It’s been a long dark tunnel for restaurant owners this past year or so, but as Mike Finley of Walnut Creek’s Bierhaus says, “The light is getting bigger.”
That light got pretty dim for Finley in the depths of the pandemic, as he had to shut down both his restaurants completely, and is only now just beginning service in Walnut Creek.
“The operative word during 2020 was ‘pivot’,” he says, but he ran out of places to turn during the November surge and gave up even doing takeout at his Locust Street site. (He had shut down his 40th and Telegraph Bierhaus in Oakland at the beginning of the COVID crisis.)
“There were three types of restaurants that did well in takeout,” he says, “Chinese, barbecue and pizza. But did anyone think about sausages and beer from Bierhaus for takeout?”
And yes, as the name suggests, Bierhaus was modeled on German beer gardens, a concept Finley more or less stumbled into a decade ago.
He had been working in high tech in the South Bay, when he, like so many others in the industry, dipped his toe in the restaurant waters by working at farmer’s markets. “Then I found a space with an outdoor patio in Mountain View,” he says. He started out serving burgers in a casual setting, but over time, customer suggestions and his own instincts led him to turn it into a beer garden called Bierhaus.
But in 2018, his landlord wanted the space back, so Finley found a spot in Oakland that lacked a garden but would work as a beer hall – which became the next Bierhaus.
In 2019, he and the City of Walnut Creek worked out a deal for the Bierhaus to take over the Lark Creek restaurant space, and got started in late 2019. “When we first opened, we were doing really well,” he says, but then, you know, and Finley had to close down both places.
“In Oakland, I did a total rethink,” he says. When Bierhaus first arrived, it was one of the few beer halls in the Temescal district, but since then, they’ve proliferated. “Now we’re just stuck in the crowd” – so when his Oakland spot reopens (late this year, he hopes), look for a casual, fish-centric restaurant, with martinis. (“They just seem to work together,” he says.)
Though the Walnut Creek Bierhaus will retain the name – the Oakland location will get a new one – he also made significant changes there.
“It’s my job to bring out the potential in the space,” he says, “and it’s the talent that determines what we can do with the space.”
“In Walnut Creek, we went through lots of iterations,” he says of the planning process, but when he and chef Andrew Curley connected, he settled on a casual, California-German menu that Curley was comfortable with. So yes, there will still be spaetzle, but there will also be mussels cooked in a wood-fired oven, and a much less beer-gardeny atmosphere.
Finley, though, never would have made it through that long dark tunnel without governmental help. “The SBA loans allowed me to survive,” he says, “and the City of Walnut Creek has to be commended. I think 80% of the small businesses in the country would have gone under if not for the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) and EIDL (Economic Injury Disaster Loan) programs.”
Even so, it was far from easy. “Small businesspeople need to have the passion and the tenacity,” he says. “I knew what I wanted and I had to hold on long enough. I had to focus on moving forward – even if it was an inch. I didn’t need 10 yards or 100 yards. You just have to figure out how to adapt.”
And after months of inch-by-inch progress, the Walnut Creek Bierhaus will be fully up and running on July 15, and will get its full liquor license in early August (beer and wine only until then).
“It’s a whole new menu,” he says. “We’re transitioning from a beer garden to a restaurant.”
And after 15 months of painful transition, it’s not surprising that the Bierhaus is emerging with a new identity – though there were times Finley didn’t know if it would emerge at all.
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