Tap Takeover

Pam George

Two Stones Pub continues to craft a distinctive path

 

One Sunday evening, 12-year-old Michael Stiglitz decided he’d make cream of mushroom soup instead of watching Murder She Wrote with his family. The distraction produced a tasty reward. “After that, I always hid in the kitchen after NFL season ended,” recalls the avid football fan. “My love of cooking blossomed for decades.”

Stiglitz cultivated his culinary passion to such an extent that he now has six Two Stones Pub restaurants, including a Middletown site that opened on May 31. This October, another location will open on Route 273.

Two Stones is not a brewpub. The alehouse features a variety of beers, including those by Stiglitz’s other business, 2SP Brewing Co., which is based in Aston, Pennsylvania.

Owning a chain of restaurants and a brewery with more than 250 employees isn’t easy, but Two Stones has been on the fast track since the first one opened in 2011. So, how does Stiglitz do it? With a little help from his friends, namely Ben “Gumbo” Muse, who manages the restaurants’ front-of-the-house operations and beer program, and Chris Meyer, the culinary director.

A Common Interest

Stiglitz, who grew up in South Jersey, has the hospitality industry in his blood. His parents were once restaurant owners in Philadelphia. His sister worked in the business for several years but, he says, “she avoided it like the plague after college, so it didn’t catch her.”

But the restaurant industry definitely snagged Stiglitz, who went to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He moved to Wilmington in 2003 to work at the Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant on the riverfront. At Iron Hill, Stiglitz met Meyer, who also began cooking as a kid and graduated from The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in Philadelphia. They befriended Muse, a Sussex County native, who got his first job in the hospitality industry at 15 and “never left,” as he puts it.

The friends share more than a career in the hospitality industry. They also have a passion for craft beer. Muse had his first Dogfish Head Raison d’Etre before he turned 21. “I’ve been in love ever since,” he says. On his 21st birthday, Muse applied for and landed a job at Dogfish Head. Two years later, he joined Iron Hill. Meyer’s love affair dates back to 2001 when he tried Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale, a Maibock-style ale with a hearty flavor.

Perhaps characteristically, Stiglitz started with a bracing Samuel Adams Triple Bock, an American ale brewed in the 1990s. At the time, it was considered the world’s strongest beer. “That’s a tough one to start on,” Stiglitz admits. “And yet I kept drinking craft.”

In 2006, he left Iron Hill to open Pig + Fish in Rehoboth Beach with then-wife Denise and Doug and Lisa Frampton. The partners followed up with The Pickled Pig Pub on Route 1, also in Rehoboth. Then Meyer joined the team.

Wanting to do his own thing back in New Castle County, Stiglitz sold his part of the businesses to his partners.

Hubris. And a Humble Start

The first Two Stones Pub is in Chesmar Plaza in Brookside, an unassuming area of Newark. You’d expect to find a cigarette outlet and sandwich shop here, not a restaurant specializing in the craft brew trend that was sweeping the state in 2011. “It’s a steal, and you get to move back north,” Joe Latina, a commercial real estate professional told Stiglitz at the time.

What’s with the name Two Stones? While hanging out at Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats one day, waiting for their significant others to get pedicures, the friends talked about having a lot of hubris, Stiglitz says. To clarify: Consider that action heroes are said to have “major stones.” Certainly, it took stones to become a restaurateur, especially one with a growth mode.

In 2012, Stiglitz opened a Two Stones in Wilmington in another modest shopping center. Meyer and Muse were on board by that time, and the two locations could share managers and staff.

But expansion did not always run smoothly. Thanks to permitting and zoning issues, the opening of the Hockessin site was delayed six months. But the team did open restaurants in Jennersville, Pennsylvania and Hockessin the same year.

“It nearly killed me,” Stiglitz acknowledges. “We weren’t prepared to handle it—it was tough.” Having lived through the experience, however, the team is now equipped to open in Middletown and Christiana in 2019.

