Port bar owner works to counter tavern’s tainted past with new energy
Starting any new business is tough, but the task is even more daunting when facing the need to overcome the tainted reputation of a previous proprietor.
That was the challenge Port Washington bar owner Rich Merritt faced last summer when he opened AlleyKatz at 219 N. Franklin St.
To the best of Merritt’s knowledge, the building has always been a tavern with a colorful history that dates back more than a century.
However, it was the bar’s most recent history — when it operated as Foxy’s Tavern — that troubled local authorities and downtown business owners.
Recurring problems with rowdy patrons convinced city leaders that a tavern at the location might be incompatible with redevelopment plans for downtown.
Building owners Barney and Liz Bannon knew something had to change, so they approached Merritt about taking over the business and rehabilitating its reputation.
“They were having a difficult time finding the right person to take over the bar and asked me if I would consider it,” Merritt said.
“The city outlined what they would expect from a bar if it was allowed, and the rules they wanted were pretty much what I had in mind.”
As a vocalist and percussionist with the blues band Otto Day & the Nites, Merritt had an intimate knowledge of what works and what doesn’t on the local bar scene.
However, he spent most of his working life as a pressman, a job which he admits took a physical toll on his body.
He felt the challenge of running a bar was just what he was looking for.
“Anytime you start a new business, it can be a little scary. But my wife Pam and I decided if this was something we were going to do, we wanted to do it right,” Merritt said.
One of the first things done was adding a kitchen so that patrons could enjoy more than just pub food.
Through more than a little experimentation, the bar owners developed the recipes for two sandwiches that have become favorites with customers — a taco burger and a jerk chicken sandwich.
“We don’t serve fries like everyone else, though. Only Tator-Tots, which people say remind them of their childhood,” Merritt said.
Getting the rest of the bar into the shape he wanted was no simple task.
When the kitchen was put in, a wall had to be knocked out to make room for a stage at the back of the tavern.
Although the ambiance is still decidedly subdued, a substantial amount of cleaning and brightening was done.
The centerpiece of the tavern is an ornate, carved wood back bar that took 80 hours to clean and restore. A marking imbedded in the silver of the back bar’s mirror dates it to 1906.
“If you wanted to make something like that today, you would easily be talking six-figures,” Merritt said.
He said the bar has become a family venture, with his wife and stepchildren gladly lending a hand when needed.
What appeals even more to Merritt, however, is that AlleyKatz has become a popular venue for live music.
“I have a lot of contacts in the local music scene, so it has been pretty easy to find bands. We offer blues, classic rock and even a little country,” he said.
Performers are invited to autograph the walls of the bar.
Although his band doesn’t perform much any more, the bar is an outlet for Merritt’s creative side
“During just about every show, whatever band is playing invites me to come up on the stage for a couple of songs. I know all of the blues standards, and if they don’t know what I want to sing they are great about just going along and picking it up,” Merritt said.
Almost as entertaining have been the stories patrons have shared about years gone by at the bar, especially when it was operated as the Bodega.
He joked that the owner of one downtown business had worn down a path from his shop to the bar because of his daily visits.
“I hope to be able to do a little more research on the history of the building. I know there is a lot of history in here,” Merritt said.
What is decidedly new about the business is its name and logo — which features two upright cats wearing spiffy 1920s-era clothing.
“Of course the bar is located on an alley, and I have two cats at home who are pretty cool. I took the idea of naming the bar AlleyKatz to a graphic artist friend, and now we have the logo,” Merritt said.
A zero-tolerance policy on misbehaving has all but ensured that past problems at the bar do not return.
“We have never had a problem. I was talking with one of the police officers in town and he said he didn’t even know the bar was here,” Merritt said.
“When it comes to law enforcement, that is the way we want it.”
Image information: ALLEYKATZ OWNER RICH MERRITT has been working to make his downtown Port Washington bar a popular music venue. Above, Merritt points to autographs and memorabilia left by visiting band members. Photo by Mark Jaeger