Isaac’s: Cheers to 40 Years

The year was 1983. Sally Ride became the first American woman to go to space. We were listening to Michael Jackson’s Beat It and Billie Jean. Shoulder pads, large belts and oversized sweatshirts were fashion statements. For casual wear, men took their cue from tropical shirts worn by Tom Selleck on Magnum, P.I. Cabbage Patch dolls were the “must have” (and hard to find) Christmas toy. Locally, a casual restaurant whose menu featured sandwiches named after birds made its debut in Downtown Lancaster. 

Isaac’s business and marketing development director, Johnny Roberts (left), and CEO Mike Weaver, are pictured in Isaac’s Downtown Lancaster location, which is one of three sites that boasts a brewing facility. Isaac’s launched its craft beer enterprise in 2020.

The restaurant was Isaac’s, and its signature grilled sandwiches and handcrafted, made-from-scratch soups instantly created a buzz when its doors opened at 44 North Queen Street in August of 1983. From the start, getting a table at lunchtime was nearly impossible. The takeout line seemed to have no end. There was also a high-tech way of placing your takeout order thanks to an innovation known as the fax machine. Entire offices took advantage of that service. 

Co-founders Phil Wenger and Isaac Williams, who had met in college, paid tribute to Wenger’s father, an avid birdwatcher, by naming the sandwiches after birds and choosing a flamingo as part of its logo. “Our first sandwich was the Bird of Paradise. It’s named after both a bird and a flower, and it’s still on the menu,” recalls Johnny Roberts, Isaac’s business and marketing development director. “The sandwich was used to test our grills – they aren’t the traditional grill; they’ve been engineered to bring out the flavor of the bread while toasting it.” The sandwich was also a groundbreaker of sorts. “It’s also a vegetarian sandwich,” Johnny notes. “In this area in 1983, it was unusual to have a vegetarian sandwich on the menu.”

Isaac’s Greenfield location was one of the first to reflect the new name – Craft Kitchen & Brewery – and new interior look.

The mercurial success of Isaac’s prompted the company to spread its wings. Isaac’s flock has grown to include six restaurants in Lancaster County, one in Berks County, two in Cumberland County, and three in York County. Its newest restaurant, the first in Lebanon County, debuted in spring 2022.

Along the way, Wenger sold Isaac’s (2014) to pursue another passion – he served as president and CEO of Lancaster Conservancy for eight years and is now involved in special projects for the organization. Mike Weaver then stepped in as Isaac’s CEO, becoming one of its owners in 2018. “It’s a great company,” he says. “I feel a responsibility to continue to fulfill three pillars the company was founded on – treating employees well, giving guests a great experience and giving back to the community.” 

In the realm of treating employees well, Isaac’s has long been recognized for providing competitive wages and health insurance (for those who work more than 30 hours a week). Others are eligible for perks such as supplemental insurance, flexible schedules, paid time off, gym reimbursements and more. According to the company’s website, more than 90% of the Isaac’s corporate leadership team, general managers and assistant managers have been promoted from within.

Organic materials such as wood and brick bring a new vibe to Isaac’s interior spaces.

As for giving back to the community, Isaac’s has been helping nonprofit organizations with fundraising since it opened. Isaac’s Fundraiser$ program allows groups to earn money – 15% of sales generated by supporters who purchase food (in-house, takeout or catering) or gift cards on a designated day. Isaac’s plans to become more involved in the communities it serves. “As part of our 40th anniversary celebration and going forward, we plan to be more visible within our communities. You’ll see us at more community events,” Johnny says.

Always Pivoting 

Providing guests with great experiences for 40 years can be challenging. Over that span of time, mediocrity can set in and spell disaster for a restaurant. “There have been so many challenges in 40 years, and there will be more,” Johnny says in looking back over the course of four decades. “Pivot became a buzzword with the [Covid-19] pandemic, but at Isaac’s, we’ve been pivoting for years.”

Remodeled locations now include bar areas, where craft beer and Pennsylvania wine and spirits are on the menu.

Isaac’s has relied on customers to provide direction. The signature Creamy Pepper Jack Tomato Soup is a case in point. Johnny says the soup, whose zippy flavor comes courtesy of shredded Pepper Jack cheese, began as a “special” that proved to be very popular with customers. “We took it away and customers wanted it back, so we brought it back,” he says, noting it’s been a “menu staple” ever since. Customer requests led to takeout and catering being launched in the 1980s. 

Isaac’s has also been innovative. Pretzel sandwiches became part of the menu in 1994, making it one of the first restaurants in the area to offer them. 

The popularity of craft beer led to Isaac’s latest pivot. When Isaac’s downtown location began offering draft and bottled beers, wine and cocktails, the restaurant gained a new following. Recognizing the popularity of craft beer, the restaurant launched a craft brewery at its downtown location in 2020. “We revamped the restaurant and re-opened Downtown Lancaster during the pandemic,” Mike explains. “What got us thinking about a brewery concept was employee interest in making our own beer. We wanted something to build on what we were already good at doing and saw it as a way to expand our dinner business.” 

