His father and grandfather built houses, but rather than homes, Jonas Reinholdsson is turning his O’Learys into a sports bar empire.
“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.” That’s the opening line of the 1980s TV show Cheers, about a Boston bar, its staff and all the regulars. Cheers was the place where “everybody knows your name.”
And it was that kind of place Jonas Reinholdsson wanted to open when, as a 26- year-old looking for a fresh start, he bought a debt-laden Gothenburg restaurant for one Swedish krona.
Today, Reinholdsson’s single restaurant has grown into more than 130 franchises in 12 countries. Most are in the Nordics but as far as Reinholdsson is concerned, the journey has only just begun – he foresees 150 restaurants in the Nordics and 250 restaurants in total by 2019.
“I want to grow into one of the world’s biggest restaurant chains. We opened 21 new bars in 2016, we’ll do 25 this year, 35 more in 2018 and 50 in 2019,” he says. “If things go to plan, we’ll be opening one restaurant per week.”
The enormous growth hasn’t been a straight upward trajectory, though. The first restaurant, which he named O’Learys after his future wife Anne O’Leary, burned down just eight months after opening. Later, his marriage to Anne ended and he sold part of the company to bring in a strong partner.
Reinholdsson has tweaked plans and menus and even modified the Cheers-inspired logo, but for the most part, the restaurant concept is the same as it was when he took his first loan. Even then he knew the restaurant would be the first of many, which is why he was so particular about the details – menus had to have a certain look, the colors had to be right, the staff wore uniforms and the logo was on napkins and sugar packets. Everything had to be consistent.
“The first one had the same look and feel as O’Learys has today,” he says.
It took four years of preparation but in 1992, O’Learys began expanding, with the first one opening in Stockholm.
“I was looking at locations as early as 1989,” he says. “I knew I could do it, but it takes time to build things.”
In 1995, when there were five O’Learys in Sweden, he got the call that changed everything. Lars Mickelsson from Luleå had visited Stockholm and noticed the popularity of the restaurant.
“Lasse called me out of the blue. He had a small restaurant in Luleå but was interested in opening up an O’Learys. He came down, we had dinner, and I showed him some material on franchising that I had planned earlier. Lasse told me that he could just copy the concept but he knew it wouldn’t be as good,” Reinholdsson says with a grin.
The first O’Learys franchise opened in March 1996 in Luleå and just one month later the new sports bar gained free national publicity when Luleå hockey player Tomas Holmström told Swedish news outlets that his team would celebrate their Swedish title “by getting drunk at O’Learys.”
From there, things took off – O’Learys Linköping opened in 1997, Sundsvall and Örnsköldsvik in 1998 and by 2000 there were 15 in all – one per year, on average – across Sweden.
In 2004, the first O’Learys outside Sweden opened in Denmark, and Reinholdsson sold 51% of the company to SSP, a global restaurant company originally founded by SAS.
The restaurant business is notoriously fickle and while Reinholdsson admits to being driven, he downplays his hard work.
“My father was an architect, my grandfather a building contractor. I don’t have that building talent, but I’ve always been curious and stood on my own two feet from a fairly young age.
“The first time I crossed the Atlantic on my own I was 12, and returning to Gothenburg from Trinidad and Tobago, where I lived as a child,” he says.
After high school, Reinholdsson did his military service, then moved to Stockholm, where he worked at legendary celebrity hangout Riche. Then, it was back to the West Indies, a return to Sweden, and then on to the US, where he worked at the Club Car on Nantucket, taking in the American lifestyle, serving food and drinks to New Yorkers and Bostonians and making mental notes on how to run a bar.
“I knew I’d have my own business one day,” he says. “And if I’m honest, I enjoy the good life – money hasn’t been the only driving force, but I can’t lie and say it didn’t matter to me.”
While he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, Jonas did inherit Ronny Reinholdsson’s work ethic.
“He worked until the day he died, in his office at the age of 79.
“My dad wasn’t always happy with my choices and I’m sure O’Learys was a way to prove something,” he says. “And to be honest, I simply love it. I like working with people, it suits me well, and I am good at it.”
A combination of hard work and good fortune often leads to success, but Reinholdsson freely admits he was also lucky with the timing of his concept.
“When I returned to Sweden in 1987 the restaurant scene was pretty boring. The only people going out on weeknights were businessmen, car dealers and alcoholics,” he says. “And we had only one American beer available to us at the first O’Learys.”
Import restrictions were lifted in the 1980s and early 90s, people traveled more, and even playing music was easier than in the early 80s, thanks to CDs. There was also more sport shown live on TV, thanks to new commercial channels in Sweden.
That’s not to say that everything always went to plan, but Reinholdsson, an eternal optimist, takes any knocks in his stride.
“We failed in Germany and had to close four restaurants there. It’s always a challenge to enter a new market, but it’s also inspiring,” he says.
Denmark has also been a hard nut to crack, but Reinholdsson’s not giving up.
At 55, he’s not letting up, either. Some of the latest restaurants have also been the chain’s largest, with bowling, shuffleboard, miniature golf, baseball batting cages and huge stands for watching sports. O’Learys is entering a period of enormous growth, and while his wife Eva-Maria sometimes thinks he works too much, she and her daughter Mimmi join him on select business trips, such as openings of new restaurants and his annual shopping trips to Boston.
Reinholdsson is still hands-on in many – if not most – of the details, from getting O’Learys’ products into grocery stores to dreaming up specials on the menu and managing O’Learys’ Spotify playlist.
O’Learys is his baby, and like his father, he may work there until he dies.
“We joke that I’ll be stuffed and the Franchisee of the Year will keep me as a menu holder behind the bar,” he says.
That’s the joke. But the dream? The dream is that one day there will be an O’Learys in Boston.
“I’ve spent a lot of time looking at locations. We were close a couple of years ago but our investor pulled out at the last minute.”
Later this year, he’ll be back in Boston to look at new locations and meet with investors.
“Will there be an O’Learys in Boston when we turn 30 in 2018?
Originally published in Scandinavian Traveler’s September 2017 issue