Local entrepreneur Sean Baird visits Parkland

Photo by Cindy Smith | Parkland College Local entrepreneur Sean Baird visits Parkland College to speak at a Parkland Entrepreneurial Network (PEN) talk on Thursday, October 22, 2015.

Photo by Cindy Smith | Parkland College
Local entrepreneur Sean Baird visits Parkland College to speak at a Parkland Entrepreneurial Network (PEN) talk on Thursday, October 22, 2015.

Zach Trueblood

Staff Writer

Local business owner and entrepreneur, Sean Baird, came to speak at Parkland on Thursday, Oct. 22. Baird was a guest speaker in an ongoing series of the Parkland Entrepreneurial Network or PEN talks. He provided his own experiences and business advice for those interested in entering the restaurant business.

“Sean is a great example of someone who had passion and ideas, but has also now a really well-honed sense of the business side of following your passion. And this is also not an end game for him. I fully expect him to continue to develop other ideas and projects,” Parkland College Vice President for Institutional Advancement Seamus Reilly stated.

Baird’s story is a local one. He grew up in the Champaign-Urbana area. He’s been in the hospitality industry for as long as he can remember. He later attended Southern Illinois University Carbondale and received a degree in hospitality and tourism with a focus in restaurant management.

“I was pretty lucky that it was easy to come to the conclusion of what I wanted to do,” Baird said in his PEN talk on Oct. 22.

His first round of success came with the launching of a food truck in the Champaign-Urbana area, which was started with Baird and two other co-owners. The truck’s name was Cracked: The Egg Came First.

Baird remarked that there was really a lack of competition in the food truck scene when he first started. In fact, there were only three others in town, now there are around 15.

When the trio came up with the plan to launch a food truck, their only other competition was two trucks that offered Mexican cuisine and the Crave Truck, a business started by Parkland student Zach Ware while in high school. Cracked became a hit among the locals and the truck was offered invitations to music festivals all over the country.

“There was really a void of competition in the food truck scene. There were only two other ones in town but now there’s around 15,” Baird said.

When the trio came up with the plan to launch a food truck, their only other competition was two trucks that offered Mexican cuisine. Cracked became a hit among the locals and the truck was offered invitations to music festivals all over the country.

The truck served festival attendees at festivals like Bonnaroo and Electric Forest. At Bonnaroo, an event that hosts around 90,000 patrons, Cracked made around $46,000 in sales their second year.

About eight months ago Baird decided to part ways with the food truck aspect in order to expand his hospitality career. He’s in the process of opening a restaurant, Watson’s Chicken Shack and Rail, in the downtown area of Champaign.

Baird’s success and expertise with hospitality earned him a spot as presenter in the most recent PEN talk. The network’s goal is to support entrepreneurial learning at Parkland. Reilly takes input from everyone on potential speakers and tries to promote entrepreneurial opportunities for students on campus.

“As a result of a proposal from prominent individuals in our community, we developed an Entrepreneur of the Year competition, support various projects and initiatives to support students, and instituted a PEN Talks series. The talks are intended to introduce students to common principles connected with learning, entrepreneurship, and general work ethic and practical advice,” Reilly said.

Reilly has known Baird for many years and felt him to be a good fit as presenter for a PEN talk. Baird is 25, and Reilly felt that it’s important to showcase younger entrepreneurs.

“Sometimes it is hard for students to see the links between starting off and achieving success. Earlier speakers had clearly reached the pinnacle of their achievement. Their talks were great and had excellent practical advice, but often it was reflections. Younger entrepreneurs offer something closer to the action,” Reilly stated.

Baird’s newest venture is his downtown restaurant Watson’s Shack and Rail. Watson’s is located at 211 North Neil Street, in the same space as former Boltini Lounge.

There has been about 11 months of planning and preparation going into the launch of Watson’s. Baird and his crew are hard at work to get it up and running. The planned open date will be around mid December.

“It’s going to be southern style comfort food with regional and local products. I’ve gotten a lot of inspiration from the Chicago restaurant scene with places like Honey Butter and Parson’s. We didn’t want to be too southern but have things like Nashville hot chicken and rotisserie chicken. You don’t see too many places doing rotisserie chickens,” Baird said.

There is still renovation work being done at the restaurant. A paint scheme has been selected and various interior design aspects are being worked out. Baird and his Head Chef Mark Hartstein have even been rolling up their own sleeves and getting dirty.

“Everybody’s been super nice throughout the whole process. Carlos and Tiffany from Jupiter’s have helped out a lot,” Hartstein said, regarding the support of other downtown establishments.

Watson’s boasts the appeal of an authentic chicken shack. Tin roofs will be added for aesthetic appeal. The very back area that used to be a dance floor in Boltini is being converted to a kitchen.

The color scheme has a prominent burnt sienna that is similar to the original brick color. Baird has also employed the services of local artist Jason Mack. Mack has designed a number of the light fixtures in the restaurant. They are made of recycled beer glass and formed into a dome shape. There are more artistic accents to come and will be revealed when the restaurant launches.

Baird has many plans for Watson’s. He wants to stress the importance of using local and regional meats and produce. He believes the farm to table aspect is really catching speed in the downtown area. Baird predicts the average check per person will be around $11 or $12.

Watson’s is also a bar and will be open late night. The full menu won’t likely be available late into the night. Baird hopes to offer innovative drinks like frozen bourbon slushies and more. Watson’s will also have live music.

For those interested in attending a PEN talk, Reilly stated that there would be more in the future, most likely in the spring semester. The presenters will likely be younger and more relatable to the student body. If you’re a fan of fried chicken, be looking for the Watson’s Shack and Rail opening set tentatively for mid December.