Merlin’s Beard revamps business with addition of a pizzeria – Journal & Courier

LAFAYETTE, Ind. — For those who have traveled down Columbia Street and over the Wabash Bridge, you may have seen the large Merlin’s Beard sign, and wondered, “Is that a bar?”
The answer to that question is no, it’s not a bar. Not exactly.
Merlin’s Beard is a family-friendly board game pub, home to over 500 board games, beverages – some alcoholic – and perhaps some of the best pizza in town.
The pizza aspect of the business is a recent development, however, and something owners Alicia and John Iles believe so strongly in that they’ve remodeled their whole business plan to support it.
In prior years, Merlin’s Beard offered stadium-style food – wings, nachos, burgers and things of that nature. Before the pandemic, the menu satisfied the needs of the business.
But once the pandemic hit and businesses needed to start offering carry-out meals in order to survive, the menu wasn’t able to attract customers.
While the business is now functioning as it did in its pre-pandemic era, the customers haven’t returned.
In late November 2021, Rob Brza caught wind that the owners were having trouble in the kitchen, and he decided to offer his skills. He walked in one day and told John, “Hey! I work for you now.”
Brza once owned a catering business in Indianapolis, and before that, he worked as a chef at several restaurants across the country.
He knew that the business was barely hanging on by a thread, so he volunteered his time at Merlin’s Beard to reinvigorate the menu.
For the first month that he worked there, he did it all for free.
Brza has since brought in his culinary background and transformed the Merlin’s Beard  kitchen from a hotdog stand at Loeb Stadium to a full-fledge scratch kitchen.
Everything made in the kitchen is created with fresh ingredients, prepped daily and in-house.
The pizza dough goes through a 36-hour process before it’s cooked, and Brza uses a traditional Neapolitan recipe for cooking his pizzas in a firestone oven.
John described Brza’s addition to the business as one of the saving graces he hopes will turn the business around.
Prior to the pandemic, Merlin’s Beard rarely had a night where it wasn’t busy.
The Iles opened their first location in 2016 at 1001 Main Street, and it operated in a similar business model that it does today – at a smaller scale.
At the time, Merlin’s Beard only had around 100 games to offer customers, and although it didn’t have a full-fledged kitchen, the business was still able to serve beer, specialty drinks and some food items, such as sandwiches and nachos.
A relatively small location, it was an immediate hit with students from Purdue at the time.
It was common for students to stay there for hours as they played a variety of games with their friends.
“There were a few nights where we were so busy that we had to turn away customers. We didn’t want to, but we just didn’t have the space at the time,” said Alicia.
The lack of space created a ceiling in how much money the location could bring in. On average, they made around $12,000 a month, which was OK money, but not great said, John.
The owners decided to open a new location at 220 Columbia Street, in September of 2019.
The Columbia Street location was significantly larger than their Main Street spot, easily accommodating up to around 70 people. More importantly, it was equipped with a kitchen.
“When we moved here, we knew we had to blow up. And so, we thought a lot about the menu, and I think we were good, but we were not great. In that situation, we had a huge hood, we set it up and we did burgers, wings and chicken tenders. But our burger wasn’t competitive. It was a frozen patty and, well ,you could make it tasty, you can’t do better than Bru Burger or DT’s,” said John.
Although the kitchen wasn’t panning out as well as they had originally hoped, 2020 started off quite well for the owners. January and February of 2020 were some of the best months the business had ever seen, and just as things were starting to blossom, the pandemic hit and ruined everything.
The Iles had only been in their new location for five months before they had to close everything down.
“We struggled through 2020, trying to pivot to carry out, because we weren’t set to do carry out at all. So, we just kind of hung on and when we came out of it in 2021. That summer, we lost all of our core staff. We were all the way down to two people and it just wasn’t rolling. Things were kind of falling apart until this guy (Rob) came along.”
Before Rob joined the team, John genuinely contemplated closing down the business.
“We were broke, and we were going to be bankrupt. There was no doubt. Like, we’re bankrupt, before Dec. 1. And the discussion was like, how are we going to keep going when there’s zero money,” said John.
Luckily, Alicia convinced her husband to hold on just a little longer.
Shortly after that discussion, Rob walked into their lives, and Alicia discovered the COVID-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan was offering a second round of loans, after talking to a representative at their bank.
Once the Iles found out about the loan extension, they immediately put in their application for a second loan.
The EIDL is a federal loan program aimed at helping small businesses recover from the COVID-19 disaster by offering them working capital that they can use on operating expenses, payroll, rent/mortgage, utilities, and other ordinary business expenses, and to pay the business debt incurred at any time.
“When we learned about the EIDL extension, which nobody said anything to anybody about – it went totally under the radar, but I took what I got. I got $50,000 on the EID loan in May of 2020, which was tripled on EIDL second round. So we got $150,000 in December,” said John.
From there, John and Alicia decided to put their faith in Brza’s idea of becoming a scratch kitchen pizzeria.
They hired him as a salaried employee, he quit his job at the Subaru of Indiana Automotive plant and began his mission to revitalize the kitchen.
When Brza first walked into Merlin’s Beard, he saw a ton of potential in the business and wanted to do everything in his power to make sure that it survived.
“When I came in to talk to John, I was like, ‘This could be so much more than what it is.’ And I have executive chef experience, so when I looked at the menu and I got depressed. I was like, ‘Oh God!’ The space is amazing and with the concept, you won’t find anything like this for hundreds of miles. It’s all there. We just need to put it together somehow,” said Brza.
“That’s when I was like, ‘We can just do a scratch kitchen.’ Any self-respecting chef would do it all themselves, and I wanted to give customers a quality product.”
After John and Alicia received their second EIDL loan, they began to invest in their staff, kitchen and dining room.
In hopes of enticing dedicated and hard-working employees, the Iles decided to increase their labor costs. Before, new hires were offered minimum wage; the owners are now offering workers $15 an hour.
“Investing in your business also means investing in your employees. If no one wants to work for you, you don’t have a business,” said John.
For the kitchen, the Iles bought a 60-quart commercial mixer, firestone oven and also purchased dining equipment and furniture from Chumley’s, which closed down in December of 2021.
On top of the revamped menu, Alicia has introduced several new alcoholic specials to the bar menu.
A memorable item on their menu is the potions that customers can order. They’re like any ordinary mix drink, but are served in potion vials and come in a variety of colors.
Customers are now able to order a flight of potions, where they can mix the different potions up to create something new. Merlin’s Beard will be offering flight of beer as well.
The Iles are hoping that the new additions to their business will entice not only people who want to play board games with their friends but also the foodies within the city.
If the community responds well to the pizzeria aspect of their business, the Iles are hoping in the future to open for lunchtime service.
“It’s a great place to work. The culture here is amazing… One of the things that really sets this place apart here is John. He’s a good owner, but he’s a terrible capitalist. But that’s one of the things, I feel valued as an employee here,” Brza said.
“And I could go out and make more money. I mean, I was making way more money at Subaru; I was on my way to make six figures this year. But I decided to come here because I feel valued here and I could give a damn of what I’m making,” said Brza.  
Noe Padilla is a reporter for the Journal & Courier. Email him at Npadilla@jconline.com and follow him on Twitter at 1NoePadilla.

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