As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Domitrovich.
Mark Domitrovich is the founder and CEO of Pioneer Tavern Group, which owns Lottie’s Pub, The Pony Inn, Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods. An entrepreneur by spirit, Domitrovich has always worked for himself. After graduating from The University of Kansas, Domitrovich founded a promotional products company that he went on to own for 12 years; this company eventually lead him into the hospitality industry. In 2002, he jumped at the opportunity to buy Lottie’s Pub, a Bucktown neighborhood institution. In 2010, Domitrovich purchased what is now The Pony Inn in Lakeview, and opened Frontier in Chicago’s West Town, Domitrovich’s first food-focused concept. Domitrovich opened his second food-focused concept, Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods, in 2018 as a tribute to New Orleans cuisine and atmosphere.
Pioneer Tavern Group concepts have gathered several notable accolades in print, online, and television, and have become extremely well-known for their various ventures throughout Chicago. Frontier has been mentioned in Thrillist’s “65 Things You Need to Eat in Chicago Before You Die” and Matador Network’s “24 Food Experiences You Need to Have in Chicago”, as well as featured on The Cooking Channel, Food Network as well as local Chicago TV. Ina Mae has gained national recognition from Tasting Table as one of the “Restaurants that Belong on Your Radar” and local recognition from Thrillist as one of the “Best Restaurants in Chicago”, among other mentions. In addition to both The Pony Inn and Lottie’s Pub being official Blackhawks bars, Lottie’s Pub has also gained much attention for being a recurring setting on NBC’s Chicago Fire as “Molly’s Bar”. When they’re not at Frontier, Lottie’s Pub, The Pony Inn or Ina Mae, the Pioneer Tavern Group team can be found at The United Center delivering food to Blackhawks players or hosting pop-up bars.
Outside of his work at Pioneer Tavern Group, Domitrovich is an avid equestrian, which is how he became involved with, and a board member of an organization called Equestrian Connection which provides therapeutic horseback riding for children and adults with disabilities.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit, so after I graduated from The University of Kansas, I started a promotional products company that ended up leading me to the restaurant and hospitality industry. In 2002, I purchased Lottie’s Pub, which has been a neighborhood institution in Chicago’s Bucktown since 1934, and it was the start of my professional career in hospitality. Eventually, I opened The Pony Inn in 2010 which started Pioneer Tavern Group, a neighborhood-focused hospitality group. Since 2010, Pioneer Tavern Group has grown to include two restaurants, Frontier and Ina Mae Tavern & Packaged Goods. We strive to offer unique experiences at each location where our guests can let loose, drink, dine, and socialize.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One specific mistake doesn’t come to mind, but I know I’ve never laughed as hard in my life as I did when I first started out in the hospitality industry. This industry is unlike any other, and I made a lot of mistakes trying to understand it. I met a lot of characters and there was definitely a learning curve to the crazy nuances of the business. The biggest takeaway from that time in my life was to learn from my mistakes by making changes and adapting. You have to enjoy every part of the business, even the mistakes, and have a good sense of humor about it all.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There isn’t a particular book or podcast, but early on I decided to go to a career counselor when I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go. It was one of the best decisions I made in the beginning of my professional career. When I told the counselor I was looking for a change, she walked me through exercises that made me think about what would make me a happier and better person. I realized I was interested in the hospitality industry and she helped me visualize what that career change could look like, how I would start that chapter, and what would make it work well. Reflecting on those conversations we had, I know that that was a pivotal time for me that laid the groundwork for my career and outlined a plan to get me to where I am today.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I was looking for a career change, I decided I wanted to focus on something that would make me happy and give me something to be proud of. I think if you are doing something you enjoy, you will want to work hard for it and the success will follow.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
It sounds simple, but always do the right thing no matter the situation. Business gets hard, no matter the industry you are in, but if you stay true to yourself, your partners, and the business, you’ll be better off in the end.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Navigating Covid-19 has been one of the biggest challenges in my life thus far. It has been an emotional rollercoaster, bracing for what is to come and being ready at any moment to make a change. I’ve learned to adapt and pivot my thinking, my business practices, my social life, and everything in between.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We have been faced with massive challenges in the hospitality industry, as restaurants and bars were some of the last to be reinstated. For a while, the looming question was if we would even be able to survive the shutdown. Now that we are slowly reopening, we are presented with a host of new challenges — new operating procedures for health and safety, operating at limited capacity, adapting to the continued demand for carry-out and delivery services, among others. We continue to take it all in stride and adapt as we go. This is unchartered territory for us all, and we need to remain patient and optimistic as we continue to move forward.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
My biggest piece of advice to friends, family, fellow business owners, is that you have to keep moving forward and be willing to adjust. No one has the right answer and there is no blueprint for how to handle this; but whether you are adjusting your mindset, your business model, or your daily routine, we must cautiously move forward into this new normal in order to survive.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
With adversity, there is always opportunity. We kept our restaurants open during the pandemic for carry-out and delivery at a loss so that we could keep the conversation going with our guests. We worked really hard to be creative, have fun, and be industry leaders, which has now given us the opportunity to re-open ahead of our competitors. We are seeing support from the community and customers are thanking us for being a positive part of quarantine. That is now giving us the opportunity to have a larger voice and reach, and it is allowing us to continue the conversation we started.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There will be obvious changes in hygiene, social distancing, and business practices, but the biggest change is that everyone’s social awareness is greater. People had a lot of time to reflect, refocus, and reprioritize during quarantine and I think it will bring a lot of positivity to everyone’s life. That positivity will spread to the way we interact with friends, strangers, and the way we socialize.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“The speed of the leader is the speed of the team.” If the business isn’t important to you, it won’t be important to those you work with. When it comes to owning a business, you have to be a leader and set the tone for the people who work with you.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best place to follow along with the restaurants is on Instagram @InaMaeTavern and @FrontierChicago