with three new PJs slated for this year in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania; Mays Landing, New Jersey; and Delaware County, Pennsylvania. By the close of 2024, the target is 33 restaurants and $150 million in revenue, aiming for a 2.5% same-store increase. Expansion plans for 2025 are set to focus on Delaware, Lehigh, Northampton, and Bucks counties in Pennsylvania.
We spoke with Fris about the company's two decades of success and what's ahead for the future.
Hiring continues to be a challenge for our industry, and employee retention and development are becoming even more important tactics. Do you have any advice for retaining employees long-term?
Fris: As a company, we strive to promote from within as much as possible as it fosters a sense of family, community, and fun. We currently have three managers on staff who have been with the company for two decades, some of whom began their careers as hourly staff members and rose through the ranks over time.
In general, we pride ourselves on implementing efficient training programs and arming our team members with the tools to know what attributes our ideal employee possesses so we get it right. As a result, we have been extremely lucky to have team members who are genuinely passionate and committed to giving our customers the best dining experience possible, one pint, burger, or wing at a time.
What do you expect to be trending on menus in 2024?
The ongoing interest in plant-based options and the increasing use of spicy ingredients are anticipated trends. Non-alcoholic or low-ABV cocktails and craft beer choices are expected to maintain their popularity among guests.
Our Seasonal Specials play a crucial role in allowing us to embrace these trends, providing guests with opportunities to discover new flavors presented in familiar ways or to experience traditional flavors in unexpected presentations. In the fall, we introduced a Pumpkin Spice Wing Sauce, a playful twist on the conventional, that got our guests excited to try something new. This winter, our featured wing sauce offers a spicy kick with Red Chili Pepper. Mocktails have consistently garnered popularity when featured, and our core non-alcoholic beer options, available at all locations, have proven successful. Therefore, ongoing exploration in these areas will be a key focus in 2024.
Wings are a big part of your menu. Boneless wings exploded in popularity last year—do you find boneless or bone-in wings trending over the other?
We found it is really a matter of personal preference. Bone-in wings still reign supreme in terms of our overall sales, making up nearly 70% of the sales, and are a big part of the PJs experience, especially during Half Price Wing Nite every Tuesday. Last year, we sold over 10 million fresh, never-frozen jumbo bone-in wings. Boneless wings have certainly gained traction as well, and guests can enjoy our snack-size portion for just $5 during happy hour.
What led you to bring back Half Price Wing Nite?
Half Price Wing Nite has been a core component of the PJs brand since its initial introduction in 2008. What starts as high school students coming with friends to enjoy a meal quickly transitions into that same group coming to enjoy half price wings with their own family. After a brief hiatus, the program was reintroduced as a limited summer series in 2023, and the reaction was very positive. Based on this, we decided to bring it back full-time every Tuesday, and we continue to see guests return for this nostalgic occasion week after week.
Sauces have also been popular with consumers. Have any of your 11 sauces been more popular than others?
Hot ‘N Honey is hands down our most popular sauce. With the perfect balance of sweet and heat to appeal to a broad range of customers, it’s no wonder it does so well. Our seasonal specials also give us an opportunity to present unique, innovative flavor profiles to our guests for a limited time to see how they react. Nashville Hot and Mango Habanero are examples of featured sauces that have proven to be successful enough to maintain a permanent position on our core menu.
Loyalty programs have become very important as the frequency of guest visits takes a hit due to inflation. Tell us more about your loyalty program and its successes.
Our guests are extremely loyal, even referring to the PJs in their community as “My PJs” when comparing it to other locations. The introduction of the Pub Club program in Fall of 2023 was done to reward that loyalty and enhance the overall customer experience. Members currently earn points on every visit that accrue into rewards and enjoy a free dessert in their birthday month. To date, we are seeing that our Pub Club members are spending more than our typical customer. As time progresses, the program will continue to evolve as we find new ways to deliver value to members through additional rewards and surprise and delights along the way.
Any advice for other restaurants looking to implement a loyalty program?
As the Pub Club continues to grow and gain momentum, we are talking with our staff and current members to understand what is working and what opportunities for improvement exist. As noted, we will continue to offer unique experiences and benefits as part of the loyalty program to encourage repeat visits and deliver incremental value to the program. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all strategy for a loyalty program, so what makes a successful rewards program at PJs may not work at other brands. Knowing and understanding your customers and getting staff buy-in is critical to the success of a restaurant concept and rewards program.
PJ Whelihan’s prides itself on its connection to the community. How do the restaurants maintain a unique atmosphere that caters to the individual community while also balancing the need for consistency and familiarity that comes with a chain?
At the heart of PJ Whelihan's success is our unwavering dedication to our local communities. We recognize that each community has its own identity, preferences, and unique charm. To ensure a genuine connection, our restaurants actively engage with the community, whether it’s simply to establish a relationship or to educate them about the programs we have in place to help support their cause, such as our Dine & Donate program in which we donate 15% of event sales back to the hosting group.
Beyond this, our team goes above and beyond to make every guest feel like a regular, whether it's their first or fiftieth time visiting us. Our staff members take the time to get to know our guests in the local community, creating a warm and welcoming environment that goes beyond the typical dining experience.
While embracing the diversity of each community, PJ Whelihan's is equally committed to delivering a consistent and reliable experience across all our establishments. We achieve this by adhering to a set of core values and standards that define the PJs brand. Our guests can expect the same level of quality, service, and ambiance, regardless of the location they choose to visit.
Plan to Attend or Participate in the 2024 Vibe Conference, February 26 – February 28, 2024
To learn more about the latest trends, issues and hot topics, and to experience and taste the best products within the on-premise beverage community, plan to attend the Vibe Conference at Town & Country in San Diego, California. Visit VibeConference.com.
Contact us now to secure your program for 2024:
Donna Bruns, Sales & Sponsorships, (for companies A-L), Email: [email protected] Phone: 936-522-6932
Fadi Alsayegh, Sales & Sponsorships, (for companies M-Z), Email: [email protected] Phone: 440-454-0239