Opening a business is nothing new to Benny Haas. When Haas was a kid, he launched his first business endeavor: “Benny’s Baseball Card Shop.” He ran it out of a small camper on his parents’ lawn and said it was a hit with the kids in the neighborhood.
“I had so many cards, and my friends were always trying to trade and buy them, so I took the pop-up camper and put it in the front yard and sold them,” Haas said. “I think that first summer I made $700.”
This sparked a future in business for Haas, who now owns The Plus, The Metro and The Rev in downtown Eau Claire. These businesses not only serve food and drinks, but also serve as venues for music and comedy.
While in college at Winona State, Haas started an 18+ dance club in the basement of the bar where he worked. Their basement had an unused banquet hall, and Haas got permission from the owner to create the club.
College was not the right fit for Haas, he said, because he was ambitious and wanted to be in the workforce already.
“I was already kind of living the business life—they were telling me things I didn’t learn in real life and it didn’t apply,” Haas said. “So I did the hard-knock thing.”
Haas originally moved to Eau Claire to manage a Green Mill chain, but the long hours and late nights didn’t agree with him.“I was working 70 to 80 hours a week and I wasn’t being a good dad or a good partner,” Haas said. “I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to work for someone anymore?’”
Haas said he had many ideas for businesses, but the first official store he opened in Eau Claire was an art supply store.
“It started as an art supply store, eventually it turned into a cupcake store and eventually that turned into a tea shop,” Haas said.
The restaurant business ran in Haas’ family though, and he said he always had a dream of owning a bar and grill.
Eventually, Haas bought an old bar in downtown Eau Claire and named it Pizza Plus, which eventually just became The Plus, as it is today. But The Plus isn’t just a bar and grill, it’s a gastropub, pizza joint, concert venue and comedy lounge that exclusively serves high-quality food.
“Everything is basically handmade here,” Haas said. “Our sauces don’t come in jugs or anything like that.”
The Plus has a variety of events scheduled every night of the week. From comedy nights to trivia nights, The Plus guarantees to provide entertainment while guests enjoy their food.
“There’s something going on seven nights a week,” he said. “When you aren’t old enough to get into bars — you don’t have a fake — and you are looking for things to do on an average night, we try to provide that.”
One of the most popular events at The Plus are comedy nights every Thursday. Comedy nights have become so popular that The Plus has brought in comedians from around the country to do their routines. World class comedians such as Kyle Kinane, Mary Mack and Chad Daniels have traveled to Eau Claire to perform at The Plus.
Comedians from around the community also perform on Thursday nights.
One of those local comics is Cullen Ryan, who started doing comedy for fun on open mic nights at The Plus in 2012. At this point, The Plus didn’t designate a comedy night yet, but many amatuer comedians would use the open mic nights to showcase their talent.
“I went to a comedy show in Minneapolis and couldn’t stop laughing,” Ryan said. “I told myself that if I loved it this much I should try it out myself, so I made it a goal to get on a stage before my 30th birthday.”
What started out as a hobby eventually grew into an organized comedy group that Ryan started with other local comedians called Clear Water Comedy.
The reason Ryan and other comedians enjoy The Plus so much is the fact that they give the comedians full artistic freedom, Ryan said.
“We’ve never been told what to do and how to do, and that’s exceptionally rare,” Ryan said. “I’ve never even heard of that existing anywhere else.”
Alyssa Anderson, who has performed poetry and comedy on open mic nights, described The Plus as the perfect place for people to get their foot in the door.
“It’s a really good environment for performers, everyone including the staff and audience is really accepting and appreciative,” Anderson said.
Comedy isn’t the only area The Plus has been successful in. They have been lucrative in the music industry, snagging some high profile artists from around the country, Haas said.
The Plus has had many artists perform from a variety of musical genres. From hip-hop artist and three-time Grammy winner Wyclef Jean, to ’80s rock band The Bodines, Haas said The Plus attracts many different audiences and fan bases.
“It’s a great venue, the size is perfect,” Anderson said. “It’s not too big or small, it’s close up and intimate.”
Like most new businesses, Haas and The Plus went through some tough times in the beginning, but through it all they have consistently given back to the community in many different ways, Haas said. From hosting free charity events in their building, to feeding the homeless and needy, Haas estimates The Plus has given out over 15,000 free meals in the last three years.
“My family’s mantra is, ‘To be successful and to survive in life you have to give,’” Haas said. “We think of our customer base as family, and that’s why I think we’ve been so successful over the years.
Alex can be reached at [email protected]