Owner Darren Bollinger. BRAD COOK/FLASHBOX STUDIO
“I figured if I could sell millions of dollars of software around the world, I could sell a $10 sausage here in town.”
That was the idea that propelled Darren Bollinger, owner of Bangers & Brews in Eugene, to leave his lucrative career as a software salesperson for Symantec and open a popular restaurant along the busy Coburg and Willakenzie corridor in north Eugene.
I chatted with Bollinger, who lives in Creswell, before the dinnertime crowd started arriving for the wide variety of sausages and beers on tap that earn the establishment a steady stream of local awards and shining Yelp reviews.
“When I was selling for Symantec, it was a great job. Heck, you could work two hours a day and then go play golf,” he says with a slight chuckle. “But when they shut down the Eugene location, my fiancée Josie (Smets) and I decided to move to Bend and work there. That’s where we met Marcello Garcia, the founder of the very first Bangers & Brews.”
BRAD COOK/ FLASHBOX STUDIO
Bollinger and Smets instantly fell in love with the restaurant, and they became close to Garcia during their time in Bend. That friendship blossomed into an idea, which at first, drew a healthy amount of personal skepticism.
“When I first told Josie about the idea of bringing what I was learning from Garcia to Eugene and opening up a new location, she just laughed and said, ‘You don’t even know how to cook! How are you going to run a restaurant?’”
But under the mentorship of Garcia, Bollinger felt confident enough in the model that had been established in Bend — Garcia’s flagship eatery has been recognized nationally — to return to Eugene and try his luck.
“Josie and I had loved living in Creswell and working in Eugene. We knew we wanted to move back, and so I thought now was the time to try something new and exciting,” Bollinger said.
With a lot of hard work and counsel from Garcia, they made a go of it and seemed to be heading in the right direction. Then, on the one-year anniversary of their grand opening, they, along with every other restaurant in Oregon, were forced to shut down due to COVID-19.
“Obviously running a restaurant during a global pandemic has been one of the hardest things a business owner could ever do,” Bollinger said. “Yet, I consider myself kind of lucky in one regard. I was still learning the business during all this, so I think I might have been more adaptable to change during this tough time.”
Bollinger points to his quick adoption of take-out only, establishing early relationships with vendors like DoorDash, and getting to know local farmers and food venders from whom he sources much of his ingredients. In fact, he thinks those local relationships have helped him weather the worst of the pandemic.
“We’ve supported local since we opened, and local businesspeople and residents have supported us during the pandemic,” he said. “Our customers are simply the best. I know many businesses would say that, but I truly believe it. They kept us operating during the worst of the crisis.”
Bollinger is also flexible in modifying and expanding his menu to meet the tastes of the food-savvy customers of the Eugene area. Bangers & Brews not only offers traditional sausages, but also a full complement of vegetarian options and even exotics like alligator and venison.
“I learned in tech sales that you really have to understand your customer and offer them exactly what they want,” he said. “In a community like ours, you really have to provide a wide variety of choices to appeal to many different tastes.”
He may be expanding that customer choice in the community as he is considering opening another location in the near future, be it a food truck or a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“We are definitely not a franchise, and we want to be able to continue what we are doing without sacrificing anything around quality and service, but opening another location is definitely a goal.”
At the end of our conversation, I asked Bollinger if he had any advice for someone who might want to start a restaurant.
“Don’t do it!” he laughed. “No, seriously, I love what I do, and I get to wear shorts and a T-shirt to work. If you love food and you love serving people — and you want to work hard — there’s no better job.
“It’s also a great way to become a true leader. I wipe down tables and sweep the floors like any of my team. It shows that every job is important no matter who you are.”
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