Labour of love

They say that there is nothing better than a good love story, and for sports bar and restaurant chain O’Learys the last 30-plus years of success stems from one man’s love of sports, the city of Boston and one particular woman

Scratch beneath the surface and you will quickly find that the tale of O’Learys, the Swedish sports bar and restaurant chain, is in fact something of a love story. Indeed, it is one that began when the company’s founder Jonas Reinholdsson travelled to the United States as a teenager to work in Boston. As well as becoming instantly enamoured with the city’s culture, sport, bars and food, fate would bring him together with the girl he would fall in love with, that being one Anne O’Leary.

The pair would later return to Jonas’ native Sweden where, in Gothenburg, he would launch the country’s first genuine American sports bar in November 1988, one that bore the name of the girl he fell in love with. “Coming at a time before sports events were shown on a truly commercial basis, the bar was an instant success,” explains O’Learys’ Chief Executive Officer, Fredrik Laurell. “Within a few years, Jonas set about with plans to open new bars and restaurants in Sweden. As an incredibly social person with a rare ability to connect with people, Jonas was already an extremely well-known person at the time, and this resulted in a number of people coming to him directly to ask about the opportunity to run an O’Learys restaurant.”

Successful concepts
The first O’Learys franchise opened its doors in 1998, and by 2000, 20 restaurants had been established in Sweden. Four years later, the international expansion of the brand commenced in earnest, and today it has 131 locations around the world. These are always situated in busy environments, with the company’s business concept encompassing three unit types whose design and format can be adapted to the desired location.

‘O’Learys Classic’ is the full-sized bar and restaurant concept, offering a full range of food and beverages, and of course, several screens offering great sports viewing. ‘O’Learys Travel’, meanwhile represents a bar and restaurant unit with a slightly smaller range of food and drink designed specifically for travel locations, such as airports. Lastly, ‘O’Learys Event Centers’ house not only the brands complete bar and restaurant offering, but also a number of sub-concepts on the premises. These include, bowling alleys, mini-golf areas, laser tag arenas, climbing walls and go-karting. One O’Learys location in Estonia is even connected to a cinema, meaning visitors can order food from the bar before taking their seat to watch the latest blockbuster films.

“Of course, we are not the first brand to offer bowling or pool tables alongside a food and beverage service, but what we have done extremely well is integrate all of the activities and experiences we provide into one successful concept,” Fredrik adds. “Customers today expect more than just great food and drink. Instead they want to experience something special and social, which helps bring people together. Our Events Centers are truly unique in that respect and we will be focusing on these more in the coming years as we expand, particularly in big cities and internationally.”

Updated menus
The United States food and beverage scene is a hotbed of different tastes and recipes that take inspiration from around the world, and the city of Boston, being one of the continent’s oldest, prides itself on the great food available within its various bars and restaurants. Understandably, Jonas made it his mission to bring this passion for great food to Sweden and the rest of Europe when embarking on the growth journey of O’Learys. Today, its menus feature all the classic staples of American and Tex-Mex cuisine – be it burgers, ribs, wings or quesadillas – as well as a generous range of vegan and vegetarian dishes.

“While all of our bars and restaurants operate within a fairly strict framework when it comes to their respective menus – one which remains true to our Bostonian concept – we still do our best to respond to new consumer trends,” Fredrik confirms. “One of the things we have recently done is move away from the use of artificial proteins in our vegetarian and vegan options, in order to place a greater emphasis on freshly grown ingredients. This has resulted in the introduction of popular new items, such as our mushroom burger, for example.”

Speaking of new items, 2018 was a year in which the company spent a great deal of time and effort cultivating ideas for inclusion in an updated menu, which is placing renewed emphasis on the use of fresh ingredients and is slowly starting to be rolled out across its many locations. “To date, we have been trialling this new menu at three test locations, and it has been a huge hit with our customers,” Fredrik enthuses. “We will follow this up by introducing it to 25 of our restaurants in Sweden in May 2019, and then across even more locations around the world throughout the course of the year.”

A key support mechanism being used by the company to successfully implement said new menu is its recently inaugurated training and education centre in Stockholm. “In recent times, we have made a concerted effort to try and standardise our approach to training and development, but not only through the use of traditional tools such as manuals and guides,” Fredrik continues. “The result of these efforts is the opening of our centre in Stockholm, where we will be able to welcome employees from across our global network and help them to grow in all manner of aspects of the business, from front-of-house service through to culinary skills, with the latter taking place in our state-of-the-art culinary school. We officially welcomed the first class of the O’Learys culinary school on March 4th, 2019, and look forward to seeing many more pass through its doors in the months and years to come.”

New leadership team
Despite some unforeseen challenges resulting from a record-breaking summer of hot temperatures across Europe, 2018 was another growth year for O’Learys, with a number of its international locations – particularly those in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore – performing very well indeed. Now, Fredrik believes 2019 will be something of a consolidation year, albeit one that will see additional locations open in Sweden, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, UAE and Sao Paolo, Brazil.

“In December 2018, O’Learys went through the first large-scale reorganisation in its 30-year history as we look to become an increasingly more efficient business and bring greater top-line sales to our restaurants,” Fredrik details. “Since then, we have recruited not only a new CEO, who will begin work in June 2019, but also a Chief Expansion Officer, and we will also be looking to bring in a new Chief Operating Officer in the near future. Together, this new leadership team will be responsible for driving the strategy of our owners into 2020 and beyond.”

Further supported by the undiminished drive, energy and enthusiasm of Jonas, the long-term potential of the O’Learys brand remains massive, especially outside of Scandinavia, Fredrik states. “We like to say that ‘we live for people who live for sports’, and that is absolutely the truth, and because of that we love what we do! That passion has helped us collectively to build something very special in O’Learys, that being a sports restaurant chain of such size and scale that it is rarely found anywhere outside of the United States!”