As restaurateur and downtown bar mogul Elliot Nelson supports local economic development plans, he has decided to keep his head down and “be in the restaurant business for a while.”
“That’s what I know how to do,” Nelson said.
Nelson has made plans to open a second McNellie’s in Oklahoma City “just north of downtown” – a clone of his successful Irish pub at 409 E. First St. in Tulsa. The new McNellie’s location is in the permit process, Nelson said.
This expansion comes just five months after opening The Continental, the 2,400 SF jazz and cocktail club next door to the Tulsa McNellie’s. The original McNellie’s is expanding as well. Nelson added 2,400 SF to make way for pool tables and shuffleboard this month.
The McNellie’s in Oklahoma City won’t be the last time Nelson replants the concept in a mid-sized urban area.
“We’re looking around in South Tulsa right now,” Nelson said. “We’ve poked around in Omaha, in Kansas City, and even South Bend, Indiana, just because there are some things going on around Notre Dame’s campus that makes it appealing to do something up there.”
Moving to The Colony
As McNellie’s multiplies, Nelson plans to open “at least one other thing a year.” His latest concept is the reopening of The Colony, the original of which operated during the mid-1950s at 2809 S. Harvard Ave.
“We’ve got it pretty much all fixed up,” Nelson said of the 1,200 SF space. “A lot of people my age and a little older have nostalgic memories of having their first drink at the bar when it was the IV Play. People my dad’s age, they went to The Colony.”
Nelson said he hopes to open The Colony in mid-October.
Though Nelson is one of Tulsa’s pub aficionados, he said he knows good food as well.
El Guapo, the three-story, 7,500 SF restaurant and rooftop bar under construction across the street from the Tulsa McNellie’s, is Nelson’s current restaurant project. Nelson said the menu will be extensive, featuring 50 to 60 items of both Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican fare.
“The food will be fantastic,” Nelson said.
“If you look around most cities in the southwest, rooftop patios are very popular and have done really well,” Nelson said. “People are really fired up about having a rooftop patio to go to.”
Nelson didn’t forget to add “lots of margaritas and tequila” to the menu.
“It (El Guapo) will be to tequila what this place (McNellie’s) is to beer,” Nelson said.
Though Nelson would like to open El Guapo by February, he is “not going to set any time lines on that place until the steel goes up and in.”
Nelson said he is encouraged to expand in Tulsa and in other markets as his past projects continue to yield higher numbers.
Sales increase every month at The Continental, said Nelson, and “September will be up 40 percent over our first month here.” The now 10,000 SF McNellie’s, on its way into its third year, will yield 80 percent more in sales than it did during its first year.
Nelson said he decides when and where to open his next restaurant/bar by keeping his ears open.
“Having a bar downtown, you hear a lot of opinions from people as to what needs to go in next,” Nelson said.
Nelson said he wants to motivate the development of a “walking neighborhood” in the Blue Dome District. Rather than studying the market and demographic trends, Nelson said he endorses downtown development in order to grow his businesses.
“Ultimately we want to get to a point where people aren’t just saying, ‘We’re going to McNellie’s tonight.’ Instead, they’ll say that they’re going to the Blue Dome District,” Nelson said.
James E. McNellie’s: A History
James E. McNellie’s Public House opened on St. Patrick’s Day of 2004. The concept for McNellie’s came during Nelson’s entrepreneurship class at the University of Notre Dame.
“At that time I didn’t feel like there were really any good pubs in town,” Nelson said. “None of them felt right to me. So I decided to build a pub.”
Nelson, now 27, graduated from Notre Dame with an English degree in 2001 and soon came back to Tulsa to build his pub. After looking at several locations downtown, Nelson chose the building at 409 E 1st St. in December 2002. The space took 15 months to renovate, and Nelson commissioned family members, friends and Notre Dame alums for financing help.
“Unfortunately, a 22-year-old kid trying to raise money for a bar was not the easiest thing,” Nelson said.
“Restaurants have a 90 percent failure rate. The banks say, ‘How are you going to get us out of this when you fail?’ My deal was, ‘If I fail, I’ll go to law school, and I’ll pay you back over 20 years.’ They seemed to be ok with that, so I got the money.”
McNellie’s now has several claims to fame: the 60 varieties of beer on each of its two floors, customers’ personalized beer mugs hung on the walls, antique English furniture in the dining rooms and a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
There is no one McNellie’s customer, Nelson said.
“On any given day, you might see a family with kids, a group of women in their 80s, and a group of young guys, sitting and drinking. It’s an interesting, eclectic mix.”
“We’re the one bar you can take your kids to,” Nelson said. “That’s something we hang our hat on.”
Nelson’s goal was to build a restaurant and bar based on the idea of “how a pub works in Ireland.”
“The idea is that everybody is welcome,” Nelson said. “You try to build it so that it’s comfortable enough for everyone. Keep the music to a level that doesn’t offend anybody, and the food pretty accessible to everyone.”
And who is James E. McNellie?
“In my family, we’re all James E.s. I’m James Elliot, my dad is James Elmer, and my grandpa is James Edward. And people used to call my grandfather Nellie,” Nelson said. “So that’s how we came up with James E. McNellie’s.”
As business at McNellie’s continues to increase and downtown development plans gain more public attention, Nelson said he looks forward to where Tulsa will be in 10 years.
“There is still just a certain segment of the population that is willing to come downtown,” Nelson said. “But the more things that are down here and the more people there are on the street, the more comfortable other people are when they come for the first time.”
Nelson said some Tulsans’ perceptions of downtown are “really off-base.”
“Downtown has this stigma with a lot of people who think it’s dangerous. Downtown actually has one of the lowest crime rates in the city.”
Nelson said he wants to help downtown overcome its reputation and help to make it a place where young people want to live, work and play, after hours and otherwise.
“I think that to really attract the young twenty-somethings we need a vibrant urban area where you can live and walk to restaurants and bars, and walk to work,” Nelson said. “And we’re working toward that.”
Nelson said the initiative shown by the arena construction and other development plans like The Channels is encouraging.
“About 20 or 30 days a year, it (the arena) is really going to boost our business. And the architecture of it – the design will attract a lot of visitors,” Nelson said. “I think The Channels is great. I think it will make for a really cool project and make for some national recognition.”
Though he supports private sector participation in Tulsa’s economic development through plans like The Channels, he said he “wants to see downtown happen first.”
“The city really needs more good-quality restaurants, especially downtown. These are the reasons people will want to come downtown at night,” Nelson said.
McNellie’s is open during weekends, but Nelson said he hopes plans for more residential space downtown become reality. He said that as more people decide to live downtown, the more his businesses will thrive.
“We’re one of the few restaurants open during the weekends downtown,” Nelson said. “The first year or two we were open, it was bad. But now people have caught on that we are open. And weekend business here is really good now.”
“The more housing we get, the better the business is going to get.” ?