Digging In With The Big Mini
How The Big Mini Putt Club Plans to Put Putt Putt on the Chicago Map
By: Alex Gara
When I sat with Nick Jenkins and Austin DeLonge to discuss the Big Mini Putt Club, no matter what the context of our conversation was, I found myself writing, rewriting, and underlining the words “digging in” in my notes.
It's a fairly pedestrian saying, but wildly applicable to success in business. It works on a variety of levels and each of those levels comes attached with admirable qualities.
You dig into a project. You brace yourself. You plant. You attack head on.
You get below the surface of something. You root. You prepare for the long haul.
You increase your resolve. You strengthen. You don’t weaken or retreat.
For Austin and Nick, opening their ambitious putt putt bar in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood means all of the above.
Jenkins and DeLonge have known they wanted to go into business together since they met at the University of Vermont back in 2008. Because of Nick’s work experience in the world of documentary films, and Austin’s knack for finance and operations, the two assumed their partnership would somehow involve film.
When DeLonge moved to Chicago in 2017, they started to explore how to make that dream a reality. He explained, “At first we were looking at opening an arthouse movie theater. We were actually looking at some properties in Chicago and had an idea of how we wanted to do it. We knew we wanted a bar. We knew we wanted activities and amenities, like an arcade. One thing led to another and that idea transformed to a mini golf bar. Fortunately, a lot of the research and steps we took for the movie theater became directly applicable [towards] this.”
Once the two heard about a deal for an axe-throwing venue falling through on Milwaukee Avenue they took a quick trip to Wicker Park to see the space. “We instantly fell in love with the space and knew we had to put a bid in right away,” Jenkins told me.
The bid was approved and DeLonge and Jenkins were met with the Chicago Welcome of permits, zoning rights, red tape, and trips downtown. While I baited them to talk discouragingly about the process, they both maintained an air of gratitude, focusing their narrative on the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce’s support and the friendly points of contact they had made down at City Hall. “Because there isn’t a rule book on indoor mini golf bars, we had to do a lot of explaining. So we’d go down to a City Hall in our Carhartts and work boots. All of the other businesses would send lawyers in suits, but we were there advocating for ourselves. I think that’s why so many of the clerks were eager to help us.”
That DIY spirit carried over from the bureaucratic steps to the actual build-out. All nine holes were designed and built by DeLonge and Jenkins. They learned the finer points of woodworking. They learned how to source the turf and apply it. They even took part-time jobs at local bars to better learn the ins and outs of the hospitality industry.
A big part of what made Jenkins and DeLonge fall in love with their new space was its location in the heart of Wicker Park. DeLonge explained, “it gives us an opportunity to be a neighborhood tradition.”
He compared it to the eclectic, independent businesses he was surrounded by with some of the more rinse-and-repeat sports venues in River North. “We don’t want this to be a cookie cutter franchise. We want league nights for locals and the bar to serve as a 19th hole of sorts when Chicagoans finish a round of golf and want to meet with their non-golfing friends or spouses.”
Looking around, he also referenced the neighborly vibes from Wicker Park staples like BIG & little’s, Emporium Arcade, and Whiskey Business. “We love what these guys are doing and want to work with them and alongside them rather than against them.”
Those principles are personified throughout the building. When you walk in the space, you're greeted by a fantastical mural from @bigartcollective. It’s a locally sourced acid trip, partially an homage to mini golf and partially to Chicago culture. The bar was built by local craftsman (and ex-bartender) Michael Anthony. The accordion windows will call out to Blue Liners and even the seating is crafted so that when you’re enjoying a drink near the bar, your eyes will be fixed on the live mini golf action surrounding you.
The sense of community is strong, even months before the first hole-in-one will be sunk.
The Big Mini is full of fun surprises, but it doesn’t feel too busy. DeLonge and Jenkins are focused on “nailing the bar program and nailing the mini golf experience”, meaning all of the bells and whistles are dedicated to complimenting one of those facets or the other.
The holes are carefully spaced and designed to offer different strategies as well as different vantage points from around the venue. Even though it’s towards the back, you’ll probably notice the halfpipe hole right away. It plays on that whole nostalgia wave that guests are sure to ride when thinking about mini golf. Jenkins doesn’t downplay the nostalgia, “You can’t underestimate the broad appeal of the game. Almost everyone has a memory of playing as a kid. We want to bring you back to that happy place.”
And while the halfpipe might be an instant crowd pleaser, DeLonge and Jenkins can’t say for sure what their favorite holes are. “Honestly, it’s always changing,” DeLonge said. When pressed Austin chose hole 4 for the challenge and Jenkins picked hole 6 for it’s vantage point of the bar.
They imagine players, especially returning players, will have a similar opinion. DeLonge explained how they see that playing out, “We are definitely planning on having leagues and tournaments, but we want to mix up the experience for the players. Some weeks you’ll switch partners. Some weeks you might have to play the course opposite-handed. We want to keep everything feeling fresh.”
That freshness will be complimented by a bar program full of tasty cocktails with fun golf puns, and rotating local beers. The details behind the dug into bar suggest an emphasis on quality over kitschy. Industrial piping and custom lightbulb-inspired tap handles offer yet another nod to the Chicago spirit throughout.
The finishing touches include a restored golf cart photo booth, a dedicated course marshall, plans for a beverage cart pitstop during your round and a skee-ball-esque 10th hole when it’s time to turn in your ball.
All of the Above
The hands-on approach that DeLonge and Jenkins have taken throughout their first bar opening won’t go unnoticed. There is purposefulness, innovation, and attention to detail throughout. The original plan was to be open by now, but the two young business owners have remained patient during the Covid-related delays. They’ve used the extra time to, well, dig in. The Big Mini will be open when it's safe to open and when that day comes (fingers crossed this spring) it will take its place in Chicago’s thriving social community.