Richie Cunningham had one; so did Jack Tripper. One of the most popular elements in TV history has been the "hangout." Much like that classic haunt, Cheers, the idea for Hard Times Café was to create a place where everybody knows your name.
A former graphic designer, Fred Parker never had a place to hang out . . . so he created his own. In 1980, with no background in the restaurant business, he and his brother Jim became co-founders of the Hard Times Café by matching their family's chili with some good beer and country music. The result was a bonafide hit. "It became incredibly popular," says Fred. "We'd have lines around the block. It was so successful we had to build others."
Fred, now 58, and Jim, 54, saw an opportunity to expand their creation in 1997, when Dan Rowe, franchisor of the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, stumbled into the restaurant as a customer. "They make sure the concept doesn't evolve too far from what made it so popular," says Rowe, now CEO of the Alexandria, Virginia-based franchise.
Rowe hopes to grow from 14 units to 30 by the end of the year, expanding in the Midwest and East. Rowe warns that this opportunity is not for absentee owners-in their most successful stores, the owner/operators make sure their influence is strongly felt.
Hard Times Cafe, (800) 422-2435, http://www.hardtimes.com