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Gilbert Asks the Experts: Restaurant Business Insights from Tavern on High Owners Ryan O’Connor and Paul Gargano

The first thing you will probably notice when you walk through the doors of Tavern on High, a restaurant located in the historic West Mill building of North Andover’s Machine Shop District, is how inviting and attractive the environment is. During the day, floor-to-ceiling windows let in abundant natural light and create a sense of spaciousness. Once the sun goes down, contemporary hanging chandeliers illuminate the eatery. Your attention will then certainly be drawn to the beautiful, high ceilings with their blond wood beams, as well as to the striking rectangular bar that creates an appealing buzz in the center of the main dining area. You’ll also see a variety of restaurant goers, from families and friend groups to couples enjoying a date night and solo diners, happily enjoying a classic American-style pub meal.

When you view its thoughtful décor and stylish yet relaxed ambiance, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that one of Tavern on High’s owners was formerly an architect. What might shock you, though, is that this popular spot for lunch and dinner opened during the pandemic—and it’s been thriving ever since. Ryan O’Connor (the former architect) and Paul Gargano, the co-owners of Tavern on High, suspect that, in addition to the pleasing comfort food available on the menu, the interior design of their restaurant—soaring ceilings and wide open spaces between the tables—played a big part in their early success.

“People were looking for a chance to leave their homes and go to a place where they could enjoy something like a normal life again, and we were able to provide that experience for them.”

– Paul Gargano

Tavern on High is not Ryan’s first try at being a restaurateur. A few years before the pandemic, he ventured into the industry, opening The Wine Lab in the same West Mill location. The Wine Lab was a niche business based on the concept that people would come by to sample wines, have a little nosh, and even make their own wine blends. While The Wine Lab was fun, and was beloved by a small but loyal contingent of customers, it never became the bustling enterprise that Ryan had hoped for. When the pandemic hit, he closed The Wine Lab. But the restaurant bug was in him. Soon, he and his husband (that’s Paul) came up with the concept for Tavern on High, which they envisioned as an upscale but casual American pub.

“We wanted the place to look and feel fantastic while serving up comfort food that would appeal to everyone from kids and their parents to travelers, partiers, and business diners—essentially, everyone from the North Andover neighborhoods.”

– Ryan O’Connor

And after a few months and a lot of hard work, their vision became reality and it’s been a runaway success ever since. So, Gilbert Insurance asked Paul and Ryan, who also happen to be our business insurance clients, to share some insights about what it takes to maintain a thriving restaurant and establish it in the hearts (and tummies) of the people and community it serves.

Four Tips from the Owners of Tavern on High Restaurant About Succeeding in One of the Most Challenging and Rewarding Industries

Lesson #1: Be as hands-on as you can be.

While most people understand that owning a restaurant will require an investment of time and money, they may not realize the amount of sweat equity they will need to put into it—24/7. For example, when a staff member calls in sick, Ryan or Paul often have to step up and cover that employee’s shift, whether as waitstaff, bartender, or even part of the kitchen team. You will rarely catch these owners hanging out at the bar enjoying one of the Tavern’s many local craft beers with their guests. Instead, on any given day, you’re more likely to catch a glimpse of Ryan or Paul working in the kitchen, washing dishes, bar backing, taking orders, clearing tables, bringing out the trash, and doing whatever else needs to get done to support their team and make sure customers are happy. Pitching in to help with anything and everything pays off in many ways, including that, by example, they are setting the standard for what they expect from their employees, cultivating a real team vibe, and gaining the respect and loyalty of their staff.

Lesson #2: You’re only as good as your team.

Ryan and Paul would not have a successful restaurant if it wasn’t for their fantastic staff. Many of their front-of-house employees have been with them since the restaurant’s first day. Of course, like many business owners today, Ryan and Paul do sometimes struggle to find enough staff, especially as they have grown. In the restaurant industry, the biggest challenge is getting great talent in the kitchen, which is obviously a critical component of having a successful place. Because their objective is to attract and retain the best, Paul and Ryan offer highly competitive salaries; in fact, they have raised them as much as 30% since opening to ensure that guests receive excellent service and food.

