HARTFORD — Bear’s Smokehouse quickly outgrew its first restaurant in Windsor, moving to a larger space in little over a year.
Now, co-owners Jamie and Cheryl McDonald are about to top that in Hartford.
On Thursday, the McDonalds signed a lease for nearly 6,500 square feet at Front Street, less than a year after expanding to Hartford. The new lease will more than double the restaurant space they now have at the corner of Columbus Boulevard and Arch Street.
Jamie McDonald said he was frustrated because his restaurant’s seating could not meet the demand of patrons.
“People look in the door and see there are no seats and walk away,” McDonald said. “And that drives me crazy.”
The McDonalds will keep the Arch Street space for corporate and other catered events. It is a minute or so walk from Front Street, and the kitchen in the new restaurant space can easily service the catered events.
Bear’s will occupy the southwest corner of Front Street on the same side of the street as Spotlight Theatres and Ted’s Montana Grill. McDonald said he hopes to open as soon as Labor Day, in time for a barbecue festival with Riverfront Recapture.
The lease leaves just 4,500 square feet of space vacant, or about 8 percent, of a total of 60,000 square feet in the Front Street entertainment district. The first tenant, Spotlight, opened in late 2012. Infinity Music Hall & Bistro — considered the anchor — debuted last year.
McDonald said the Front Street space will nearly triple seating to 180, offer a full bar and the ability to more than double the volume of meat smoked daily to 3,000 pounds. He estimates his employment in Hartford at about 35, with the potential to add 10 part-time and three full-time positions.
So far, in both Windsor and Hartford, McDonald has used his own money to open the restaurants. He estimates it will cost $450,000 to $500,000 to outfit the Front Street space, well above the $250,000 for the Arch Street location.
McDonald said he is considering approaching the state Department of Economic and Community Development for a low-interest loan, but hasn’t made a final decision.
McDonald said he encountered skeptics when he first expanded to Hartford last July. But McDonald said his growing customer base has more than justified his decision. Saturday is his busiest day, with the majority of customers coming from outside the city, he said.
The Front Street space is ideally located, next to site of the future downtown Hartford UConn campus and just steps from Travelers and the Front Street apartments, scheduled to open in October.
“There is definitely room to grow,” McDonald said. “Just by moving over we will see an immediate boost in business because we will be able to handle more. That whole area is growing very well.”