There’s a saying that goes, home is where the heart is. It’s true. Whether its physical or emotional, Chicago will always be my home sweet home. But as I’ve grown up, I’ve come to encounter new people and places that have created a sense of home for me. From the ancient and vibrant cities of Mexico, to the delicious and inspiring hills of Italy, to the secluded and beautiful shores of northern Michigan, these places are all my home, places where I arrive and instantly say, “ah, I’m home”.
Perhaps it was the recent holiday hustle and bustle that made me reflect on the meaning of home and family. My family is just like yours – given to us by destiny and made up of an interesting variety of people. But then, one day, I had an epiphany. I also have a bar family. This family is composed of a unique cast of characters that regularly descend upon the same tavern as I do – folks that are everyday patrons and/or great people that work at the bar and make it tick. We spend time chewing the fat, watching sporting events, celebrating our triumphs and successes, and listening and consoling one another when the time calls – all whilst sharing a few beers. These initial acquaintances soon became friends and, now, I realize that this is my bar family. It’s no wonder, then, that I missed my bar family while I was away for the holidays. Odd? Maybe. But there’s something special in knowing that a tavern can have that same effect on one’s soul. And that is what Tales, Taverns, & Towns is all about – the taverns and stories that can rightfully justify the saying that home is where the heart is.
So, it was only natural that I turn to the patriarch of my bar family to guest blog this month. Ric Hess is the kind proprietor of the bar (don’t let him know I called him kind) and is responsible for my bar family. While it was the location that first reeled me into Sheffield’s, it was the selection of craft beer that made me return, and ultimately, it was Ric’s welcoming spirit and biting wit and sarcasm that made me a regular. Throw in a handful of great staff and patrons, and you have a big, happy drinking family. So read on and then head on over and grab a stool where any of the Sheffield’s disciples – Matthew, Mark, Beth, Bob, Jerry, Jenny, Bonnie or maybe even Ric himself – will undoubtedly be able to recommend a phenomenal craft beer. Oh, and one last thing…mention Tales, Taverns, & Towns during the month of January and get a free appetizer! Yup, that’s right…free! See, I told you he was kind.
In 1979, two Cornell University students came to Chicago with the intent of opening a jazz venue in the then shabby Lakeview neighborhood. They found a weathered Victorian building at the corner of Sheffield and School Streets, waded in with a little paint and elbow grease, and transformed the old Chicago-style Charlie’s Tavern into the first generation of what is now Sheffield’s.
They opened the doors in early 1980 and quickly made a name for themselves as patrons of the arts. Unfortunately for the founders, what they didn’t make was much money. One of the students had a brother back in Manhattan, one Jan Ponchalek, who arranged for most of the financing for the project. A couple of years in, tired of hearing about how they were right on the edge of success but still not seeing any checks coming his way, Jan picked up and moved to Chicago to keep a closer eye on his investment.
As these stories often go, the outcome was good for Sheffield’s but bad for the brother’s relationship. It wasn’t long before the original brother was sent packing and Jan assumed day to day operations. His brother moved one block away to Clark Street where he bought another building (hey, in the 1980’s, in Lakeview, real estate was cheap, really cheap) opened his own bar and the two never spoke again.
The brother’s bar is long gone, but Sheffield’s remains. Jan wasn’t much of an operator or a bar guy, but he had a good eye for design and the good sense to hire people who knew what the bar crowd wanted. He also aspired to rise above the usual shot and a beer corner saloon and made Sheffield’s an outpost for the very fledgling craft beer market. He had modest artistic inclinations, and, as artists are notorious drinkers and can be hired on the cheap, he filled Sheffield’s ranks with actors, artists and other ne’re-do-wells. It seems simple now, but in retrospect it was genius. Serve quality products, hire fun, interesting people to serve them and get out of the way.
Still, Sheffield’s was always one step away from financial ruin. Yes, people came, but the target market didn’t have any money to spend. And being of the creative persuasion themselves, the staff didn’t much cotton to the unwashed masses who frequented the more commercial operations.
In 1988, Ric Hess began working infrequently at the door of Sheffield’s. He was new to Chicago, in from Florida, working the one and only 9 to 5 job he would ever have, and after a year of that drudgery he was looking for change. He and Jan met, talked, and in July of 1988 he was hired as assistant manager. This meant that he got to do all of the work (the manager never seemed to be able to make it in) for minimum wage and a few bar shifts. Ric immediately fell in love. His mission was clear. Find great beer and develop the relationships that will bring that beer to Sheffield’s.
But again, there was that money thing. The initial staff was wonderful but a tad pretentious. Cub’s fans were sneered at. Suburbanites were patronized. Surely, Ric reasoned, there must be a way for us to all get along. Easier said than done. Jan died in 1991. Convinced of the validity of his philosophy and ill equipped for other work, Ric and a partner bought the bar in 1992. Jan was sure it would never amount to anything. Having been told much the same thing by his own father, Ric was more optimistic. The rest, as they say, is history.
However it’s happened, thirty years after opening its doors, Sheffield’s is still here and these days everyone seems to get along just fine. It’s been a long, long work in progress. Because how do you keep the good (craft beer, support for the arts, community spirit) and make it sit down at the bar and share a pint with the bad (trash talking frat boys and downtown office types with attitude)? It ain’t easy, but the good things never are.
Sheffield’s recently added BBQ to its menu. After all, what goes better with great beer than BBQ? These days, we spend as much time trying to find great BBQ recipes as we do fantastic beer. At Sheffield’s, our theory is that as long as we keep trying, we’re on the right path. We have amazing beers that you will find at few other places in the world. We also carry PBR on tap. We have some pretty fantastic BBQ ribs, chicken, brisket and pulled pork. And you can order a burger if you’d like. Ric finally reasoned that you can’t shove quality down the people’s throat, all you can do is provide best you can find and let the people make their own choices. In the end, no one’s right and no one’s wrong, there are only those who are still learning about what’s better. It’s not about trying to prove a silly point. It’s all about the journey.