When you've got an area hot spot that offers "casual gourmet" food in a sports bar setting, pleases both the locals who frequent the restaurant regularly and those who stop in from 1,200 miles away, and every other Sunday during the summer literally goes to the dogs, you've really got something special. But those things just touch the surface of Rochester's Wildwood Sports Bar & Grill, what it means to the community and how it all came to be.

The restaurant opened its doors in early 2012, but owner Jim Nicholas says the journey into restaurant ownership started long before that for him. "I grew up in a small town in Illinois, and I got hired on as a dishwasher at a local place when I was young," Nicholas recalls of his start in the restaurant business. "From there I worked at a pizza place for a while and then a big restaurant. Then I went to culinary school. I always wanted my own place. I just love the business and being part of it. It's fun. It's a good lifestyle."

His journey would take him from small town Illinois, to culinary school in Scottsdale, Arizona, to a resort in Okoboji, Iowa and, eventually, here to Rochester. He was at the Rochester Golf & Country Club for three years before taking over as the executive chef at what was then the Ramada Hotel. Changes at the hotel offered Nicholas the opportunity to realize his ambition of owning his own restaurant.

Scotty Matthews/TSM Rochester

We talked with him about the restaurant's success and how it all got started, as well as asking him about his favorite menu item. Here's what he had to say...

What makes Wildwood unique from the other restaurants in Rochester?

JIM NICHOLAS: I think it’s the fact that we’re a small, independent bar and we focus on making everything on the food end of it from scratch. I think that sets us apart just a little bit, because we’re that more casual gourmet kind of place. We just try to serve really good food and really cold beer and go from there.

We also do some great promotions. We have Mardi Gras in February, all month long, with traditional Mardi Gras food, such as jambalaya, gumbo, alligator and catfish. We try to make it as authentic as possible. We do the same sort of thing for Oktoberfest in October. We bring in five or six different Oktoberfest beers and create a menu that is our version of Oktoberfest food. It might not be what your grandma made, but it’s our version of what your grandma made.

We also started the first-ever “Yappy Hour” in Rochester. Our “Yappy Hour” is where we open up our patio to dogs, two Sundays a month from 3 until 6 pm, and we have happy hour out there and guests can bring their dogs with them. It’s been a hit. We’ve had 12, sometimes 14, dogs out there on a Sunday. I haven’t seen anybody else do it yet and we’re happy with it, so we’ll see. It’s interesting. People today are so interested in their phones when they’re out to lunch where here you’ll have people sitting there with their dog and the person at the table next to them asks what kind of dog they have and you get a conversation going on that might not have happened otherwise, all because of their common interest in dogs.

Why did you decide to name the place Wildwood?

JN: We had been doing some work with a marketing company, and they asked what I thought of the name Wildwood, and I really liked it. There’s a place I went camping with my grandparents when I was a kid that was called Wildwood. It brought back memories of my childhood and I said, “I love that name. It reminds me of my grandma and grandpa.”

So, that was where the name came from. It was borne of a marketing company, but it also had this connection with my own youth. I love the fact that what they thought was a good name was something that still kind of made it feel like it was my own, anyway.

If you had to eat one item on the menu every day, which one would you choose?

JN: I guess I could narrow it down and say that if I had to eat one sandwich on the menu every day for the rest of my life it would be our Cuban. I’ve had other Cubans and there’s nothing wrong with them, but I made it the way I would want to eat it.

Scotty Matthews/TSM Rochester

So, how's it different from a typical Cuban sandwich?

JN: Your typical Cuban is basically ham and pulled pork, cheese and pickles – usually with some type of sauce, traditionally honey mustard, I think. Mustard is the basic condiment for the sandwich if you look in a typical cookbook.

We use an aged Swiss cheese, and Tandoori flatbread, so it’s a little bit chewy. We house roast our own pork in a chipotle barbeque rub that we make in-house, as well. We finish that with a salted ham and our own homemade chipotle pickles. We brine our chipotle pickles for 30 days before we serve them, so they actually soak in our homemade mixture of chipotle seasonings before they ever hit the sandwich. Then we serve it with a cumin lime aioli, as opposed to serving it with a mustard. It adds a sweet texture to it and you get the spiciness from the pickles instead of the spiciness from the mustard. Then we smash it in that nice, soft bread so the ingredients all stand out. That’s my favorite sandwich, because it has so much going on in terms of flavors packed into it.

What's the best thing a customer has ever said about Wildwood?

JN: We have a customer that started coming to Mayo Clinic about four years ago for treatment for something and they were staying at this hotel. They don’t stay at this hotel any longer. They stay downtown because it’s closer. But they always come here three times a year when they are in town for her check-ups. They come in here to eat. And he always says, “We flew 1,200 miles so that we could come in and eat at Wildwood!”

That’s probably the best compliment. These people come into town and they’re probably having one of the worst days of their life, or at least not looking forward to most of their visit, and we can be a little ray of sunshine on a gloomy day for them, and I love that!

What was your experience like trying to finance the restaurant?

JN: We borrowed money the best we could and we struggled with the rest. We didn’t open up with a fancy bar and furniture and everything else. We bought second-hand furniture. We bought used equipment for the kitchen so we could make it work. We were on a very, very, very tight budget.

We were fortunate to be able to get our debt paid off in a couple years. Then, moving forward, we bought all-new furniture for the place and we were able to get it repainted and get it more cleaned up, and add new patio furniture and so on. It’s one of those things that, looking back, you wonder where the time and money went, but I look around and I can see it. Little by little, we’ve added and upgraded things. We’ve always tried to let the food be the star, and then improve everything else around that.

Now, it’s about slow changes and making everything we do as strategic as possible. You watch your finances every day. That’s part of owning a business. I told someone once that I don’t gamble and they said, “You gamble every day when you get up. What are you talking about? You own a business!” I’ve always remembered that. It really is gambling to some degree. It’s taking as many calculated risks as you can and hoping they all pay off and you move forward.

What advice would you have for anybody else who is looking at starting their own business?

JN: Be passionate about what you’re doing. Don’t go into it because you think you’re going to make a bunch of money. Go into it because you know that it’s what you want to do with your life. Starting a business is a struggle and it’s a battle, but the rewards are worth it. Especially when you have customers come up and say, “Hey, I love this place. I had a great time.”

Have people you trust work for you and don’t expect them to do anything that you’re not willing to do yourself. You have to be committed to it. It has to be your passion and it has to be your life.

You have to market your business and know who your target market is. What kind of people do you want in your business? How do you get those people to come in? There’s tons of planning involved. I think the marketing and the accounting parts are two of the biggest things you have to deal with in the restaurant business. Reminding people that you’re here and then making sure the money is being put in the right spots once you get those people here.

Wildwood Sports Bar & Grill

1517 16th St. SW | (507) 226-8380

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