Don’t you love it when a plan comes together? Of course, this is not always the case in the brewery and restaurant markets. In fact, it almost never happens. However, for Neil Byers, owner of Horse Thief Hollow, his vision for a unique destination serving “simple, well-done” food and beer came together nicely after a bit of gumption, a good amount of elbow grease and dash of good luck. Granted, the Hollow’s doors have only been open for a couple months, but the business already shows signs that it will be a staple on Chicago’s South Side for many years to come.
Located on Western Avenue in Beverly (known as the “Horse Thief Hollow” during the 1850s), amidst the area’s glut of dime-a-dozen Irish pubs, the Hollow brings a fresh and much-needed alternative to the neighborhood and its patrons. As the culmination of Byers’ last decade in the restaurant and brewery industries, the Hollow gives the impression of a seasoned restaurateur and not a guy a couple years shy of 30 who just opened up his first business.
After growing up on the South Side of Chicago and attending Mount Carmel High School, Byers worked as a chef and in food sales in South Carolina, where he learned a lot about southern-style cooking. About five years ago, his girlfriend (now fiancée), whose family has roots in the thriving craft beer states of Wisconsin and Colorado, introduced him to their many wonderful styles of beer. From that point on, Byers put his focus toward brewing, working from a home brew kit as well as spending time at Saugatuck Brewing in Michigan, where he learned about commercializing beers. In early 2012, Byers decided to venture out on his own with a business back in the community he grew up in and loved.
From there, Horse Thief Hollow began to take shape. Byers lucked out with a great corner space previously used as a carpet store where a beautiful vaulted wood beam ceiling and trusses lay behind the store’s drop ceiling. After tearing up the flooring from a second-floor room in the back of the store, the wood was used to create the Hollow’s massive bar hutch. Many other pieces of the space also were salvaged, including the immaculate front doors, the bar top and structure, and all of the tables. Byers even encourages local artists to hang their artwork on his walls.
The menu mixes Byers’ southern influences (a BBQ smoker takes up a large amount of the kitchen) with eclectic gastropub fare. He even incorporates his beer into a couple of dishes (Spent Grain Pretzels, Spent Grain Cookie Bars, 773 Stout Meatloaf, 773 Stout parfait).
The brewery uses a 5 BBL system with three fermenters and five conditioning tanks. All of the recipes stem from Byers’ home brewing experiments, which he hands off to Dave Williams, former head of the C.H.A.O.S. Brew Club, to brew in-house. The Hollow currently has five mainstay beers – the 18th Rebellion Kolsch, 773 Stout, Buck IPA, McGarry’s Irish Ale and Western Wheat – and will also be introducing some seasonal brews this year. All of these are currently brewed solely for the restaurant, but Byers is working on selling growlers and is testing the waters of keg distribution. In addition to its own beers, the Hollow serves a handful of guest craft beers on tap to help round out its selection.
As a first-time business owner with 46 employees, Byers is no doubt learning a lot on the fly, but with his laidback attitude and welcoming demeanor, it’s clearly evident that he isn’t easily rattled. Horse Thief Hollow, which he prefers to refer to as a “restaurant that serves its own beer,” has shown him, as well as anyone who passes through its doors, that a combination of passion, a focus on quality and a smile can go a long way.
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