Vine Neighborhood

On streets broad and narrow in Kalamazoo’s Vine, O’Duffy’s Pub is the neighborhood’s living room

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.

On any given night at O’Duffy’s Pub, you will find publican -- that's the official term for a pub owner -- Jamie Kavanaugh washing dishes, chatting with customers, or sitting at the end of the bar like a pub Buddha, with the pub mascot, a Bernese Mountain Dog, Miss Molly Malone,  sprawled at his feet.

As proprietor and owner of the iconic pub and upstairs restaurant, Cosmo’s Cucina, Kavanaugh likes to say, “I hear a lot. I see a lot. But I don’t say a lot.”

His friends might disagree because Kavanaugh’s great with a yarn, but the point is well-taken. One feels that Kavanaugh knows how to keep a secret, but perhaps more importantly, how to create the kind of environment that encourages the sharing of a few.

O’Duffy’s has no loud television sets. And the live music is kept at a level that doesn’t discourage conversation. The music is frequently performed by local favorites, such as Whiskey Before Breakfast, Who Hit John or Out of Favor Boys.

“Being in this business, you’re there to listen to people. You can just be that person that allows them to share things that are pretty much on the surface,” says Kavanaugh, “but sometimes, you get to know a lot more about people.” 

Kavanaugh, who opened both establishments with his late wife Kim, is not one to boast, but he is proud of his family’s investment in the business and the neighborhood. For many years before Kim’s passing due to cancer in 2010, the Kavanaughs, including their two sons, now 37 and 45, devoted countless hours to the business, making it an extension of their home, which is located only four blocks away.

“I can’t think of any other place where you can walk in at any given time and find an owner present,” says Kavanaugh. “Even if I’m doing dishes, I’m there and keeping an eye on the people who are there. And there’s nobody that’s going to have more interest in people enjoying themselves than me.”

Where everybody knows your name

Like the Vine neighborhood itself, O’Duffy’s has gathered its share of endearments. Known to many as simply “the pub,” O’Duffy’s is also known by some neighbor youth as “the party place,” as it’s a frequent host to neighborhood gatherings. For years, O’Duffy’s sponsored Vine’s National Night Out, and currently boasts a popular St. Patrick’s Day celebration with traditional music and Guinness on tap. It also opens its doors to the Vine Neighborhood Association Annual Meeting each spring. 

“From a neighborhood perspective, (Kavanaugh) has always been such a tremendous supporter of the neighborhood itself,” says Steve Walsh, VNA Director, adding that he and Kavanaugh see their roles as “very similar.”

“One of the most important things I do and one of the most important things he does is to provide a safe place for people to feel listened to,” says Walsh, which means the two can engage in some pretty intense conversations, “solving all the neighborhood’s problems.” 

“We just want to go to the pub where we know people know us, and Jamie will take care of us and will sit down to talk,” says Walsh, calling the Kavanaughs “some of the warmest and kindest people you’ll meet.”

If you visit O'Duffy's Pub, you're sure to see Molly and owner Jamie Kavanaugh, if not in the pub itself, then close by.For longtime pub patron and Vine resident Nathan Dannison, O’Duffy’s is his “happy place,” citing the lack of televisions as one of his favorite parts.

“When you go in there, you can’t ignore the people with you. You’re there to build relationships and that’s the way public houses are supposed to be. They’re for connecting with people and making memories,” says Dannison, senior pastor at First Congregational United Church of Christ. Dannison, with his wife, Heather, visited the pub often when they were first dating as students at Western Michigan University. 

“Whenever we go to another city, we’re always looking for our O’Duffy’s and we have a hard time finding it because it’s just so unique,” says Dannison. “O’Duffy’s is where we go to just exist and it’s wonderful.”

Sarah Drumm, Walsh’s wife, says the pub has always been family friendly and was smoke-free before it was a state law. She visits O’Duffy’s often whether it's when she's out with her two children, on a date with her husband, winding down with a group of neighborhood pickup soccer players, or just there to chat with Kavanaugh, who has become a dear friend. “To me, it feels like another home in the neighborhood,” she says. 

Alive, Alive-O: 20 years and going strong

Restaurants often have a lineage: since the early 1970s, the building at Vine and Locust has hosted some kind of upstairs restaurant, which changed with the times. Some longtime residents may remember a few if not all of the former eateries: H. Buffalo Esquire first, then the Troubadour, the Marketplace, Wall Street and Granola, and the Vine Garden Café.

“I’ve met so many people over the years who have filled in the blanks,” says Kavanaugh. Others know the corner as the home to an odd assortment of shops, including the popular vintage clothing store, Souk Sampler, pet store, leather shop, headshop and stained glass store, “all kinds of eclectic things.”

Spurred by a dream of Kim Kavanaugh’s to open a restaurant, the Kavanaughs searched for the perfect spot. In 1992, when they learned the brick building on the corner of Vine and Locust was available, they were eager to purchase it. 

“We were drawn to the restaurant building,” says Kavanaugh. “It’s such a comfortable place to be.”

While the couple had “no money whatsoever,” they worked out a deal with a partner, whose grandfather’s middle name was Cosmo, which became the restaurant’s moniker. Cucina means ‘restaurant’ in Italian. 

