THE ENTREPRENEURS

Passionate owner of two suburban Pittsburgh restaurants attuned to social media


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When she opened Bocktown Beer and Grill in 2006, Chris Dilla almost didn't care if it closed the next day.

"I just wanted this to exist," she said, sitting in a booth in the North Fayette eatery on a recent afternoon. "I just was so happy that it was finally three dimensional."

She came to entrepreneurship at age 40. And after years in the food service industry, including serving, hosting, bartending and tossing pizzas, Ms. Dilla had a clear vision of what she wanted her business to be.

"I wanted a place where I could go out with my friends, that wasn't in the city, where we could get some good craft beers," she said. "I thought, 'If I'm looking for this, other people will be, too.' "

So she read every book she could get her hands on; went to every class and workshop; learned about things like key metrics and how to write a business plan; and got used to hearing the word "no," especially from banks.

But she received constant support from her husband, John, who had posed the key question: What's stopping you?

"As an entrepreneur, you're going to have an 'aha' moment, when you know what you want to do, where there is a need," Ms. Dilla said. "But it was his kick in the pants that did it for me."

So you want to start a business? Advice from Chris Dilla of Bocktown:
 
What was the hardest part about starting your business? I don't even want to think about how hard it was to raise money. And to get past the misperception that "all restaurants fail."

What is a piece of advice you would give an entrepreneur starting out? Realize that you can't do everything. But whatever made you love it and made you want to start your business, make sure you can stay a part of that.

What was the biggest surprise you had during the first year? One thing I didn't bargain on was having so many employees, on making so many human resources decisions. But I realized I couldn't do everything myself.

The clientele for the first Bocktown location came through nontraditional advertising methods, including then-new social media tools. "The minute I met Twitter, I realized how valuable it was going to be," Ms. Dilla said. "Twitter allows you to text the whole world.

"A lot of businesses say, 'Oh, I don't have money to advertise and I don't have time for social media, I can't afford a website.' You have to take that time, and effort, and use a little creativity. Your customers have to be able to describe your business for you."

Bocktown Beer and Grill has grown to become a staple of the craft beer scene in the Pittsburgh region, and Ms. Dilla was instrumental in starting the now-annual Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week in 2012. Douglas Derda, who lives in the South Hills and co-hosts the monthly craft beer podcast "Should I Drink That," said Ms. Dilla's suburban bar was a pleasant surprise the first time he visited.

"I thought it was out of the ordinary," he said. "This definitely isn't your typical craft beer place; no smokers at the bar, no giant sports TVs on the walls, just a place where friends come and have a meal and hang out."

He met Ms. Dilla after he had visited Bocktown and mentioned it on the podcast. She reached out to him. "She invited us to do a live podcast at Bocktown," he recalled. "We had never done a live event before, but she was so friendly and inviting."

That spirit of collaboration informs much of how Ms. Dilla runs her business. She's very proud of her low employee turnover. "Your employees are your best salespeople," she said. "Finding good people is important: you have to like what you're selling.

And she's a strong proponent of using local merchants, whether it's a food vendor or an accountant.

"If you do business with your neighbor, they'll come back and do business with you. You have to think about putting tax dollars back into your community." Ms. Dilla said.

The growing numbers of craft brewers and the larger variety of craft beers have allowed her to offer more than 400 bottle choices and 16 varieties on tap, almost all of them locally sourced.

Her approach caught the attention of the White House. In 2012, she was among a group of small business owners and entrepreneurs invited to the White House Business Council Forum, an ongoing discussion with senior policy officials from the executive branch.

The goal of the forum is to help spur job creation, and make sure entrepreneurs and small businesses have access to resources. One idea she suggested was a preapproval process for business loans, similar to mortgage preapproval.

"That can be such an obstacle and is such a discouraging process," she said. "There has to be a way to make it better and more efficient."

Ms. Dilla opened Bocktown Monaca in Center, Beaver County, in 2011, and has relished the chance to try different things at the larger location. Bocktown Robinson, as the first location is called, seats between 82 and 142 people, depending on the season; Bocktown Monaca seats between 200 and 232.

"It's like having two children," she said. "I am realizing I can't expect them to act the same."

She has considered the idea of franchising, but for now has her sights set on a long-term goal of five Bocktowns -- all in suburban locations.

Mr. Derda is among the many Bocktown fans who sees little to stop the energetic Ms. Dilla from accomplishing her goals.

"She's an excellent people person, and if she's passionate about something, she'll talk your ear off," Mr. Derda said.

"And she's always welcoming, always willing to try new things and full of energy. You don't open a restaurant just to make money; you do it because you have passion. And she really loves what she's doing."


Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly

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