The Oak House, a bar, lounge and community gathering space imagined and co-owned by Phil Smith, is expected to open this week after being delayed two weeks because of pending health inspections and the approval of temporary liquor licenses to serve beer and wine.
Despite the delays, Smith is unfazed.
“I would have preferred to open when I thought I was going to open,” he said. “But if it’s only two weeks, we’re not going to call that a loss.”
Others see the delayed opening as an opportunity.
“It builds some excitement,” said Alex Ward, an Elon University graduate who now works as assistant manager for The Oak House. “It builds some hype for it [with] the delay.”
According to Smith and Ward, students are intrigued by the idea of the lounge. They said students walk by and press their faces to the glass, hoping to catch a glimpse of what’s inside. Plenty have tried to open the door.
Junior Bobby King is one of the many students who have passed by the new building and with the renovations, he said, “it’s like night and day.”
The Oak House will be the fourth business to occupy the space next to Acorn Coffee Shop in eight years. At least half of the student body remembers Town Table, which was owned and operated by an Elon alum and restaurateur, which closed allegedly because of financial issues. The two eateries before that were operated by Aramark.
“I don’t know how it’s going to run,” King said. “But I’ve seen good places shut down because of bad running.”
Some students are less optimistic.
“Bars have been going in and out of business here,” said junior Connor Cummings. “I like the idea, but I don’t think it’ll work on a college campus.”
But Smith and his team have been working hard to get Elon and the community involved in the making of The Oak House. First, Smith pitchedhis idea to alum Ryan Vet, who came on board as a co-owner.
Vet graduated from Elon with a host of business experiences. During his time at Elon, he also started uCondition, a software company.
Vet and Smith launched a two-week Kickstarter campaign from July 23 to Aug. 14 to raise the last 10 percent of the funds needed to open The Oak House.
In that two-week period, The Oak House raised 14 percent more than they wanted, all thanks to Elon faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, friends and community members.
“We needed the money, but it was also a really good marketing tool,” Smith said. “And it helped people get behind it and be a part of it.”
Smith even used the delay to his advantage during move-in weekend.
“Since we weren’t open for Move-In Friday, we sat out front and gave out free bottles of water,” he said.
It gave him a chance to explain what The Oak House would be to new Elon parents and invite them to come in during Family Weekend.
In addition to these innovative marketing ideas, Smith has also taken the traditional approach. During move-in, he placed coupons for a free coffee in new students’ orientation packets. He also placed coupons in race packets at a 5K for Habitat for Humanity.
The Oak House will market itself with print, web and broadcast advertisements with IMG, a college sports marketing firm, and Phoenix Athletics.
“Our main goal is to attract the whole Elon community,” Vet said.
The Oak House offers something for everyone in the community, from the community. Those of legal drinking age can enjoy one of nine craft beers on tap from North Carolina. They can select from an “extensive bottled wine” list at varying prices. Or, they can pair a glass of wine starting at $6 with cheeses from the town of Elon.
Those not old enough to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine can order Cheerwine or a Boylan soft drink on tap. They can walk down the coffee line, where the Town Table kitchen was, to sip on a drip coffee locally roasted by the same company used by Irazu, a mocha or hot tea. They can nibble on baked goods from Tasty Bakery in Graham or chocolate from Hillsborough.
Even the old dining area is full of tables and chairs made from reused and repurposed wood from North Carolina.
“It allows for a balance,” Ward said. “You can’t just see it as a bar, and you can’t just see it as a coffee lounge. It’s a unique spot that can’t be categorized.”
Smith hopes that people are not just coming for the drinks or the food, but for the space itself. To do that, though, people need to get in the door.
And while there are some students who wonder if such a space can exist at Elon, or if The Oak House can outlive the three other restaurants that have been housed in the same space, others are intrigued.
“I really like the fact that they’re trying to combine academics with social life,” said senior Ana Preciado. “I think it’s going to be very interesting.”