The neighborhood in which the Kavanaugh’s opened their business and eventually purchased a home was a shadow of its current self back in 1992. Kavanaugh recalls drug deals across the street and absentee landlords. 

“Houses were being let go to ruin, milked for rent, with no money put back into them,” he says. But the Kavanaughs kept the faith, eventually expanding restaurant hours and hoping to get a liquor license, which took seven years. “We were very naive. We didn’t realize you had to have (disability) accessibility and a bathroom,” which meant they needed to open the ground floor.

The pub, in fact, was originally a way to be able to serve liquor at Cosmo’s because “a lot of people like a drink with their meal,” says Kavanaugh. 

The name O’Duffy is in honor of Kim’s brother, Jeff, who died in a car accident before the pub opened. As a young girl, Kim called Jeff “Duffy,” and they wanted to honor his memory. The O was added for an Irish twist.

For the first couple of years, patrons traipsed through the pub and up into the restaurant. As the pub reputation has grown, some newer customers have never even been upstairs, Kavanaugh says, laughing. The neighborhood has changed, as well.

“When you fast forward to today in Vine, the houses are beautiful, the neighborhood is quieter. People are taking care of their yards, putting money in their homes, and taking pride in the neighborhood.” 

At O'Duffy's Pub, patrons can converse without the distraction of televisions or overly loud music. Susan Andress and Jeff Palmer enjoy an evening at O'Duffy's.Kavanaugh says the most telling sign of revitalization is how many people he sees out walking and running with their dogs, and then maybe a less obvious sign, the preponderance of  milkweed, the only plant Monarch caterpillars will eat, not only at his business and home, but also in the yards and gardens of many Vine residents’. 

“It’s really a great thing to see a resurgence of milkweed,” says Kavanaugh, who adds he’s always been passionate about butterflies. “I think it indicates we’re at peace with life. The neighborhood is not in turmoil anymore.”

Will the real O’Duffy please stand up?

A year after Kim died, a young woman from Dublin named Jackie O’Duffy reached out to Kavanaugh, asking if she could buy an O’Duffy’s Pub hat for her father, who had six girls and no boys. Kavanaugh sent her two hats and asked her to send one back with all of their signatures. 

In January of 2012, Kavanaugh flew to Dublin. When he arrived, he sent Jackie a message saying he would love to meet. “They invited me to their family home and all six girls arrived,” says Kavanaugh, recalling the experience, clearly moved by “just the magic of people,” a spirit of Irish hospitality he aspires to embody at O’Duffy’s. 

In August, O’Duffy’s 20th-anniversary celebration drew a large crowd and was a “walk down Memory Lane.” In a testament to local businesses supporting each other, Martini’s owner Rich Munda served over 80 pizzas, even donating the dough. “That’s our community,” says Kavanaugh of his fellow neighborhood restaurateur. “We support each other. Customers might go to his place one day and come to mine the next."

Kavanaugh was clearly touched by the birthday celebration.

“I was a little surprised by how much love there is in the community for the pub, and for me, and for Molly,” says Kavanaugh. “Old employees came back, old customers came back, and they shared the stories about the impact the restaurant has had on their lives.”

Those stories included first dates, engagements, and even four or five weddings, along with countless rehearsal dinners and birthday and graduation celebrations.

“It brought about a few happy tears. And to be honest, it was a bit bittersweet at times to not have my wife here celebrating,” says Kavanaugh. 

He recalls gratefully the way the community gathered around him when Kim passed, especially during a memorial party for which over 400 people attended and local restaurants donated staff and food so that “we could all celebrate her life.” Kim “was fiery and passionate,” says Walsh. “She really understood the role she played in the community.”

Even on a Tuesday night, O'Duffy's Pub draws a crowd who are happy to converse with friends, enjoy the music, food and drink, and soak up the pub's cheerful vibe.The Kavanaughs had a dream to be a part of Vine and to make it better. “We got involved more than just coming to work and making it a business,” says Kavanaugh, “From day one, we wanted to make a positive impact on the neighborhood and be a part of the community. I think that’s a goal that we really have achieved.” 

Dannison agrees. At the end of a performing night, members of Who Hit John always toast to Kavanaugh, something they don’t do at other bars. “We toast to Jamie because he’s not just the owner, he’s the proprietor,” says Dannison. “If the Vine neighborhood had an uncle, it would be Jamie. He treats everyone who comes through the door as a friend.”

Kavanaugh says it’s the patrons themselves who have made O’Duffy’s a friendly and memory-making place. He doesn’t see himself retiring, he says, though he has noticed the clientele is seeming younger.

“I tell people all the time when they say, ‘You have a wonderful place,’ ‘It’s the people who come here who make it what it is.’ The most rewarding part of this business has been the people I’ve met. So many really nice people have walked through that door over the years and shared a little bit of their lives with all of us.”

Photos by Taylor Scamehorn, unless otherwise indicated. See more of her work here.
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Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. As a longtime freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher, she has a passion for sharing the positive stories in Southwest Michigan and for mentoring young writers. She also serves as the Project Editor of the Faith in Action series and Project Lead for Battle Creek Voices of Youth.