Wildwood Saloon finds quick success

by Gigi Wood

IOWA CITY – It’s the only country music bar around.

The tag line might work well on a marketing piece, but it made bankers shy away from the concept when two budding entrepreneurs were shopping for a loan. Those bankers are likely kicking themselves now. That country music bar turned its first profit six months in.

Joe Burnett and Randy Lee opened the Wildwood Smokehouse & Saloon on July 25 at 4919 B Walleye Dr. SE in Iowa City. The business is just south of Interstate 80 off the Herbert Hoover Highway exit.

“We picked this location because the (Iowa) DOT (Department of Transportation) estimates that about 35,000 vehicles go by on Interstate 80 daily,” Mr. Burnett said. “And a country bar and restaurant, we shouldn’t be downtown; country bars are usually on the edge of town, out in the country.”

The business partners were both part of the Wilton Community School District, Mr. Burnett as an administrator and Mr. Lee as a teacher. Both former bartenders at downtown Iowa City bars, the two sat down at the cafeteria for lunch one day and talked about their mutual dream to open a place of their own.

Mr. Burnett went home that night and sketched out preliminary plans in his kitchen, and those drawings are not too different from what exists today.

“We didn’t swerve from the original plans we drew up from day one to where we are now,” he said.

They signed a letter of intent to buy the property in July 2007 and were approved for their loan a year later. They began construction of their new building and completed it in July 2009.

“It was a challenge from a time perspective,” he said. “But we hooked up with the right people.”

They turned to a variety of local professionals who had been friends or business associates through the years, including a few former colleagues from their bartending days. Those connections helped them find a location, identify furnishings for the interior and bookings for concerts. They also received help from the University of Iowa Small Business Development Center (SBDC).

“We worked with (SBDC Director) Paul Heath for months and months,” Mr. Burnett said. “We wanted to live the dream and we didn’t give up. We were turned down by two or three banks. They said, ‘If a country music bar that serves barbecue is such a good idea, how come no one else is doing it?’ Basically, it just came down to believing in it and being persistent.”

So far, they’ve accomplished their dream. No other place in Eastern Iowa regularly hosts country music concerts, especially no bar that doubles as a barbecue restaurant.

“There’s nowhere around here that features country bands on a regular basis,” he said.

Since opening, Wildwood has hosted David Allan Coe, Justin Moore, Josh Thompson and Jake McVey, among others. Mr. Burnett contacted Ned Mendenhall, former downtown bartender and past owner of the First Avenue Club in Iowa City, who helped Wildwood make connections to book artists. Upcoming acts include Matt Mason, Southern Cross Band and Strangely Familiar.

“We have a lot of up-and-coming acts and try to keep it affordable, in the $15-$20 range,” he said. “They have to have a Top 25 hit and a lot of these young artists are hungry to play.”

The two-story building was designed around the concert stage, so musicians can be seen from every area of the restaurant and bar. Careful planning also went into the building’s acoustics, which is appealing to musicians, Mr. Burnett said.

The building interior looks like a barn and with good reason. Family friends in Atalissa were planning to tear down their barn, but Mr. Burnett asked them for materials. Timbers and planks were painstakingly removed from the barn and installed at Wildwood. The more than 100-year-old cedar gives the place an authentic look.

Some of the wood was used to create a checkered, tongue-and-groove look on the bar. Old heat lamps light fixtures and a tin roof were installed above the bar to complete the barn look. A few of the country-western paintings were salvaged from the Lone Star Steakhouse in Coralville, which closed after it flooded in 2008.

Hungry customers can eat lunch and dinner at Wildwood. The restaurant has a relatively small menu that includes rib platters and sandwiches such as pulled pork, pork tenderloin, beef brisket and burgers. The restaurant prepares foods from scratch, cooks meat in a smoker and created its own sauces, which they hope to bottle. Wildwood’s catering business is beginning to take off, as well.

“We decided to keep it simple and start with a small menu and get a few things really good before we expand it,” Mr. Burnett said. “We want to be known as the best in barbecuing and Southern hospitality.”

Upstairs there are pool tables and video games such as Big Buck Hunter. Every other week the “Spanky the Mechanical Bull” is set up on the dance floor. Flip-cup and beer pong tournaments are held about once a month. Two-dollar country dance lessons take place Tuesday nights, karaoke is Wednesdays and free country dance lessons take place Thursdays.

“We have so much to offer, you don’t have to be a cowboy to enjoy this place,” he said.

A key to the bar’s early success is its appeal to all ages, Mr. Burnett said.

“We get everyone from 19 to 80 years old, we’re not a downtown bar where we only have 21 to 23,” he said. “And everyone just blends in together, everyone fits in.”

The customer base continues to grow, as does the company’s Facebook fan count. When the bar opened in July, it quickly gained about 1,000 fans. Now it has 2,600.

In the fall, Wildwood can be found on Melrose Avenue seven weekends this fall, when it operates as a food vendor for UI football games. The stand will be located next to the Big-Ass Turkey Legs.