Hutt from family of entrepreneurs by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · April 05, 2013
Sports fans and the after-work crowd both found a place at the PI Underground Lounge, according to owner/operator Erin Hutt.
Since opening six months ago on Sept. 20, the bar, tucked away in the basement in the back of the Presidential Inn, has been growing its customers by drawing them with mainstream and some specialty beers, as well as four large, flat-screen TVs, a pool table and arcade games.
Hutt bought the business and leases the space from Shree Bachubhai Corp., which owns the hotel.
“It was a turnkey business,” he said.
Hutt considers the PI Underground Lounge a “big beer bar,” featuring Busch Lite, a favorite for younger crowds, and Old Milwaukee and Schlitz, for the older crowds.
He also likes to stock craft beer — seasonal lagers and stouts.
“People come for the variety,” he said, but the craft beer seems to draw customers from far away.
One of his most popular orders is for flights, where he serves 3 ounces each of six different draughts for taste testing.
“I listen to what the patrons say and try to stock that beer for them,” he said, like Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. “Not everybody offers it.”
Hutt, born in Des Moines, comes from a family of entrepreneurs. His parents opened an ambulance service, which they then sold to open a limousine business in North Liberty. His mother also owns a home-cleaning enterprise. His sister, Marcy Hutt, owns a bar, too.
Hutt said it was Marcy who “stumbled upon this place” and spent a month to help him get the 800-square-foot bar up and running.
“She saw an opportunity in West Branch for a small pizza or restaurant,” he said.
However, he wanted to focus on just the bar. When he opened, Deli Cioso, a Mexican restaurant, was in operation in the upper level of the hotel.
“I did not want to compete (with them),” Hutt said.
While he does offer snacks, he also has take-and-bake pizzas, and noticed an uptick in orders when Deli Cioso closed. Now, he said, he often refers customers looking for a meal to Herb & Lou’s Pizza or Fiesta Riviera.
PI Underground opens at 4 p.m. on weekdays, and Hutt said many customers stop by when they get off work from Acciona, Plastic Products or Shenker Logistics.
“We have a good Monday-through-Friday crowd,” he said, which keeps him busy from 5 to 7 p.m.
Sports draw big crowds, too, he said, especially when the University of Iowa teams are on screen.
“When the Hawkeyes play home football games, this place is slamming,” he said.
When Iowa, the University of Northern Iowa Panthers or Iowa State Cyclones are featured, he likes to offer drink specials to his customers.
He also hosts euchre tournaments and NASCAR race pools, has held a wedding reception in the bar, and welcomes fundraising benefits. The bar can seat up to 70 people. When warm weather finally comes, he wants to move events outdoors as well.
“I can’t wait for it to get nice outside,” he said, talking about plans for tent parties, NFL Sundays and more NASCAR-related events. “I’m here to do what the patrons want.”
During the NCAA playoffs, he even opened at noon on Saturday — two hours earlier then usual — to give customers a place to watch the games.
“West Branch has nice people,” he said. “We’ve not had a whole lot of bad things happen.”
Hutt said he likes meeting travelers coming off of Interstate 80.
“I like meeting people — it’s cool up here,” he said. “I’ve seen truckers from New Mexico, New Jersey, Colorado and California. I met someone traveling from Minnesota to Pensacola Beach, and one from Las Vegas.
Hutt leaves the bar open at the bartender’s discretion. Last call is 1:50 a.m., but if there is no crowd, he will close early. He is the only full-time employee, but he also has a couple of part-time employees, which may grow in the summer months.
He created a Facebook page for the business, and is considering changing the hours when warmer weather sets in.
“I’m in a holding pattern” for now, he said, until he sees the impact of Fox Run Golf & Country Club opening for the season.
PI Underground Lounge also has billiards as well as hunting and bowling games that dispense tickets which can be redeemed for beverages, he said. Happy hours are from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.