This article is part of an ongoing series on long-running locally owned businesses. Check out our previous installments on Stadium Hardware and Downtown Home and Garden.
Keeping things fresh while maintaining the atmosphere regulars expect is both a challenge and a selling point for Old Town Tavern, located at 122 W. Liberty in Ann Arbor, which advertises itself as "the last surviving townie bar."
"It's just kind of comfortable, and some people love the fact that nothing ever changes," says Chris Pawlicki, who co-owns the bar with his brother Steve. "In some regards, that drives me crazy, because I have a list of things I'd love to do, but I'm afraid I'd get scolded. Old Town needs to evolve, but just a little at a time so people don't notice."
Evolution from a working class bar
The building at the corner of Ashley and West Liberty was built in the 1860s and there's been a bar or saloon in it since about 1898. Pawlicki says he's not sure what happened during Prohibition but thinks the owner at that time may have had a legitimate front selling bitters.
By the early 1970s the bar, then called Merkel's Friendly Corner, was known as a working-class establishment, opening at 6 a.m. to accommodate third-shift workers exiting a factory just down the street. Jerry Pawlicki, father of the two current owners, bought the bar in 1972. He renamed it Old Town Tavern at that time, but he kept the early-morning hours for a few years afterward, until the mid-'70s.
Chris Pawlicki says his father had one other previous stint as a business owner, operating the Anchor Inn in Pinckney for two or three years. Pawlicki says his father wasn't making a profit and was "going under fast" until he made the then-unusual step of featuring go-go dancers at the Anchor Inn.
"At that time, you had to go to Detroit for anything like that," Pawlicki says. "But that's what saved him. He made all his money back, paid people, got out of the business, and came here."
Jerry Pawlicki knew that the charm of the small tavern — long and narrow, seating only about 100 — came largely from its age, so he preserved the old wood floors and original tin ceiling. The restaurant's decor today, largely consisting of old black and white photos, continues to pay homage to the past.
Chris Pawlicki says that while his brother Steve initially "took a different path," exploring sales as a career, Chris always expected he'd end up in the family business.
"I grew up in Dexter and I remember riding my bike here as a teenager and doing cleaning on the weekends," Chris Pawlicki says. He also cooked in the kitchen in the summers, but says the menu was simpler then than it is now.
Pawlicki says you don't have to have a college degree to run a bar, but he decided to go to college to study hospitality management because he knew that's what he wanted to do with his life, despite a professor's warning about how exhausting hospitality can be.
"Think about it. You're working nights, you're working weekends, you're working with temperamental chefs and angry customers," Pawlicki says. He adds, "I really do enjoy this. It's kind of the only thing I've ever done. It got me through college working at a country club on weekends, and I got a lot of back-of-the-house experience."
The second generation takes over
The elder Pawlicki retired in 1998 and sold the business to his sons, who have run the tavern ever since.
Today, Chris Pawlicki says the tavern attracts mostly townies, including families who live on Ann Arbor's Old West Side and enjoy having a local restaurant option. The tavern also draws people who work downtown for weekday lunches, and older college students and grad students show up after 8 or 9 p.m.
The staff is small: about four or five cooks plus bartenders and wait staff, amounting to fewer than 20 employees, about half part-time and half full-time. Pawlicki notes that the management structure is also small: just the two brothers.
He says bars and restaurants tend to have high turnover, but several of his employees have been with Old Town for 10 or more years, and he thinks customers like that.
"The servers get to know people's names and what they usually order. Customers like it when a particular server knows their history and what's going on in their personal life and vice versa," Pawlicki says.
Pawlicki says he and his brother naturally fell into their ownership roles based on personality.
"(Steve Pawlicki's) personality lends itself to more of the 'downstairs' duties like ordering and bookkeeping," Chris Pawlicki says. "I'm more in tune with the food and menu and the staff, the 'upstairs' stuff."
Pawlicki says he has tried to maintain the elements of the bar that keep regulars coming back, but one thing he and his brother "keyed into" was featuring craft beers.
"We were one of the first bars in Ann Arbor to carry Bell's beer," Pawlicki says.
Another change was bringing in live music on Wednesdays and Sundays. The bar is too small for a large rock 'n' roll band, but it's a perfect spot for singer-songwriters and small jazz combos, Pawlicki says.
Pawlicki says competition from new bars and restaurants is one of Old Town's biggest challenges.
"There's always new stuff coming in," he says, noting that just five years ago, the nearby Grotto Watering Hole (formerly the Beer Grotto) and Kosmo Bop Shop didn't exist, for example.
Trying to keep up with the times, the owners have also gradually expanded the menu, mostly consisting of lunch items like sandwiches and burritos, though the tiny kitchen hasn't added any square footage.
"I would like to offer some more dinner-type items for people on the Old West Side, because not everybody wants to have a sandwich for both lunch and dinner," Pawlicki says. "I'd like to add pot roast, meat loaf – nothing too wacky, stick-to-your-ribs items. People who come here expect certain things."
Beyond the next few years, Pawlicki is unsure of the tavern's future.
"I don't think there will be a third generation (running the tavern)," he says. "One of my kids is in engineering, and the other in nursing. My brother's kid is too young (to decide on a career), though, so who knows?"
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at email@example.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe.