Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Start of a Long Road Back

A slightly different version of this story appears in today's Oshkosh Herald

The spring of 2020 will be remembered as among the worst of times for family-run businesses like Jerry's Bar and the Fox River Brewing Company. 

Scott Engel, whose family has operated Jerry's Bar at 1210 Ceape Ave. for more than a century, will never forget March 17. It was the day he learned that Wisconsin's Safer at Home order would force him to close his business. "It made me sick when I got the news," Engel said. "At the time Mike Koplitz, my partner in the business, was working. There were a few of our regulars already there. I came in to help Mike lock up the place. It was pretty upsetting. At one point, I had to leave. I walked out that back door. It had me so upset that I just had to leave."

MIke Koplitz (Left) and Scott Engel of Jerry's.

Engel took over Jerry's in 1988. He's the fourth generation of his family to operate the tavern that was purchased by his great-grandfather, Jerry "Gus" Wesenberg in 1911. The family has managed to keep the business alive through bad times before, including the 1918 Pandemic and the 13 years of Prohibition that began in 1922. "I heard all of those stories, but this gives me a whole new appreciation of what they went through," Engel says. "I never thought we'd see something like this. It makes you appreciate things that you sometimes took for granted."

The past couple of months have been similarly unsettling for Jay Supple. The Supple family has been in the restaurant business in Oshkosh since 1968. They launched Fox River Brewing in 1995. The Supples now operate three restaurants and two brewpubs in the Fox Valley. "To get that notice at quarter to two on March 17th that we'd be locking up in three hours was devastating," Supple says. "I literally got into my car and visited all five locations and explained to everyone that we were going to have to lock up. We had no idea how long it was going to be. We ended up having to lay off 239 of our 240 employees. The only guy that was still on the payroll was the brewmaster because we had all that beer to contend with."

As the shock wore off in the days that followed, both Engel and Supple began assessing their options. At Jerry's Bar, Engel and Koplitz began cleaning and remodeling in preparation for re-opening; whenever that would be. On weekends, they offered their homemade pizzas and beef jerky for curbside pickup. "The response to that was tremendous," Engel said. "We'd sell out every Saturday for those first few weekends. But then meat prices spiked and we had to cut back on that, too."

Fox River Brewing began offering curbside pick-up two weeks after the shut-down order was issued. In the interim, the Supples charted their next moves. "I said to my brother John, we can either turn off the lights and wait it out or we can put together a game plan and come back stronger than ever," Supple said. "So, we set out a plan for each location and brought back our management teams as well as some staff and went to work. Each location is coming back with a new strong vibe and new look, new menu, everything. In the last five weeks, there hasn't been a wall that hasn't been painted. Everything has been refinished, every location has been updated."

For both Engel and Supple, part of their work since March has been directed towards making people feel more at ease during a time of uncertainty. "We've tried to create more space and a fresh look with an emphasis on sanitation and cleanliness," Supple said. "We have a whole protocol that we've gone through with our management teams. We want our guests to feel comfortable and safe."

At Jerry's Bar, Engel worries that overcoming fear may be the biggest hurdle to any recovery. "I've thought about it a lot," he says. "There are things we're going to do, but there are people who are truly scared by this and some of those people are going to stay put for a while. There's no easy way to say this, and I don't want to sound selfish or irresponsible, but life has to go on. I know things can't go on much longer this way if small businesses like ours are going to survive. Our family has worked 109 years to make this place possible and I don't want to be the guy to screw it up. We're going to be good, but this is really becoming a stressor.”

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