BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The old Field of Dreams adage – if you build it they will come – rang true at Fort Madison’s newest bar and grille Thursday night.
A soft open, originally planned for staff and friends, turned Thursday night into a full-on packed house as city residents wanted to take a look and a bite out of Buffalo61 Bar and Grille at 6111 Reve Court.
The eatery, which is now in a completely revamped Chandler’s, and before it, Bennigans, was teeming with people wanting to see what Chase and Jen Gibb are up to.The couple also own the Buffalo Tavern in Burlington.
Gibb, who’s no stranger to effective marketing, blew it wide open going to a full menu and bar after about an hour, and the restaurant had standing room only until about 9 p.m.
General Manager Bianca Blanchard said she started to get a feeling something big was happening when Gibb came out of the kitchen and said they were opening the bar, which wasn’t part of the original soft open plans – and going to a full menu.
“People started showing up so we just let them,” Gibb said. “That’s what we’re doing all weekend, just trying to get employees used to how we’re going to operate here.
Blanchard left a career at Great River Health Systems to take a shot at the food service business after she saw the Buffalo was expanding into Fort Madison where she lives.
The “soft openings” continue Friday and Saturday from 5 p.m to 10 p.m. and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday with regular business hours starting on Monday at 11 a.m.
The restaurant will be open Sunday to Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Wednesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to midnight or “whenever” according to the new logo on the front door.
Blanchard was a supervisor in environmental services at GRHS and had been there 10 years before leaving.
“I loved my job there, I really did, but this excited me. I wasn’t really looking for another job, but when he posted that he was opening in Fort Madison, I thought this would be fun to do. Everyone wants to make money, but I think that’s where Chase and Jen fit in so well. They have a family-oriented style and they are very involved. They are amazing but we’re family and they are hands-on and I like that. Jen bartends and seats people, Chase helps in the kitchen or at the bar or wherever. People like to see the owners and these two are very involved. I’d bet almost everyone learns very quickly who Chase and Jen are.”
Current staff levels are close to 35, but Blanchard said they will run overstaff during the soft runs so people get a feel for the restaurant.
“We’re overstaffed obviously for the weekend so we can make sure our customers get the attention they need as busy as we’re going to be. We’ve got a good staff and a lot of potential. Right now we have around 33 to 35,” Blanchard said.
Thursday’s first live day was all Blanchard and Gibb expected and more.
“It was busy, but it will get busier,” Gibb said.
The menu will be the same as the Buffalo Tavern in Burlington, but the Fort Madison location will offer ribs as a weekly special. Blanchard said that might be Wednesday. But with items like BigAss Tacos and the Motherclucker…an epic buffalo chicken sandwich, Gibb said this isn’t healthy eating.
“This is comfort food. This is what people are wanting. You can get a ribeye sandwich anywhere,” Gibb said. “But you’re not going to get the ranch ribeye sandwich we have here, because no one can duplicate that ranch seasoning.”
Blanchard said this food is something different.
“Everyone says a taco is a taco – it’s not. It’s the same with a tenderloin, a tenderloin is not a tenderloin. He’s got that seasoning – and he has one of the top five tenderloins in the state, so it’s not your typical food here,” Blanchard said.
The bar is a fully stocked bar with 12 beers on tap. Blanchard said those brands will change at different times of the year, but some like Blue Moon and Budweiser will always be there ice cold and ready to go.
Gibb said he he probably won’t see profits in the first year.
“I probably won’t make any money in the first year, honestly. I would think everything we make in the first year will go back into the business.”
Gibb is still in the middle of construction but has the inside completely renovated, moving the bar from the north wall to the center, and has completely reset the seating arrangement around the bar. Gibb said seating is set now at 135 with a max capacity of 155 people.
The awnings have been removed and will be replaced with Gibb’s trademark yellow-and-black striped awnings.
“They’re pretty tacky…that’s how I like it. You’ll certainly notice it when you drive by,” he said.
He also said catering is a top priority for the restaurant.
“That’s something that we want to get going very quickly. So once the staff has this under control, we’re going to get that going as well. We think there is a demand here for that and we have some great options there.”
He said there are still some other things to get done but the restaurant is at a point where it’s time to let the community in.
“I’d like to put a beer garden out here on the northeast side of the property,” he said .”There’s a lot that still needs done, from stripes on the building, parking lot and dumpster area cleaned up and organized.”