Another key to putting together a solid team was hiring both a general manager and an assistant manager to help them with the day-to-day operation of Tavern on High. Finally, the two owners have each other to lean on. With a restaurant staff of close to 50 individuals, one person alone would find it difficult to do all the marketing, payroll, ordering, managing of books, etc. Paul and Ryan split these tasks based on the strengths each one brings to the table. The restaurant business can be hectic, so one way to make sure you enjoy the craziness as much as possible is to work with people whose company you truly enjoy and whose skills and expertise make your job as an owner easier.

Lesson #3: Give back to the community that has been there for you.

Owning a successful restaurant was Ryan and Paul’s dream, but they know that it would not have come to fruition without the encouragement and backing of all their friends in North Andover and beyond. Now, more than ever, they are committed to giving back as much as possible. Most recently, Ryan and Paul held a charitable event that raised over $40,000 for two restaurants located directly across the street from Tavern on High that had been devastated by flash floods. Ryan and Paul also have several causes that are dear to their hearts, including many of North Andover’s high school sports teams, which they proudly sponsor. In addition, they held a fundraiser for McVAGLY, the Merrimack Valley Alliance of Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Youth, selling Pride T-shirts at the restaurant and donating all the proceeds to the organization. Ryan and Paul are dedicated to paying it forward and paving the way for fellow and future business owners, so they’ve joined up with the North Andover Merchants Association, which is committed to improving their town through the promotion, enhancement, and growth of local businesses.

Lesson #4: Make sure all that you’ve built is protected.

It took a lot of hard work, and required overcoming a few obstacles, but Tavern on High has turned out to be a highly successful restaurant that is still growing. In fact, one of the original small amenities of the restaurant, which made it popular during the pandemic—the Tavern on High patio—has become one of the main attractions of this eatery and is one of the largest of its kind in the entire Merrimack Valley. With all they have accomplished as of today, and all they are sure to achieve in the future, Paul and Ryan want to be confident that it won’t all be lost due to an unexpected event. That’s why it was critical to find an insurance professional who understood the ins-and-outs of the restaurant industry. Unfortunately, the first insurer they worked with did not understand the industry all that well, and Ryan and Paul ended up overpaying for much of their insurance coverage. When they went looking for a new local agent, their criteria was someone who would offer great customer service and who would really understand their needs as restaurant owners.

Picking the right agent is a particularly big deal for a business that sells liquor, due to the serious liability exposures for the restaurant and its owners. It was really important to Ryan and Paul to work with a partner they could fully trust. After an initial consultation with the team at Gilbert Insurance, they knew it would be a great fit for many reasons, including the agency’s knowledge of and experience with the restaurant insurance solutions that Tavern on High required, from general liability and business property to workers’ compensation and liquor liability. Gilbert Insurance has provided the two owners with top-notch service, responding right away whenever they have a question. With Gilbert on their team, Ryan and Paul find they have a greater sense of peace of mind, which allows them to focus on running their restaurant instead of worrying about whether they have insurance protection they can count on.

We hope you’ve enjoyed these insider tips about the restaurant business from Tavern on High owners Paul Gargano and Ryan O’Connor. If you’d like to read similar articles, check out the Gilbert Insurance blog, where you’ll find more stories like this one, that feature local business owners and industry experts sharing their knowledge and experiences, including an interview with William Cassotis of Lazy River Products, a premier recreational marijuana dispensary.

You can also learn more about Tavern on High by visiting its website or following the restaurant on Facebook and Instagram. The owners often post images of mouth-watering seasonal specials and restaurant guests having a really good time. Of course, we encourage you to go enjoy this restaurant first-hand soon!

The Gilbert team also wants you to know that we are here to lend our professional support to your restaurant business. Please call us with your questions about restaurant insurance and for help finding affordable insurance products that are right for you and your special establishment.

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