Hopleaf History—Chapter 3—Michael’s History in Bars—The Bronx
Every bar that I worked at left me with something valuable to take with me in life and in the business and culture of bar ownership. Every bar has a plethora of stories too. So it was with The Bronx Bar, on the corner of 2nd Ave and Prentis. I actually worked there twice, leaving and returning when something else did not pan out.
My boss at the Bronx was a Lebanese man, George Jordan. He had started working at the Bronx in 1942 and eventually bought not only the bar, but many of the 3 story walk up apartment buildings that lined Prentis on both sides of Second Avenue. Detroit is a city of owner occupied single family homes with driveways and garages and this area is one of the few in the city with dense, truly urban apartment buildings, most from the late 19th Century. Most of Detroit has never looked like a big city. This area does.
The Bronx is a one story corner saloon that like most in big cities covered all or most of its windows. What people who know the Bronx will always tell you about its appearance is to describe it’s 1930’s art deco neon sign. Bright red, it illuminates the corner even today.
George was a soft spoken man, short and round. While not intimidating, he knew who he did and did not want in his place. Never married, his life was the Bronx Bar. He had some employees who had been working there for many decades. One waitress worked into her 80’s. Dave, an ex jockey with a mostly cranky demeanor, had worked there for over 20 years. I worked with him a lot. Like most jockeys, he was very short. He reveled in telling how even though he was a little guy he could throw out any customer who’d worn out his welcome because he’d wrested control of 900 pound horses in his time. He’d act out bonding the reigns with flexed forearms. He also showed anyone he chatted with a framed photo he kept behind the bar of him and Babe Ruth at a New Jersey racetrack in the 1930’s. Mostly, Dave was a miserable guy with no use for women, young people, blacks or new customers. He did not have to worry much about new customers..
The inside of the Bronx was as characterless as it gets. A formica bar, drop ceiling, cheap fake wood panelling, florescent lights and linoleum floor. The one exception was the backlit copy of a nude painting of Jean Harlow who died the year the bar opened in 1937. It was actually a rather mesmerizing image especially to a guy like me, lacking in female companionship at that time. This was one of two bars that I worked at that had a small kitchen behind the bar that the bartender was expected to run in addition to serving drinks. Hamburgers, fries, grilled cheese sandwiches, onion rings, tiny breaded frozen shrimp and chili.
The bar had an astonishingly large selection of cheap American whiskeys, many with names once well known enough that they advertised in Look, Life and Newsweek as well as fishing and hunting magazines in the 40’s and 50’s. Old Crow, Old Taylor, Kessler’s, Four Roses, White Horse, Old Fitzgerald, Corby’s, Calvert, Early Times, Old Overholt, and Ancient Age to name but a few. There wasn’t much difference between many of these brands and most are not around any more. George stocked all these because his customers grew up on these brands and chose them out of habit. Most of the regulars were men in their 50’s. Many came from the South. Many were WW2 veterans. Some had mustered out in Detroit and never left. A lot of them lived in SRO hotels in the neighborhood. They smoked and drank a lot.
Hopleaf History—Chapter 2—
The man who bought the bar at 5148 N Clark in 1990 was a very unlikely saloon keeper. He was an observant Muslim from Pakistan named Khaled Sahi, known as “Sid”. He had worked as a Mercedes salesman in the North Shore suburbs. He was married to a beautiful and bright woman also from Pakistan who was finishing medical school at the time and he was completely clueless about running a bar/liquor store. Since the regular denizens of this bar tended to be rather racist, most of his customers despised him. The bar was losing money. What little money that came in could not make up for all of the free drinks going out. The only salvation were the illegal poker machines to which many of the regulars were profoundly addicted even though they invariably lost a big portion of their paychecks week after weeks in them.
I met with Sid a few times between October and December 1991 and ironed out a price and terms. The employees and customers were not privy to the fact that the bar would soon be sold. We signed a contract contingent on me being approved by the State Liquor Control Commission and the City of Chicago to hold a liquor license. It was also contingent on the lease being transferred.
Every state has unique liquor laws. It is little understood 95 years later that besides the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution that brought on Prohibition on a Federal level, two thirds of the states passed some form of state legislation banning alcohol as well. Not all states repealed Prohibition in 1933 either. Prohibition did not end in Mississippi until 1966. Since there were still some unconvinced that any good could come from ending Prohibition, state politicians softened the blow by keeping some aspects of Prohibition intact. Some states forbade Sunday sales, some allowed for individual counties to vote themselves “dry”. Ohio restricted beer to no more than 3.2 % strength.
Many states feared that the same organized crime elements who provided beer, wine and booze during Prohibition would take control of the newly legal trade. States also wanted to end the practice of brewery owned taverns which led to some breweries carving out turf like today’s drug gangs. Some breweries even hired gangs of thugs to enforce one brewery’s control of a specific district with threats of violence. To prevent this sort of thing, prospective new liquor license holders had to be vetted. And vetted I was.
