By: Kristy Kennedy, Special to the Tribune
Longtime restaurateur Jim Bergeron wasted no time taking action once he took over the former BlackFinn American Saloon in downtown Naperville.
After less than a week of cleaning, redoing the menu, training staff and updating equipment like headsets that allow for quick communication between the restaurant’s three floors, Bergeron quietly reopened the upscale pub last month. With a temporary sign, he announced its new name: Wise Boxer Pour House. Like Jimmy’s, the Wise Boxer has outdoor seating, though it is on the third floor.
Now Bergeron, who also owns Jimmy’s Grill, is talking. In a wide-ranging interview, Bergeron touched on BlackFinn’s checkered past — which includes liquor code violations, bar fights and a stabbing — discussed plans for his new pub and talked about the changes he had seen in downtown Naperville since he opened Jimmy’s 16 years ago. He thinks the perception of downtown Naperville being out of control is flat-out wrong, says traffic isn’t all bad and swears the big-name and chain restaurants have been good for his business.
Here is an edited conversation with Bergeron:
Q: You own the building at 16 W. Jefferson Ave. and once operated a pizza place and an upscale Italian restaurant, Tessa’s. How did you decide on a pub, and how is it different from BlackFinn?
A: BlackFinn was my tenant. The concept they put in there is the right concept; an upscale pub is right for the economy. People in this economy still want value. They still want quality, but they don’t necessarily want white tablecloth. They (BlackFinn) just made some decisions I wouldn’t make. We’re pushing hard on the restaurant side of it. We redid the menu entirely. We’re going to do a lot more with craft beer and a much better wine list. We’re going to be doing a lot more private parties and banquets. Visually, it looks very similar, but we’ve changed a tremendous amount of things.
Q: Will you still have the nightlife?
A: We’ll still have DJs. The unique thing about downtown Naperville is you have the ability to be somewhat of a chameleon. Like at Jimmy’s. We’re sitting here in the afternoon, and there are eight strollers over there. We do a great lunch and a great dinner and then, after 10 p.m., I get a great bar crowd. You have the ability to be both. That is what we’re going to strive to do at the Wise Boxer.
Q: Why did you keep the opening quiet, and how did you come up with the name?
A: We kind of just went “shhh” and unlocked the doors. People are figuring out that we’re open, but we had a lot of service issues to fix. Now we’re ready to go. It’s a great place for a great meal. Kids are welcome. And we’re booking private parties. I did keep the staff. I think the staff there was working really hard, and with this economy and it being so hard to find a job, it was important to me to keep these people employed. The name is a work in progress. A lot of the old English pubs have mascots. As soon as you say the name, you can picture the logo. The logo we’re coming up with will be really cool, a boxer, but humanized like the painting of the dogs playing poker.
Q: What is your favorite thing on the menu?
A: The filet. We’ve got so many good items — a blue cheese-encrusted salmon is just great. We have a lot of flatbreads, great appetizers like a tuna poke. The menu is very unique. The Wise Boxer is almost 12,000 square feet. We do all kinds of private parties, from birthdays and rehearsal dinners to weddings, anniversaries and banquet packages. We can do custom-plated, meet-with-the-chef meals.
Q: How do you stand out from other restaurants downtown? Is it tough to make it with all the competition?
A: We (downtown business owners) don’t actually see each other as competition. I’m excited to see restaurants come in. People will drive 45 minutes to eat at Catch 35 or Hugo’s Frog Bar. Then a unique thing happens. They see downtown and what it has to offer, and they come back time and again. There is plenty of business out there for all of us if we run solid operations. It allows us to grow as a city instead of individuals.
Q: What do you think about the Water Street development?
A: I’ve supported it from day one. Naperville has to keep the perception that it is growing and that it is vital and that we are continuing to redevelop. Those are the things that attract the large national businesses like the Williams-Sonoma and Eddie Bauer businesses of the world. Those companies draw the clients that help the independent businesses survive. That development over there is going to be phenomenal for downtown Naperville.
Q: Are you concerned about increased traffic?
A: Not at all. People tend to overreact about traffic. If you look at events we do in Naperville on an ongoing basis like Last Fling or Ribfest; those events put 250,000 to 300,000 people in our downtown over a four-day period, and we seem to be able to handle it just fine. Water Street isn’t going to generate anything near that. When the Fine Arts Center was built at North Central College, everyone talked about traffic, but it hasn’t affected traffic really at all, and it is a great addition to our town.
Q: You’ve shared your concerns before about a perception that nightlife in Naperville is out of control. What are your thoughts, especially after being a landlord for BlackFinn?
A: There is a misconception that downtown is a free-for-all, but most people would be surprised to hear downtown Naperville has the same number of liquor licenses it did in 2007. Business is down from 2004 to 2007, when Naperville was the hottest place to go. I think places have their cycle. When I was growing up, it was Schaumburg. Two things have changed. One, the economy. With the crash, everyone saw a dip in sales. I also think back in that day there was no competition south and west of us. If you lived in Montgomery or Oswego, there wasn’t a lot to do, and Chicago is far away. People were coming to Naperville because you could go to 20 or 30 places. Today there has been a lot more development in those areas. People don’t have to drive as far to go out.
Q: What about the violence downtown and at BlackFinn?
A: The fact that there is activity going on almost 24 hours a day does create situations you have to manage. Look at how many people we run through downtown on any given Friday or Saturday. The small amount of incidents we have … there are certain things you will never be able to avoid. The Naperville Police Department does a great job downtown with their presence.
We (business owners) do work hard to create a good environment downtown. We’re currently meeting as restaurant owners and putting together common-practice policies and procedures to get everyone on the same page. Each time a situation comes up, it requires some heads in a room to see what we can do to prevent it from happening in the future. We do that a lot.
As business owners in downtown Naperville, we live or die by the perception of what downtown is. We want that safe, fun environment, and we are constantly working on improving that.