If there’s a skill that any bar owner needs to thrive, John Biel of John’s Bar has it — and he has it in spades.
“A bar owner has to have a personality, and if he doesn’t, he needs to have help that does,” the 71-year-old Biel said. “When people walk in, they want to be acknowledged. I don’t always remember names, but I greet them anyway. That’s very important.”
Biel’s friendly greeting will end soon as he sells his bar to Kwik Trip. The gas/convenience store stands across the Road on Madison Street, and the Wisconsin chain has plans to build a new, larger store. A car wash is also planned, although city sewer and water approval will be required for that to happen. Annexation from the town of Beaver Dam into the city of Beaver Dam is said to be a formality, although it has not yet been approved by the Common Council.
One might think his skills were inherited. Biel’s family has generations of hospitality experience, beginning with his great-grandfather, who had come to America from Bavaria. He homesteaded a parcel of land and eventually came to own five farms in the area. Either he or his son built a tavern that no longer exists, across the road from Kelly’s Bar, which is an area landmark. Members of the Biel family still live in that area — some of them farming the land the family settled in the late 1800s.
Biel’s parents, Mike and Ann, realized their dream of running a bar when they took over one of the four Kurth Brewery taverns in Columbus. The family lived upstairs on James Street and Biel has many memories of their time there.
“I remember the old crank phone on the wall,” he said. “You’d talk to the operator and she’d connect you to whoever you wanted to talk to — usually with the first name only. Everybody knew everybody. The bar had the first number, which was 623. Now all Columbus landlines have that prefix.”
He also remembers the octopus-like coal furnace in the basement and the dumbwaiter that carried supplies up to the bar.
The enterprising family also owned Ann’s Truck Stop on Highway 16.
“It had seating for about 15, and by the time she was finished, she had enough seating for about 75 or 80 customers,” Biel said.
In 1969, the couple sold the two enterprises and a family home to purchase the bar at 1201 Madison St. in Beaver Dam. The building had been a tavern across the road, and was moved to its current location when an interchange was linked to Highway 151.
The bar stood at the south end of the building, with three-bedroom living quarters on the north end. Eventually, a pool room was added to the east of the building.
Biel’s parents ran the bar until 1978.
In the meantime, Biel was busy making a living and tending bar part time. After stretches at area taverns and supper clubs, he leased the tavern at 1108 Madison St. (now Mr. Madison’s). This was after his two sons were in high school and he had gotten divorced from his second wife. In 1995, Biel purchased his parents’ bar.
“I always wanted this place, partly because my parents were here and it had some family history, and partly because of the location,” he said. “I knew that sooner or later, somebody was going to want this spot.”
Biel explained that its proximity to Highway 151, the juncture with Highway G and traffic from nearby subdivisions and Randolph makes it very appealing.
“That’s why there are seven or eight bars for sale in the area and why this place has always done well,” he said.
Biel immediately set about making changes, also expanding the menu to include Friday fish fries, a popular Garibaldi sandwich and other beloved favorites.
“Food supports the bar and the bar supports the food,” he said. “They’re complementary, and the profit is there if you manage things properly.”
The building itself was changed as well. The living quarters, including a former front porch, were converted into a dining room, kitchen and additional restrooms. With increased demand for private parties, Biel added a room beyond the east addition, allowing the bar to be open when private parties were being hosted there.
Biel dedicated long hours to the enterprise. He also worked with many talented and dedicated employees and considers himself lucky to have gotten to know them and to have served a loyal customer base. Those loyal customers are what he will miss most after the sale is complete.
“I’ve made friends with a lot of people,” Biel said. “My customers are a good, good group of people and I’m going to miss them. They bring their kids in and I’ve watched a lot of them grow up. They’re like family. ”
Not long ago, he sold the business on a land contract, but that purchase fell through. After that, he took over and continued exactly where he had left off.
Selling to his sons, Nathan and Colin, is not an option as both have pursued careers outside hospitality.
“I never seriously encouraged either of them to get into the business,” Biel said. “It’s not what it used to be and it’s a hard way to make a living. It’s like the old saying goes, ‘You don’t own a business; your business owns you.’ And when you have young kids, it’s especially tough.”
One of the boys has three children, and Biel remembers the trials both he and his parents faced, working long hours and having little time for anything else.
Now Biel wants to enjoy his retirement and spend time with his family. Evidence of his fondness for the grandchildren is in several areas of the bar where artwork, newspaper clippings and other mementos are posted with pride.
“I feel good. I want to enjoy life,” Biel said, summarizing his immediate goal.
Sale is awaiting details such as environmental testing. Kwik Trip has already agreed to purchase a lot next door. With the desired approvals in place, the sale will be finalized, and John’s Bar will eventually be demolished.
Although Biel says that day will be bittersweet, he joked that he will make the most of it.
“I’ll put up a tent at Fitz’s Landscaping next door and sell beer and brats,” he said with a smile.