I had to be fingerprinted and have my profile cleared by the FBI to insure that I had no ties to organized crime. I needed to prove that i had not been convicted of a felony myself. Anyone who I had shared a bank account with in the previous 7 years also was subject to scrutiny. This was to ensure that I was not a “straw buyer” for a criminal. Years prior to this, in preparation for a trip to Europe in the pre ATM era, I opened a joint account with my parents so that they could wire my money to me in Europe. This meant that my law abiding parents had to go to a police station to be fingerprinted, something neither had ever done. Louise and I sat in a dingy room in the Criminal Courts building at 26th and California with some very seedy people to be fingerprinted.
The authorities “followed the money”, went through their files and found that we were upstanding citizens worthy of taking over a dumpy failing bar/liquor store in Chicago. During this process, the city posts a sign outside the bar alerting the neighborhood to the change incase there is any objection. This was the first clue that employees got that another change was coming. However, the previous change of owners had not changed a thing so most were not worried.
On January 26th 1992, the papers were signed, Khalid Sahi resigned as President of Clark Foster Liquors Inc. and I, Michael Roper took the title. I would be taking the business over on Saturday, February 15. As it happened, I contracted a terrible cold a few days prior to the 15th and had almost no voice. I also had not slept in days. Regardless, I had the keys in hand at 6:30 AM and arrived at the bar before the arrival of the opening bartender Johnna, an older Danish woman who I noted on my secret reconnaissance visits rarely charged the mostly male customers for their drinks. At about 6:45 Am, she arrived for her shift. In my almost non existent voice, I introduced myself, handed her her shift pay for the day and fired her. She wept. The bar did not open at 7. I met with the rest of the staff who included a mixed bag of characters. I felt that none would be with me for the long run but I needed someone to run the bar for the time being as it was if for no other reason, I needed to sell through the dubious array of products on hand.
Who were the other employees? There was Judy. She was born in the aftermath of the Korean War to a Korean mother and an Puerto Rican American soldier. Growing up in Korea as such, she had a rough going of it. She was tough but honest and dependable. For now, a keeper. There was Huey Gillespie. He was a ruddy faced Scot who got along perhaps a bit too well with the regular gamblers at the bar. Also trustworthy, dependable and highly personable with an almost impenetrable accent. Peter Gonzalez lived upstairs in the rear apartment with his two brothers, Johnny and Jose. Peter was paid in cash because he collected disability for a heart ailment. He had held a former old school patronage job with the City. He was married but did not live with his wife. He visited her once or twice a week. I never did meet her. His brother Johnny was a big problem for the bar for quite some time to come. However Peter was the perfect new opening bartender. He was funny, friendly and charged customers for their drinks. They liked him. The mainstay was Shirley Jean Porm. I could fill a few pages with her story.
Shirley Jean grew up in an Appalachian coal mining town. She married at 15 and her first husband Billy Ray, fresh out of the Air Force took her up to Chicago where he got a job in a metal products factory. She had several kids, he left her for a woman known in the neighborhood as the ‘cat lady”. He was a regular at the bar even when she worked. She remarries an older man who shot himself in a failed suicide attempt when she refused to marry him. When he recovered, she relented. He was in the jukebox/poker machine rackets. Her bartending job was her lifeline. Her mental state was very fragile. While she had none of the qualities that the future Hopleaf would demand, I did not have the heart to let her go. She was also honest and loyal to the place. Her country upbringing came in handy one night when a possum came in the bar through an open gangway door. She chased it out with a broom. She was also working the night we were robbed. Right after I took over a gang of thieves announced a robbery, not of the cash register or of the customers, but of the three poker machines which they jimmied open knowing that the crime would not be reported since they were nit legal. She stayed cool and no one was hurt.
I had planned to remove the machines soon anyway even though they represented the sole profit that the bar was making. After the robbery, I had them removed much to the amazement and dismay of the customers.
Lastly, there was the “cleaning guy” Kerry. He was an adult with the IQ of a 10 year old. He drank a lot and odd jobbed in the neighborhood. He was a fixture. Much of his conversation made no sense. He was the worst possible janitor. In a place as dark and dirty as this, no one noticed that the mop bucket water had not been changed in months. That was the crew that I inherited, minus Johnna. The customers were even more colorful.
