It was an unexpected aspect, to be sure; a welcome – if unforseen – success that turned Matt Tobin and Josh Yingling’s project into what it is today. Though the drinks, the initial sole stars of the show, are surely in line with their vision, there’s a hole in the wall near the back of the neighborhood bar that changed the perspective and widened the focus of Goodfriend Beer Garden and Burger House: that small 8-by-3-foot opening is where the burgers come from. And the burgers changed everything.
“I don’t know if we planned on being as much of a restaurant as we’ve become, and I think that was simply because we didn’t have a lot of experience working at places that had a huge focus on food,” says Tobin, who co-owns Vickery Park and spent time working at The Dubliner. “Of the places I’ve worked, food has definitely not been the central mindset. But that’s happened here, and we’re very happy about it. It’s a large reason for our success, so when I say that it’s different than how we envisioned it, that’s exactly what I mean.”
Goodfriend, which celebrated its first anniversary in October, was planned originally as a neighborhood bar, focusing on drinks and a few select cocktails, as Tobin and co-owner Yingling will quickly observe. The beer selection – 10 static beers on tap and 10 that rotate, along with fifty bottled options and dozens of growlers alike – was intended to be the draw, and a carefully crafted selection of cocktails would complement it; the plan was successfully implemented. Local brewers can always be found on tap – Lakewood and Peticolas are frequently present – and a dedication to finding the best, most interesting beers available is evident to whoever chooses to delve into the selection.
But it wasn’t just selection that Tobin and Yingling were looking for – while there are plenty of good drinks to be had, it was equally important to get a distinct, can’t-put-your-thumb-on-it atmosphere that makes a local bar a truly neighborhood bar.
“You can build a place and you can have an idea of what you want it to look like and how you want it to feel, but the aesthetics are just one thing. It goes deeper than that,” Yingling says. “And I think that’s one of the cooler things, is when people walk in here and they’re like, ‘Wow, this is really comfortable! I just want to hang out.'”
“Believe me,” Tobin adds, “We are not under the impression that we’re the only place in town where you can get good food and beer; at the end of the day, the thing that keeps me coming back to a place is the people that work there. And the staff that we have here is fantastic. They’re really good at making people feel welcome. And they’ve really bought in to what’s going on, and they enjoy it. They really own it every day, and that’s what keeps people coming back.”
And whereas the bar and the beers are exactly what Tobin and Yingling were gunning for, it’s been the burgers that have acted as the wild card at Goodfriend, and with the help of Jeana Johnson and Colleen O’Hare, that wild card has rounded out a pretty impressive hand.
If you were to follow that aforementioned hole in the wall, you would find yourself in the kitchen of Johnson and O’Hare’s Good 2 Go Taco, which is where the burgers for Goodfriend are made. It’s certainly not an orthodox solution to a bar’s foodservice approach, but in this particular case, a little ingenuity has gone a long way.
“After they opened Good 2 Go Taco at the Greenspot (Good 2 Go’s first location), I’d stop every morning on my way to work and get tacos and hang out with them, and they really started coming into Vickery a lot. They were doing really well with Good 2 Go and they were talking about leaving the Greenspot and trying a standalone location; they decided to put Good To Go here,” recalls Tobin. “And Gina was like, ‘You know there’s two other spots in there.’ Well, right around that time, Josh had come to me and said he was done managing and wanted to leave to open his own place. And I was like, ‘You’re not getting away from me.’ So we decided to come and do something, but we needed a spot.
“It was really Gina’s plan, her idea the whole time – she was like ‘Look, we’ll do your food for you. It just makes sense. We’ll build a way bigger kitchen than we need, and we only want to be open during the day anyway. We have no desire to be open for dinner, and you guys can be open for dinner.’ And boom! That’s where it started and it really just grew from there. We’ve had to figure it out because it’s gotten a little tricky from a permit side, from a TABC side, and we still deal with a little bit of that. But we’re definitely on the up-and-up and here for the long haul.”
And while it took a little getting used to – “Everything about this business is a learning process,” Yingling says – the first year of Goodfriend was certainly one that involved a change in perception. It has established itself as a neighborhood bar, just not entirely in the way Tobin and Yingling initially envisioned it.
“This is somewhere you can go and feel like you can bring the kids, and it’s not a big chain, or something contrived,” Tobin says. “This is real, it’s me and Josh. And it speaks to that every day. The crowd seems to love it and the neighborhood really, really has embraced us.”