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movers and shakers: red oak pub

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for content and space.

Even three years ago in Central Ohio, it was somewhat of an anomaly for a bar to have 20 beer taps. This was certainly the case in Newark when Red Oak Pub opened in 2012.

There were doubters, for sure, owner Mike Sarap said.

“No one had heard of 20 taps at that time,” Mike said. “Everyone was like, ‘No way Newark will support 20 beers. You’re nuts.’”

Today, only a few domestic macro beers make up the tap list (Coors was eventually dropped for underperformance, in fact), and it’s safe to say the pub has successfully transitioned from its previous iteration as an Italian restaurant.

And yet, that success isn’t exactly directly tied to the beer. Talk to Mike for even a few minutes and the real attraction is clear:

“Oh hey, there’s Jim, he was just in here the other day. He is in from Youngstown, but he’s in here everyday. And there’s Marge. Marge loves to talk about China. And there’s Dan, he is 23 years in the Navy. And J.J. is a National Guard guy. Loves to drink double Jack and Coke.”

The stories continue for nearly everyone in the fairly packed pub, which is saying something as this all occurs during that mid-afternoon dead spot between lunch and dinner.

We sat down with Mike and his wife, Andre, recently to discuss how RDP foodservice played a role in this transition.

Red Oak was previously an Italian restaurant, which you were also the owner of, is that right?

Mike: We were, yes. We were an Italian restaurant, and when the economy shifted in 2008, we shifted and changed. Good food wasn’t cutting it anymore. I had this concept in mind and I knew it was going to be amazing. Andre and I decided to make the change in 2012.

How long were you the Italian restaurant?

Mike: We were an Italian restaurant for 12 and 1/2 years before we shut down in 2012.

Same space and everything?

Mike: Yeah, same footprint, everything. But if you were to walk in then and come in now, there’s nothing similar except this lofted area and the booths — that’s it. It was 100 percent different. No one walks in here now and says, “Oh, this was an Italian restaurant before.” The only way they know that is if they were here when we were. There are a lot of folks that were customers that still come in today, in fact.

The economy played a role in the change, but can you talk a little more about the other reasons you made the switch?

Mike: The casual dining sector, in my opinion, is going by the wayside. When our parents were taking us out to dinner back in the day, just having dinner was fine. Today it’s about the younger generation. They’re so amazingly intelligent and can multitask. You know, you’re on the computer, you’re on your phone, you’re texting — you’re able to do so many different functions at a time. Sitting down at a casual dining environment is kind of like crickets. It’s crickets. We wanted to know, “How can we engage?”

At first, Andre and I looked at franchises, because it is a very scary to go from one concept to another concept in the same location, same building. The percentages are very high for failure. I’m talking 90 percent for failure.

So we looked at the overall landscape of what’s going on, and craft beer was just really growing some legs. We knew we wanted to have craft beer, but being in a smaller town, we didn’t know how it’d go over.

We started with the main domestics and we brought on some good Ohio beers, and then we said, “Let’s create a fun environment. Let’s create an environment where we will have TVs, the music playing is not today’s music, but music younger generations will recognize as classic and my generation will recognize it as what they grew up with.” We picked out cozy, earthly tones. Then we have this beautiful, natural brick.

We also wanted it to be a place if you had children, you’d feel comfortable bringing your children, even though the bar is right in the middle of the restaurant. That was no small feat.

We are genuinely classy with just a hint of trashy. We have something for everybody, but it isn’t too much, meaning why does Mark feel comfortable coming in here? Or the older women? We have older women all day long and we have older men, like Red right behind me. So what attracts them? But also, what attracts this young guy at the high top that just ate a burger, along with everyone in between them?

What role did RDP play during the transition?

It was interesting how that worked. We looked at it and said, you know, just as we went with Adornetto’s, they have done one other broadline customer, and that was just about the time they were really looking to go more broadline with everything. It has been a phenomenal job.

I said, “Can we do this?” and my sales rep said, “Anything you need, we will get done.”

You’ve said you wanted to have a really strong emphasis on local ingredients, which also seems a little bit ahead of its time for Newark. What kind of role did RDP play in helping you find local suppliers?

Mike: When you say local sourcing, I’m not on the level of Chipotle. I don’t have the resources to go do that. We go through so much. But 50 percent of our beer is Ohio beer now, our burgers come from Mt. Vernon, which is right up the road. RDP was a huge part.

I knew I wanted to bring my produce out of Columbus. We use Midwest Fresh for that, so the produce comes to them and then we get it directly. RDP does 98 percent of my product and they’re a huge part of all that, getting the chicken and chicken wings in fresh. Our dressings, eight out of 10 of them are made here from scratch. We get the raw ingredients and make them here. Seven out of the 10 wing sauces are made here from scratch. and all of that comes from RDP, whether it’s the butter, cayenne mix, or the salmon.

Can you give us a time that RDP has gone beyond for you?

Mike: All the time. So one of their suppliers was having problems with pickles. Deep-fried pickles is a fair part of our business. My sales rep is on the phone trying to find another supplier and then things went wrong with that pickle supplier. So my rep, immediately, got on the phone with another pickle supplier, got them, and I said, “I am not going to go without them here,” this past weekend, on Friday. He said, “I will personally get these to you.” He drove up the cases we needed for this weekend because people can get grumpy if you are out of a product.

Can you talk about the new menu and how RDP played a role in that?

Mike: We wanted to have some items on our menu that were guacamole-based, and so I said to my sales rep, “Do you carry guacamole?” And he was like, “Nope, haven’t had that one! But we will get one in.” So they did some research and I got the best one for a fair price. It’s just a basic guacamole and then we tweak it. And now we have, what I feel, is the best burger we’ve ever made, called the Si Senor, which is the fresh patty with the guacamole, fresh pico di gallo, jalapenos and a brioche bun. It came all together.

Likewise, I wasn’t happy with our roast beef sandwich. It was a great roast beef, but some things you can’t get to my satisfaction. It was OK, but i just could not get it. And I told my rep, “Help me here. What’s the solution to this?” And he says, “Why don’t we try a sirloin fajita strip and do a sirloin filling with the sliced meat?” Bingo. It’s fantastic. It isn’t guacamole, but that’s another thing we added.

RDP is just as much in the consulting business with me as they are in the “just give me a product.”

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