It was early 2011, and these two broke bartenders had hatched a plan to take over a recently vacated Patchogue restaurant to open their own spot.
On a whim, they called the space’s leaseholder, Scottie Campbell, who also happened to be their longtime boss at the Dublin Deck, also in Patchogue.
“Scottie was like, ‘Can you meet in 10 minutes?’” recalled James Bonanno.
He and his barkeep buddy, Dave Johnson, hopped in a car.
Here was their pitch:
They wanted to take over the lease (Campbell and his partner, John Peragine, had just moved to a larger space) and open a craft beer bar with top-notch food, a fairly new concept over a decade ago.
Scottie and Peragine countered; they would be happy to go 50/50 on the new concept with the two twenty-somethings.
But it would cost the boys a few bucks.
Bonanno and Johnson assured them they had the money to make it happen, approximately $100,000.
They were in business; the lawyers would start drawing up the paperwork.
“So this went from an idea, to making a phone call, to an hour later we’re shaking hands,” said Bonanno. “I walked out and looked at Dave and was like, ‘Holy sh— we just bought a restaurant and need to come up with a hundred grand.”
What would emerge was the instantly popular Tap Room at 114 West Main Street.
The Tap Room now has four locations across Long Island with more on the way.
Bonanno and Johnson expect to have 20 open on the East Coast by 2027.
This is their origin story.
There were no credit checks needed. No combing over bank accounts.
Campbell and Peragine went on trust.
But not blind trust.
It came down to “work ethic and character,” Bonanno said.
“That’s not something you can just turn on when you want to,” he’ll often tell high school students. “I had worked for Scottie for 10 years and he saw my character, my work ethic, my loyalty.
“I couldn’t just all of a sudden turn it on and say, ‘I promise to work real hard,’” he said.
Johnson added, “And I was confident Jamie could get the money.”
The first swing at cash was a miss. Johnson had tried to borrow from his ex-girlfriend’s dad, whom he knew “was loaded.”
“What’s your business plan?” the dad had asked.
The two didn’t have one.
“What if this goes wrong? What if that goes wrong?”
The two didn’t know.
“He was like, I’m not lending you two idiots any money,” Bonanno said.
No blind trust there.
This was going to be harder than they thought.
“So I just went to friends, family, and my pitch was ‘let me borrow $10,000 and I’ll pay you interest on that, 10 percent,’” Bonanno said.
They got their $100,000.
Some people said not to rush the money back, some people needed it back pretty quickly. Either way, opening The Tap Room and paying these early supporters back was the first priority.
If they failed, Bonanno assured, “I’ll bartend eight days a week until I repay you.”
There was that reputation and work ethic again, working wonders.
On April 15, 2011, The Tap Room opened. (They believe Campbell came up with the name.)
“Dave and I got to work,” Bonanno said. “We managed, we hustled, we bartended, fought and scratched to get that initial money back that we borrowed from people.”
Within two years, the lenders were paid off. Then Campbell and Peragine asked to be bought out. The place was just too small for four of them to make enough money.
“We weren’t really getting rich,” Bonanno said. “We worked for two years and didn’t make much, but we paid back our people and we learned a lot. Then we were able to buy them out.”
But the place was bursting at the seams.
Around the same time they became full owners, Bonanno and Johnson broke ground on a much-needed outdoor patio. That was a help, but only during the warmer months.
Winter was crowded.
“It gets busy. Too busy,” Bonanno told greaterpatchogue.com in August 2015, two months after the two purchased the building.
They hatched another plan to expand the space upstairs, which had been apartments at the time.
To fund the expansion project after buying the building, The Tap Room established a “founder’s club” in September 2015. “You can help build up The Tap Room in Patchogue,” a greaterpatchogue.com headline read at the time.
The founder’s club was described as a capital-raising endeavor designed to help fund the pricey expansion, while establishing and maintaining a core group of supporters.
“We could get capital through traditional sources,” Bonanno said in 2015. “But … if we’re going to pay interest to the bank, why not do something fun and cool and give back to our best customers and friends? The people giving us the reason why we have to expand in the first place.”
And it worked. The upstairs would open in October 2016.
Meanwhile, the two men had been looking west.
Building an empire
Bonanno and Johnson had caught lightning in a bottle in Patchogue, where the Tap Room quickly emerged as a local fan favorite for food and drink that spanned generations.
“It was so many good things coming together at the perfect time,” Bonanno said. “The timing was right with Patchogue’s growth, and the growth of craft beer and the growth of elevated pub food, the gastro pub concept, was gaining steam. We hit a lot of the trends at the right time.
“But I’m a big believer that you create your own luck.”
Still, they wondered about the nature of their success.
“We didn’t know if we were successful because we were local guys,” Bonanno said. “I’m from Blue Point and Dave is from Patchogue. We had been bartending in the community for years and knew a ton of people. We wanted to take our money somewhere else and prove the concept.”
They also took on their accountant, Kevin Boyle, as a third partner in all The Tap Room locations.
The trio opened The Tap Room in Massapequa Park in December 2015.
“Massapequa Park was like opening the flood gates,” Bonanno said. “We were packed from Day 1 and we didn’t know one person out there. It proved people liked what we were doing.”
Then it was on.
But quarantine times gave The Tap Room owners an opportunity to regroup, and think even bigger.
“We had already started working on being better multi-unit operators,” Bonanno said, “and working more closely with the owner of a software company designed just for that.”
That software company owner hooked up The Tap Room trio with a bonafide guru in the country’s ever-competitive restaurant landscape. She’s known for taking companies from four locations to 500.
“Behind the scenes we’ve been working with this coach and it’s been amazing, so now we’re on the path to keep growing,” Bonanno said. “And I think COVID gave us the real confidence, that if we could get through that, we can get through anything.
“So let’s put the pedal on the gas and have some fun.”
Two new locations are expected to open within the next 12 months. The next will be in Deer Park, which will be the first Tap Room that’s not on a Main Street.
The Tap Room is building a foundation to expand across several states.
“It’s exciting,” Bonanno said. “And not just for us, but for the team. It’s amazing to be able to create opportunities for the people around us, to help build their lives and their careers.”
In March 2019 The Tap Room also helped raise funds and donated its own money to build a kitchen and dining hall in Kenya.
They also support a charitable nonprofit called Independent Group Home Living (IGHL) which helps people with special needs, with Tap Room staffers volunteering for IGHL.
(The company is looking to continue its work in impoverished communities in Africa.)
“This type of work gives us all such pride and excitement,” Bonanno said. “And to do all this, we’re just forever grateful for those handful of people who believed in us at the beginning.”
Top: Dave Johnson with his daughter, Payton, with James Bonanno and his son, Jack, at The Tap Room’s 10-year anniversary block party in Patchogue in October 2021.