Onetime building inspector says he knows there will be a big learning curve.
What do you get when you combine an up-and-coming country singer based in Estero with a longtime local restaurateur known for burgers that generate lots of social media buzz?
The answer, hopefully, is a successful restaurant and live music venue. That’s the goal behind the recent opening of Ben Allen’s Backyard Grill & Pub on Tamiami Trail East in Naples.
The restaurant’s namesake is country singer Ben Allen, who recently raised his national profile as a contestant on NBC’s “The Voice.” Allen, 43, grew up in Tennessee and moved to Southwest Florida in 2009 to take a job as a building inspector for Collier County. His music career started after he performed at an open mic at age 31, and he now fronts the Ben Allen Band, which plays shows nationwide throughout the year.
The restaurant guy is Todd Brooks, owner of Brooks Burgers, which has several locations around Naples. His burgers have gotten lots of love on sites like TripAdvisor (what do you expect when one option is a bacon cheeseburger served between two hot glazed donuts?), and he’s got eight of his famous patties on the menu at Ben Allen’s Backyard Grill & Pub, along with wings, pizza and other comfort food.
Co-owned by the pair, the new restaurant is a transformation of a former Brooks Burgers location. “We wanted to do something different,” says Brooks, 50. “There’s nothing on the east trail now that has a lot of entertainment value. So we thought we could take our brands and marry them and do something really fun.”
Allen has had other people approach him about doing something like this; it was never the right fit. “But this was brought to me and it just all felt like the right time to move forward with something like this,” he says. “Todd’s a really good guy and a really well-known guy in the Naples restaurant community. He has a track record, and he knows the market.”
Brooks estimates it cost about $170,000 to redo the inside of the restaurant and create an appealing outdoor space where people can come to hear live music or watch sporting events on a giant outdoor screen. He’s handling the operational side of things and brings his more than three decades in the restaurant business to the new spot.
So he knows it might take a bit to fully figure everything out. “I’ve never opened a restaurant where we didn’t have a problem,” he laughs. He and his team have been constantly analyzing things since opening, tweaking the menu when needed and getting feedback from customers on what’s working and what isn’t. Brooks is also dealing with labor shortages and rising ingredient prices just like many other restaurateurs are, and he’s raised his hourly pay to attract and keep staff.
Allen is mostly the name behind the restaurant and also an occasional musical act there. He’ll still be playing at other venues around the area and country as well as he grows his music career. But the onetime construction inspector isn’t taking anything for granted despite his recent taste of television fame.
“It’s that old adage of do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” says Allen. “There’s a lot of truth in that. But the glamorous part of it is short-lived, and the hard work of it is all the stuff that people don’t see….My mindset is to always be as humble as possible and as appreciative as possible.”
Brooks takes a similar kind of approach with restaurant operations. “We tell our people to just kill [customers] with kindness,” he says. “Don’t let anybody leave the restaurant unhappy. It’s so much easier to fix a problem in the restaurant then after they leave….If we make a mistake, I want [customers] to tell me. Because when we do make mistakes, we want to fix them.”
He’s seen how social media can be a double-edged sword. It can help drive customers to your restaurant, like when TripAdvisor ranked Brooks Burgers as the No. 2 burger joint in America a few years ago. But it also makes it really easy for people to complain and criticize.
“Negative feedback gets way more attention than positive feedback,” says Brooks. So if staff hears someone speaking positively, they’ll talk with them about how the restaurants are locally owned and help support the community. They also might share insight on the power and importance of a positive review.
Brooks and Allen both want Ben Allen’s Backyard Grill & Pub to be a place where locals and visitors can come for good food, good music and good company. “We want to see that it’s the go-to place if not for Naples in general, then definitely for that side of town,” says Allen. “We want people to automatically be like ‘We want to go someplace that’s fun and the food is good — that’s the spot.’ If we can make it so that people have that mindset about it, then I know the place will be a big success.”