Blue Wolf Tavern recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary of business in Youngstown. In these 20 years, the restaurant has experienced ups and downs, but right now, Blue Wolf is thriving.
The tavern has been shaping the local restaurant scene in an impactful way since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, and the decisions made during that turbulent time set the stage for a successful 20th year in business in 2021.
But if there’s one thing we know, it’s that great businesses don’t become great overnight. Behind the success is hard work, hard decisions, and hard risks taken.
Blue Wolf Tavern history
Joe Rzonsa began Blue Wolf Tavern in downtown Struthers in 2001 with the help of some partners. News coverage for the restaurant first appeared in an announcement in the local newspaper, revealing that chefs from a local restaurant were leaving to start a new American-styled restaurant in Struthers.
At first, the tavern didn’t see much of a need for marketing or advertising. It’s understandable, as any business starting out doesn’t always have a budget for promotional investments. For Joe and his partners at the time, word-of-mouth marketing was what they believed would spark their success.
The restaurant began to accumulate a great following of local customers, and word-of-mouth marketing worked well enough at the start. Brand awareness was starting to grow within the Mahoning Valley.
The pack moves to Boardman
In 2004, Blue Wolf Tavern moved from Struthers to Boardman. By this time, Joe still had a number of partners, and marketing wasn’t a priority because the owners knew they had a great reputation. Here and there, they’d pay for a radio spot around lunchtime to catch people when they were hungry, but that was the extent of their marketing strategy.
The marketing tide shifted once the recession of 2008 hit, and it hit hard. Joe shared that the 2008 recession was the most challenging 18 months of their 20-year tenure, even more so than the current pandemic. However, during the recession, Blue Wolf was still one of the most popular and well-known restaurants in the area.
During this time, the market was becoming saturated with more restaurant choices, without a significant population growth. Joe realized he had to decide which steps to take to keep his market share and grow it during a hard time.
Building the brand through marketing
Around this time, Joe bumped into PALO Creative President/CEO Rob Palowitz, whom he had known for years. Joe knew a bit about Rob’s business, but it was then that he realized Rob might be able to help forge a new path in Blue Wolf’s business.
“After that, it was easy,” Joe commented.
The team at PALO Creative knew what to do to keep Blue Wolf Tavern top-of-mind in the local community. Top-of-mind awareness is important, Joe says, because “you remember the experiences you’ve had at restaurants. Throw your logo and name in front of people, even when they aren’t hungry, and they’ll remember you when they are.”
Blue Wolf Tavern was one of PALO Creative’s first restaurant clients, so this new venture was a learning experience for both. They first started small with print ads in local papers to target specific communities that were most likely to eat out, as well as the established customer base they already had.
It worked in its early stages, but eventually, people relied less on print publications. Blue Wolf began to shoot TV commercials with PALO Creative, which proved to be one of the biggest keys to their success.
Once they turned their attention to TV airtime, Blue Wolf Tavern began to see results almost immediately from their commercials. Numbers were up 30% on the same day the commercial aired! Since then, the impact has lessened, but Joe believes TV is still the fastest and easiest way to generate foot traffic to his restaurant. They still produce commercials with PALO.
Dabbling in digital marketing
Back in the day, Joe and his team were confident that they already knew everything they needed to succeed. But one of the lessons Joe has learned over the past 20 years is that he doesn’t know how to do everything. He’s a fantastic chef and a charming people person, but when it comes to marketing and advertising, he knew he needed a team like PALO Creative to help.
In the more recent years, Blue Wolf has turned its efforts to the digital space, as more customers occupy it by the day. Presently, PALO Creative helps the restaurant with digital marketing strategy through search engine optimization, geo-targeting, social media ads, graphic design elements, and more.
A proven, results-driven marketing strategy elevates our clients’ space in the competitive field, and Blue Wolf is no exception. Powerful marketing choices have made this Wolf into an alpha.
Healthy competitive spirit
When asked how Blue Wolf Tavern differs from its competitors, Joe commented that they don’t wait to see what other people do; they try things on their own. Sometimes these ideas work well, and other times they fail. But being a trendsetter and someone with original ideas is very important to Joe.
Blue Wolf Tavern has befriended other local restaurants with the intention of helping each other out. Joe’s perspective is that when his nearby competition does well, he does well too. Traffic generates more traffic. He doesn’t get worried when new restaurants open around Blue Wolf because his restaurant often gets the overflow from new competitors. This way, everyone’s succeeding.
“We love local competition from independently-owned restaurants because the money stays here in the Mahoning Valley, and it comes back to us again and again,” – Joe Rzonsa, Blue Wolf Tavern
Another factor that sets Blue Wolf apart from the competition is the speed of its decision-making. The COVID-19 pandemic that’s still ongoing has been hard for everyone, and unfortunately, many businesses had to shut their doors as a result.
Staying on top of their game during the pandemic
Joe credits fast decision-making for the success Blue Wolf had during the pandemic. When the first quarantine announcement hit last March, Blue Wolf responded immediately by offering delivery with a third-party service and doing as much carryout service as possible.
Joe also told his employees that he had work and paychecks for those who wanted to stay, but he also understood if they wanted to leave. Ninety percent of Joe’s employees stayed working, and the restaurant’s numbers were very close to what they normally did pre-quarantine.
When they finally opened their doors again months later, people remembered Blue Wolf from their work during quarantine when much of the rest of the world was closed down.
“Human nature craves routine, and we offered that routine,” Joe observed.
Routines play a role in consistency. In terms of his brand, “We made a reputation for ourselves based on our food and consistency in our preparation, pricing, service styles and cuisine,” Joe said.
Consistency in his product and service is one of Joe’s most important values. As the owner/Executive Chef, Joe spends time every day at his restaurant, even if it’s just a quick stop to make sure everything is running smoothly. Blue Wolf Tavern has been a staple in the restaurant industry of Youngstown for 20 years now, and Joe credits much of that to consistency.
Over the years, Blue Wolf Tavern has taken risks and made changes, but to Joe Rzonsa, staying put and doing nothing is a bigger risk than changing and growing.
For the past 11 years, we’ve been working closely with Blue Wolf and focusing on growing together. It’s a wonderful experience for us to not only help our clients like Blue Wolf achieve their goals, but to also form a close friendship in the process. When our clients succeed, we succeed, and this mutual win keeps us moving forward with a Gameplan for Growth.