When Jim Lolli launched The Hungry Monk in 2010, he obviously wanted to serve good food. Nothing fancy, mind you. Just inexpensive pub fare like burgers and wings. But good pub fare.
Lolli also wanted to incorporate his longtime passions for craft beer and sports. He even came up with a slogan to define his goal for the Chandler restaurant and bar: “Where great food, craft beer and sports collide.”
As “The Monk,” as it’s affectionately known to its legions of devoted fans, approaches its all-day fifth anniversary party Saturday, it’s safe to say, by any measure, Lolli has been wildly successful.
Related: 5 ways The Hungry Monk is celebrating its 5th anniversary
Sure, you can find restaurants with fancier food. You can find bars with more beers on tap. You can find sports bars with more TVs.
No place in the Valley, however, seems to put it all together like The Hungry Monk.
‘‘We got a Best of Phoenix award from New Times,” Lolli says, “and the article said, ‘A lot of people struggle to do one thing well. These guys figured out how to do three things well. The food’s very good, great craft beer bar, and they do sports very well.’
‘‘And that’s what I really wanted. That was the goal.”
Hockey to human resources
Born and raised in Detroit, Lolli’s dream was to play professional hockey. “But something happened. It was called lack of talent,” he says in a quip more humble than accurate.
Having worked in concession stands since age 15, he began manager training at McDonald’s and had his own restaurant by age 20. After a few years, he jumped to a human resources position at Little Caesar’s.
In 1992, Lolli’s wife, Carol, was recruited to run a Sports Authority store in Phoenix, and he got an HR job with a Valley pharmaceutical company. And then a chemical company. And then an aerospace company.
In 2007, after 26 years in the corporate world, Lolli decided it was enough.
“I wanted to get back to my roots in the restaurant industry,” he says. “But I’d been out of it for so long, I really did not have the confidence to develop my own concept.”
He decided to open a franchise of a fast-growing, Cincinnati-based chain called Buffalo Wings & Rings, often compared to Buffalo Wild Wings.
“When I chatted with them, they had never had anybody do the craft beer thing, so they gave me permission to do carte blanche,” he said.
After finding a 3,600-square-foot location he liked on busy Chandler Boulevard just east of Dobson, Lolli opened his doors in 2008, doing “reasonably well” for the first two years.
Then there was a leadership change at Wings & Rings. Suddenly, Lolli no longer had carte blanche with his 27 craft beer taps.
“Basically they accused me of bastardizing their concept,” Lolli says. “They said I could only have 10 tap handles, and they would dictate what beers would be on them.
‘‘I told them to pound sand.’’
Lolli negotiated out of his franchise agreement, and prepared to open his own concept, similar to what he already was doing. He just needed a new name.
“I went on a couple of beer websites and wrote down the names of the top 100 beer bars in country,” he says. “The name ‘Monk’ popped up twice, and I really liked that name.
‘‘The 16th- and 17th-century Trappist monks in Europe were the best brewers on the globe, so I knew I wanted that name. I stuck the moniker ‘Hungry’ in front of it for the food aspect.”
Something for everyone
The Hungry Monk kept about 60 percent of the Wings & Rings menu, by Lolli’s estimate, and all 27 beer taps. In those days, it was one of the only places in the Valley where you’d find six or seven IPAs on at the same time.
“Fast forward to now, everybody carries craft beer,’’ Lolli says. ‘‘Everybody rotates their handles very aggressively. So we’ve kinda throttled back on the IPAs. Now we have much more variety.”
Imperial stouts and IPAs remain his personal preference of beer styles, but his changing-daily tap list is a draw for beer geeks and novices alike, drawn by promotions like the Monk’s popular $3 Craft Beer Wednesdays.
They also come for a hundred other reasons. An early-morning World Cup soccer match, a Detroit Tigers season opener, a men’s catwalk for breast cancer, a Beer & Bacon Night, a beer-and-doughnuts breakfast, a chili cook-off, a stouts-and-pancakes dinner…
And then there are the many food specials, both weekly ($9.99 all-you-can-eat boneless wings on Mondays, 59-cent wings on Tuesdays, etc.) and everyday (a $6.99 lunch menu, including side and beverage).
‘‘We’re regular-driven, there’s no question about it,” Lolli says. ‘‘About 80 percent of our customers are very loyal. We see them all the time. The other 20 percent probably come in three or four times a year.’’
Hitting the road
Perhaps The Monk’s greatest asset, though, is it’s comfortable, no-drama, everyone’s-welcome attitude, something exemplified by the laid-back Lolli and appreciated not only by customers but also breweries and distributors.
‘‘At the end of the day, the beer community has insanely embraced us,’’ Lolli says. ‘‘I kinda don’t want this to be in an article, but – you know what? – we’re not assholes to deal with. We don’t ask for much.
‘‘I hear this from almost every distributor: ‘You guys are the easiest to work with.’ I don’t moan and groan about anything. I don’t demand anything. If you can get (a certain beer), great. If not, no worries.’’
The Hungry Monk has spread its wings in recent years. It debuted a food truck, known as The Traveling Monk, in 2013. And this summer it opened a second location in Prescott, where Lolli and his wife have a second home.
Lolli admits the Prescott venture wasn’t really planned. Rather, the opportunity presented itself when downtown’s Firehouse Kitchen unexpectedly went up for sale and was too good of a deal to pass up.
Despite his corporate background, Lolli says he has no plans to build an entire chain of Hungry Monks.
‘‘I tell everyone if I ever try to open another restaurant, someone has permission to smack me.’’
(E.V. Originals are a series of occasional profiles chronicling the backstories of the places that give the East Valley’s food and drink scene its distinctive flavor.)
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