In the beginning, Two Stones specialized in hard-to-find craft beers. That’s still the case. “It’s one of the only bars that fairly reliably has my all-time favorite beer available,” says frequent customer Jesse Chadderdon, who favors Stone Xocoveza, a mocha stout.

Among those beers are products by 2SP Brewing, a separate entity that opened in 2015. “There is some cross-marketing,” Stiglitz says. “We have multiple all-star brewers and a staff that loves and supports our brand.”

With the new restaurants, Two Stones is dedicating half the taps to sister 2SP’s products.

Food First

While the beer is important, Two Stones is a restaurant, and customers appreciate the food. “Brunch specials are always creative—with a manmosa, of course,” says Karen Stauffer, referring to the breakfast cocktail made with orange juice and beer instead of sparkling wine. “I also love the dirty kettle chips—a total guilty pleasure. I call it ‘man food,’ but I mean that in the best—most deliciously hearty way—possible.”

As Two Stones has expanded, the average footprint has jumped from 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, including indoor and outdoor dining areas. The atmosphere—which includes touches of red, yellow-gold and green—has become more unified. “Less beer signs, more art,” Stiglitz says. “They still let me slap stickers around from time to time—just not as many.”

The bar section has stayed about the same size from location to location, but the dining areas have grown. “We’re more focused on family dining,” he says.

Customers like Regina Dodd Wimer are appreciative. “The last time I was there, my 9-year-old said they had the best hot dog he ever had,” she says. “When he was finished, he asked me to get the recipe.”

Two Stones pubs have also become neighborhood hangouts. Dawn Filandro and her family and friends have made the original location in Newark their Friday night spot. “Great beer, awesome staff and food that will please any palate,” she says. “Can’t wait for the new Newark location, which will have outdoor seating.”

Meyer isn’t worried about diners growing tired of the gastropub concept. “Good food and service will never burn out,” he says.

Favorites at Two Stones: the Brunch Burger with a Bloody Mary and a 2SP Up & Out Hazy IPA. Photo by Anthony Santoro

Finding a Balance

People, however, do burn out. Stiglitz is often up at 6 a.m. He drinks coffee while working on the computer. If there was an overnight emergency at one of the restaurants, he heads there. If not, he goes to the corporate office in Newark, which will move to the newest site in Christiana when it opens on Route 273. There are currently five on the corporate team.

“My schedule and calendar are filled in one week ahead, which keeps me flexible,” Stiglitz says. “Twice in the past two weeks, I have hit all seven sites in one day. Typically, I try to stay below three. It’s very inefficient beyond that and gas is no fun. Ultimately, the people we have in place from the top down in our company don’t need to see me every day, and I often believe most of them prefer not to.”

The restaurant life is demanding, and his marriage suffered, ending in divorce. “Sadly, as most of us do in this industry, I lost perspective on work-family balance in the past, and it cost me dearly,” he says. “Now my goal is to just be consistent across the board. If my schedule can prevent it, I try not to be the guy closing the bar anymore.”

He makes it a priority to have dinner each night with his girlfriend, Samantha and her two children. “It’s very important in our family, and if that means going back to work at 8 p.m., that is what I do. Just always be where you should be.”

Every June, he goes on a seven-day fishing trip to Islamorada with a group, including his teenage son, Aidan. “It’s great bonding time,” says Stiglitz, who counts fishing as his favorite pastime. “There are no phones 30 miles out in 1,000 feet of water. Ice-cold Cokes and soggy subs—perfect.”

When it comes to mentors, Stiglitz says he admires the late Matt Haley, founder of SoDel Concepts, because he “always kept it real and straight.” He also looks up to his uncle, Jim Bono. “He has been instrumental in my career. He doesn’t let me whine. He tells me to spend time fixing the problem—work hard and smart. ‘Michael, get off this freakin’ phone and go deal with it.’ Yup.”

He has no plans to return to the restaurant scene downstate. “There are too many all-stars down there already,” he says. But he does plan to continue following his business motto: “Consistency breeds success.”

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