What began as a shared vision to open a restaurant, in a business that has played a key role in transforming an area of the Norfolk community.
District Table & Tap’s part in “igniting the growth and investment in downtown Norfolk” made the 3-year-old establishment the ideal choice as recipient of the 2022 Emerging Business Award.
The accolade — bestowed upon an enterprise in Northeast Nebraska that has been in existence for five years or less — is part of the Norfolk Area Business Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Daily News and First National Bank of Omaha in Norfolk.
“We believe if you look at any single business that has been a game changer for Norfolk, it is District Table & Tap,” according to one of the nomination letters for the restaurant.
“The vision was to create venues that would be places that people want to come to in which they would feel comfortable and have an enjoyable experience,” the letter said. “This vision has been accomplished and continues due to great service and food, a courteous and caring owner that cares about his customers and his staff and a dedication to the city and its citizens.”
District Table & Tap owner Andrew McCarthy said the restaurant began with a vision he shared with general manager Brandon Kluender. Previously, the two had worked together at Big Red Keno in Norfolk and saw a void in the community that needed to be filled.
“We just saw a void for a place that served a lot of craft beer in a different setting. The downtown area — we knew it was just too beautiful for things not to be down here,” McCarthy said. “We wanted to be part of that.”
While looking for a potential home for the new business, McCarthy connected with former Nucor general manager Dirk Petersen, who was in gutting the building at 226 W. Norfolk Ave. with the help of I&P Construction.
“Dirk had a vision for that building being a restaurant, as well,” McCarthy said. “It couldn’t have been a week later, and Dirk was like, ‘Let’s go out for dinner and start talking about this.’ Dirk moves fast.”
By the end of 2019, the building that once had housed a tattoo studio on one side and a Bible meeting area on the other had been transformed into an environment with polished pressed-tin ceilings, walls of exposed brick and an expansive bar with craft beer , where patrons could eat, drink and berry merry.
But then COVID-19 hit and government mandates forced the closing of restaurant dining areas throughout Nebraska. Only four months after opening, McCarthy said he — like other restaurant owners around the state — was scrambling to navigate the new challenges presented by the pandemic.
“I think I’ve blocked it out,” McCarthy said with a half laugh.
Instead of panicking, McCarthy said he and staff members devised a plan that would enhance the online ordering experience for customers. They cross-trained staff to make sure everyone stayed working, and McCarthy ramped up the marketing budget to get the word out about the special events District Table & Tap would continue to offer.
“We have to make a decision. Everyone was cutting their budget for marketing to the bone,” McCarthy said. “We tripled, maybe even quadrupled, our budget for marketing, and we started pushing it out on every possible outlet there was.”
McCarthy said changes in the law that made to-go alcohol drinks an option was “huge” at the time and has continued to benefit the business ever since. He said the efforts to keep employees engaged throughout the shutdown was important, as well.
While many other businesses were struggling to rehire help when the shutdown ended, McCarthy said District Table & Tap was able to go back to business as usual.
“Employee retention is really important to me, so I don’t want to lose anybody ever,” McCarthy said.
The pandemic also allowed McCarthy time to devise a plan for events like Mimosa Fest, a downtown celebration featuring live music and more that has taken place for two years now — once under the organization of District Table & Tap alone and once with a partnering business.
The business also has expanded to include District Event Center, located at 218 W. Norfolk Ave., which serves as a live music venue, reception hall and comedy club.
McCarthy credits the staff at District Table & Tap as a key factor in the establishment’s success. He said staff members are offered various benefits as part of their employment, and many have been with the restaurant since it opened.
“If you walk into the District, you will recognize the wait staff and recognize the bartenders. A lot of them have been there since Day 1. The managers have been there since Day 1. The kitchen — they come in to work, they buy in — they know their role,” McCarthy said.
He’s also grateful to patrons who are supporting local businesses like his because that support has a positive impact on the community. “That money stays all here, and typically it gets reinvested.”
McCarthy said he’s been pleased to see the way the area has blossomed around what District Table & Tap and The 411, which Danny Orwa opened at roughly the same time, have built.
“With the downtown (now) having multiple restaurants and more coming soon, it was like a new market was kind of created unintentionally,” he said. “If you’re coming down here, you’re coming down for the experience.”
But if the option arose to do it again, there is at least one change McCarthy would make: “In hindsight, I think I would’ve made any location bigger. … In general, more storage space, more kitchen space, more dining space. Nothing’s ever big enough.”