Hopleaf History—Chapter1—Micu Negresti, Clark Foster Liquors
Wednesday, February 15th, 2017 is the 25th anniversary of our takeover of the former Clark Foster Liquors and the beginning of it morphing into Hopleaf. For those who are interested, over the next 12 months, I am going to tell the story, more or less chronologically, of how Hopleaf became Hopleaf. To start, the former Clark Foster Liquors was known mostly as Hans’ because Hans Gotling owned the place for decades. However, between Hans and us, there was an unlikely one year period of ownership by Khalid Sahi, known as Sid. …
In 1990, Hans was ready to sell his liquor store/tap room. In fact, he had sold it twice before, once on a land contract to James McCallister. He quickly failed and Hans took the bar back. Hans then sold the bar to Mary Lou Hunziker who wound up selling the bar back to Hans but keeping the building. As it happened, I saw the ad in the Chicago Tribune for the place and looked at it. While Hans told me that everything about the place was “first class” I was unimpressed. It was small, in bad condition and was not exactly a thriving business. At that moment, I saw no potential there
and passed on it.
The man who did buy it was Kahlid Sahi, a car salesman at a Mercedes Benz dealership in the suburbs. He was an observant Muslim from Pakistan who was looking for business to invest in. His accountant suggested a liquor store. “Sid” Sahi knew nothing about the business. He knew so little, that he did not even seem to recognize what he was buying. While Clark Foster Liquors did sell package goods, it was more of a bar than a store. It was also a bar whose older white ethnic clientele was not likely to bond with a dark-skinned Muslim from Pakistan.
Sid ran the bar for a year and watched the shrinking revenue shrink at an even faster pace. He was not making any money. Besides covering the Swedish fishing village mural Hans’ had painted on the north wall with mirror tiles, he did not have a single idea what would turn the place’s business around. The mirror tiles, needless to say, had no effect.
In the meantime, we had looked at two other potential locations for a future Hopleaf. The first, at 4337 N Lincoln, was then the Amsterdam Jazz Cafe, and before that it was Goodnight Irene’s. It had lots of unappealing complications that drove us away. It became Jury’s for many years and then the short lived Copperhouse. Now it is The Northman.
After that, we made a bigger commitment to a space on Wilson and Wolcott. This was a bar called, appealingly, Micu Negresti. It occupied 2 storefronts just east of Ravenswood Hospital. It had a kitchen. We signed a lease and a purchase agreement contingent on getting a liquor license. We had architectural drawings done. We rooted around the space a bit. About the only positive discovery I made was that there was a tin ceiling above the cigarette-stained drop ceiling.
As it happened, Micu Negresti was unpopular with its nearby neighbors. Its Romanian customers often got into brawls that spilled into the street. This was 1990, only one year after the tumultuous Romanian Revolution, and the passions that drove millions to the streets and led to the killings of Ceaușescu and his wife had spread to a corner bar in Chicago. The neighbors opposition translated to a great deal of skepticism from 47th Ward Alderman Gene Schulter. He nixed our plan. The space became Sabor a Cuba and Caro Mio, neither of who got liquor licenses. The hospital later closed and the business strip has struggled.
We wasted a few months’ rent money and our architectural drawings. I still have them. We dodged a bullet. That location would never have been great for us.
At that very moment, Clark Foster Liquors came back on the market. Sid wanted out. He offered it for what he paid for it. It was the very same place that I found completely unworthy a year earlier. It had nothing going for it. Andersonville was a sleepy area of Chicago that all of the smart people said was too far away from what was happening in town; a no-mans land between Lakeview and Rogers Park. The equipment was worn out. It was ugly. It was small.
What Clark Foster Liquors had was a “clean” license that was owned not by an individual, but by a corporation. It was easily transferable with a simple change of corporate officers. It had 10 years left on a lease that in 1992 asked only $600 a month for rent. The lease allowed a rise in the rent of $50 every 2 years, terms that were very agreeable. Though the bar was small, the building had 3 apartments, a full basement, a yard and a 3 car garage that perhaps someday could be ours if we could convince the owner, Mary Lou Hunziker who lived above the bar, to sell us the building.
Frustrated by several dead ends and having been 10 years since the fire destroyed my first bar venture, the New Miami in Detroit, I was an easy mark. I labored over the decision for several days. I tried to visualize what could be done to make people actually want to come to this out of the way place. In the end, I wanted a bar, any bar, and I wanted it then. On January 24th, 1992, I signed on the dotted line.
Of course, I had to be vetted by the City, the State of Illinois and the FBI to ensure that the public good would not be threatened by one Michael Roper having a license to sell alcoholic beverages. I also had to post a public notice to give neighbors a warning of impending change. That process would take less than 3 weeks.
The customers and staff were not quite clear what was happening, when it would happen, and who might be taking Sid’s place. During the interval between applying for and receiving the license, I surreptitiously visited the bar to get a sense of which employees I could trust and who the customers were. My clandestine visits were depressing. This bar was not in any way a bar that I would want to go to. How could I expect anyone new to come in? Our work was cut out for us.