'I'm 100% confident': Rosemont entertainment district owners hopeful for 2022 rebound
Mike Matuschka admits that out of habit, every time he gets out of his car, he's still reaching for a mask before going inside a business.
"Obviously, that's still on people's minds all the time," he said.
But two years after the pandemic started -- and a year after it was the final straw that led to the closing of his struggling German beer hall in Rosemont's entertainment district -- Matuschka is putting down roots and doubling down on his investment there.
He and his business partner, father Joe, have retooled and reinvented a portion of the cavernous former Hofbräuhaus Chicago into a pizzeria and craft beer bar -- a concept he believes will be more financially successful year-round.
At the same time, he's hoping the pandemic is finally turning the corner into an endemic.
"Honestly, I'm 100% confident. I believe people are not going to be put back in lockdown. I don't think people are not going to want to go out anymore. They've been in for two years," said Matuschka, who opened Crust Brewing at Rosemont's Parkway Bank Park in February. "This village -- this entertainment district -- you're not going to hold anyone down here. Without having my crystal ball, I'm 100% -- this is going to be a home run."
It's a similar level of confidence expressed by others who manage or own venues within the 200,000-square-foot complex adjacent to the Tri-State Tollway -- home to 15 dining and entertainment venues -- that might have been the suburban poster child of how the pandemic affected the hospitality industry.
As they prepare for the warmer spring and summer months -- when free weekly concerts typically draw thousands to the park -- the business proprietors are talking more like it's 2019 again.
"We've gotta double down. We're there already," said Kevin Killerman, who is owner or partner in several venues at the park. "There's great restaurants and entertainment there. Where else can you get free parking and concerts and ice skating and walk from place to place? There's so many options."
Killerman is part of a group of investors buying the other part of the former 20,000-square-foot Hofbräuhaus from the village. He and Braden Real Estate Chairman/CEO Marc Offit partnered with Texas businessmen Corey Urbach and Greg Sacony to bring Pete's Dueling Piano Bar back to the entertainment district.
The 5,800-square-foot piano bar opened April 1, as renovations are nearly complete on an adjoining 1,800-square-foot bar that will open as Pete's Tiki Tiki in May.
The first iteration of the piano bar opened in November 2019 in a different building in the entertainment district, but closed the following March amid the outbreak of COVID-19. After a brief summer 2020 reopening for outdoor dining and limited indoor seating, Pete's closed and was converted into the Verilife recreational marijuana dispensary, which is leasing the building from Killerman and Offit.
"It's legal, and it's a great, safe place to go," said Killerman, who said the variety of venues in the park offers something for everyone, "from 2 years old to 82 years old."
While trying to maintain its family-friendly daytime image, the park has evolved since its opening a decade ago to become a major Northwest suburban night life destination.
That's why Killerman and village officials were confident in bringing back the piano bar, which opened to large crowds and party bookings in 2019.
Next door, at the 13,400-square-foot pizzeria and brewery space the Matuschkas purchased from the village -- previously, they leased the entire building for Hofbräuhaus -- the owners say they've had early success since introducing the new concept in February.
They've kept the brewing equipment from Germany -- nine massive fermentation tanks that face the tollway outdoors, and eight serving tanks inside -- but otherwise completely transformed the interior. Crust's menu has seven staple beers that are brewed on site, and some two dozen Neapolitan-style pizzas.
Hofbräuhaus -- a draw in September and October and on weekends, but quiet on summer weeknights -- might have been able to survive, but in a smaller space, Matuschka said.
After an eight-year run with the German beer hall, he says he's happy how the new pizza and beer eatery is being received by customers.
"When was the last time you were going out for German food, and when was last time you went out for pizza?" Matuschka said. "Unfortunately in this hospitality business where the profit margins are slim enough, people don't go out for German all the time."