On the menu: Customer favorites such as Creamy Pepper Jack Tomato soup, deli salads and grilled sandwiches (seen here is the Rainbow Parrot) continue to define Isaac’s menu. New to the menu are items such as French fries.

Johnny went through the 38-week Brewing Science program at HACC first and was followed by Alex Painter, who now serves as Isaac’s brew master; he’s assisted by Brian Buehrle, who also completed the program. “We not only went through the HACC program but we had hands-on training with Moo-Duck Brewery,” Johnny says of the craft brewery in Elizabethtown. “We’ve also become a part of the Lancaster County Brewers Guild. It’s a great group to work with – we share ideas and have collaborated on some special limited-edition craft brews,” he notes.

Isaac’s is currently brewing at the Downtown Lancaster, Lebanon and Lemoyne locations and is serving beer at the Lititz, Mount Joy, West York, Rossmoyne (Mechanicsburg) and Wyomissing locations. 

The addition of craft beer has inspired a name change. Locations where Isaac’s is brewing or pouring beer have been renamed Isaac’s Craft Kitchen & Brewery. Hoppy Hour is held from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. The renamed locations also offer special events like trivia and beer release parties. Some of the Isaac’s Craft Kitchen & Brewery locations also serve Pennsylvania wine, as well as cocktails made with Pennsylvania spirits. 

The selection of craft beers include a variety of IPAs, pilsners, Belgians, dark beers and more.

According to Mike, two of Isaac’s most popular craft brews include Hartman’s Heroes, a German-style pilsner that takes its name from one of Isaac’s long-term employees who also happens to be a Veteran, and Uncle Johnny’s Porter, a brew whose recipe changes slightly throughout  the year but is based on a recipe crafted by Johnny (over the summer, Uncle Johnny’s Chocolate Porter was on the draft list). “We love the whole idea of brewing and a brewery. It’s about crafting. It’s not about partying – it’s about flavor and being creative,” Johnny says of the venture. “Lancaster County has a brewing tradition, and we’re now a part of that.”

Isaac’s updated logo harkens to the past and future, as the colorful trademark flamingo logo is now more stylized and includes a nod to the brewing process.

In honor of Isaac’s 40th Anniversary, Alex and Brian brewed a special beer that was released on August 4 at parties that were held at all Isaac’s CKB locations. Other “Cheers To 40 Years” fun included scratch-off cards with discounts for customers, weekly drawings for a chance to win $100 Isaac’s gift cards and special promotions. 

Even the company’s iconic flamingo logo sports a new look that has a subtle connection to beer. In a nod to the craft-brewing aspect of the restaurant, a barley sheaf is now incorporated into the flamingo’s wings. 

A New Look Isaac’s 

Isaac’s is also rolling out a new look that debuted at the Lebanon location.  “It’s a cozy, kind of urban patio look,” is the descriptive Mike uses. “There are brick elements, and the wood is a bit darker. The main lighting elements were custom-made by a local business,” he adds. “We’ll add patios for outdoor dining where we can.”

Dining rooms now exhibit what Mike Weaver calls an “urban patio” ambiance.

Lancaster County’s Greenfield location was recently transformed and expanded through the addition of a bar and a patio that features a firepit. Mike says the new look will gradually be extended to Isaac’s other locations. “We want to grow,” he says of Isaac’s plans for the future. “Our sales in 2022 were up 20% over the previous year. Our first focus will be rolling out the new designs to all the stores, but it will be gradual. We plan to do Lititz and Wyomissing next,” he says. 

The Menu 

One change that’s been made throughout all of Isaac’s locations is reflected in the menu. Appetizers or Starters such as cheesy pretzel bread, cheese curds and chicken wings, as well as fried foods (fried pickle chips, French fries and onion rings) have helped to broaden the selection (plus, they pair perfectly with beer). “We also offer our own kettle-cooked chips produced by a local chip company,” Johnny reports. 

Flatbread pizza is also a newcomer to the menu. It pairs perfectly with craft beer.

Never fear, your favorite soups, fresh green and deli salads, deli classics and original grilled sandwiches are still on the menu, but they’ve been joined by wraps and flatbreads. “Our new flatbread pizzas are amazing! The flatbread is different from the one we use for our sandwiches and is stone-baked,” Johnny adds. There’s also a taste-tempting dessert menu that includes a nod to a local fair favorite: funnel cake fries. 

For those who don’t care to indulge, a beverage menu offers everything from bottled water to the always-refreshing speckled strawberry lemonade. 

An extensive children’s menu signals that Isaac’s remains a family-friendly restaurant. What kid could resist dishes made with rainbow bread or dino nuggets?

For more information, visit isaacsrestaurants.com. 

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