Entrepreneur Segment: Joel Soucy, Owner of The Birch on Elm, Manchester

Have you hear of The Birch on Elm?  It’s a quaint little restaurant located in the heart of Manchester, NH.  When I walked up the glass door, “The Birch on Elm” was printed beautifully, but prominently; it really caught my eye.  Once, I walked into the space, brick walls, hardwood, leather and antique decor gave off that old New Hampshire vibe…but in a progressive way! I felt so at home and excited to learn more about it!  I have spoke with Joel over Messenger a few times before… just about being a business owner and the struggles we both have dealt with. He has such great insight and knowledge, so I had to feature him on one of my Entrepreneur Segments! Read more below, trust me, you don’t want to miss this!

 

1) Tell me a little bit about your business: the type of cuisine you serve, your vision, etc.

A: “So, I got my start in the restaurant industry, kind of by accident.  I was a salesman for a cigar company for a long time and I ended up working at a brick and mortar cigar shop here in town and New Hampshire passed a law that allowed retail cigar shops to open a bar in their establishment. And that is what  kind of what lead me to get into the bar industry. Unfortunately, I ended up getting fired from that job and couldn’t find work for the longest time and was in a really, really bad position for a while.  I was getting evicted from my apartment, my heat was getting shut off.  Then, someone gave me an opportunity at a speakeasy here in town and it was right when they were opening and I had no experience in that kind of bartending and they just kind of like went out on a limb and gave me the chance and I just fell in love with it.  That was about three years ago. But it’s one of those things that I found, that just stuck and stuck really hard - I just ran with it.  

That craft cocktail thing and speciality food item is what lead me into spending a couple years flying all over the country, and just eating, drinking and taking notes about things I liked about places, and what I didn’t like.  At first it was just a hobby but then I realized I had all these notes lined up and it kind of gave birth to what the concept is here. 

One takeaway I have is most restaurants try to emulate different parts of the world and in that way, you kind of back yourself into a corner and kind of typecast yourself of being a very specific thing and it gives you very little creative freedom. So, were here in NH and were like ‘oh f**k it, were going to open a NH restaurant and its going to be called The Birch on Elm, the birch is our state tree, we’re on Elm Street in Manchester, NH, the biggest city in the state.’  

With our decor, we really wanted to have that NH hunting/fishing lodge feel because, what is New Hampshire cuisine? It’s really not necessarily one thing, so it allows us to do whatever we want! We can do everything and we change seasonally so it allow us to grow. We’re always trying new things, see what works and what doesn’t. I think that is what makes this place very unique.”  

2) Who is your Business Partner and What is Their Role? 

A: “So, I don’t personally write the menus here, one of the best things I did was I spent a brief period of time at The Foundry and I met, who would end up being my chef here and business partner.  He was the sous chef down there, he was the assistant to the executive chef and he just shared the same passion for quality and consistency and creative integrity that I do. So, I take care of the bar, I make all the cocktails, I write that program because it’s just as extensive as our food program here. We have an entire kitchen set aside just for the bar, just for making all of our cordials, syrups, juices, infusions and garnishes, so it’s really extensive.  To find someone who’s as passionate as I am about drinks but about food, is amazing.  We were 24 when we opened this restaurant together and as in any field of being an entrepreneur it’s just so important to know just to let go and let others delegate.  Let the people who are as passionate as you are about what they do, take care of it.”    

3) Were there any struggles when opening your business or even now that the doors are open? 

A: “One of the main struggles was not necessarily knowing what to do, like a step-by-step sequence of opening because we have never done it before and because we had such a tight budget.  It was so fast, we got the keys in June and opened our doors in September so I think, there was so much stress and we were moving in such a fast pace that some of the finer details, I do not remember entirely.  It was 15 hour days for a long time and just getting the lease took a while as well.  Before we opened our doors, I worked at the restaurant that was here before us as a bartender.  I just remember standing behind that bar, as I watched them slowly start to fold in on themselves and think, ‘I know what I would do with this.’  And when they went out of business, that day we put a deposit down on the space.  It took us 4 long weeks waiting for the lease and pulling our hair out but ultimately, it came down to the people who previously owned it not wanting to really hand it over to us because we used to work for them.  Finding out how to deal with people who don’t want to see you succeed is the biggest struggle really.” 

4) In 5 Years, where would you like to be? 

A: “in 5 years, I see my self staying in Manchester for a while.  Not only do I really enjoy this city but I would really like to work on building a business model where you can penetrate a city and develop an offshoot of a few other concepts that capture revenue from different parts of the day, besides just dinner.  And then, once you develop that in one city, research different cities and see what those places are lacking just like we did here in Manchester with The Birch! Use that as a hotbed for innovation and developing concepts and do local offshoots there. I’m not really talking about creating a franchise, everything is going to be uniquely different, it all depends on what the city is lacking. So, I will stay here and work on building this out and developing a solid system so I can implement it elsewhere eventually.”

5) What is your favorite dish here and why? 

A: “One of my favorite dishes here is something we put on the menu this June, and they’re called Octopus Nuggets! It’s a full octopus arm, cut into sections, tempura battered, flash fried and served with Korean BBQ aioli and shaved scallions. The reason why it is my favorite is, one, it’s absolutely delicious and two, it’s the one dish on the menu that, I think, the outlandish aspect of how we see ourselves as crazy foodies and the approachable nature of fun, novelty food come together. People are super open to trying something they have never tried before because it’s presented in a way that’s familiar and also really tasty.  Some restaurants take themselves too seriously.  Just have fun with your menu, keep your quality high, keep your consistency high - you can break the mold a little bit and still be successful.” 

6) What would be your advice to someone who is opening a restaurant or starting their own business? 

A: “For restaurant specifically, if you are trying to open a restaurant and you’ve never worked in the industry, go work in a restaurant for a year. People who have the money to open a restaurant and just see it as being fun and easy, but they have never worked in the industry - its just not the reality.  This is my trade but I still struggle with the fact that I haven’t been doing this as long as most but I am also willing to put the hours in on a day-to-day basis to teach myself and close that gap. So, go work for someone for a year, learn the ropes and see if this is even something you want to do. For someone just opening a business in general, if you have the idea and the fire and are willing to put the work in, just do it, don’t wait. “ 

 2) Last Words

A: “Follow us on Facebook and Instagram at @thebirchonelm ! The website is www.thebirch.restaurant !” 

 

I loved seeing how passionate Joel is about his business and his vision.  This was a great meeting and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to meet with some talented entrepreneurs.  Head to their website to see their hours, menu and location!  Tell them the Blonde Boss sent you! 

 

-The Blonde Boss xo