Ale ‘n Wich Pub: An Oral History With Owner Robert D’Elia

CCI00000
For the balance of my time in New Brunswick I have frequented the Ale ‘n Wich Pub, and I’ve always been stricken by the stories the place must have to tell.  There is not much about it on the internet besides reviews of the bar.  So I decided I’d ask Owner Robert D’Elia for an interview.  Lucky enough for me he obliged and what he had to tell me certainly did not disappoint.  I got to see the mysterious upstairs and the famed table that Jerry Garcia sat at in the 70s.  It was refreshing to talk to Robert and be reassured of something that I always just assumed- the Ale ‘n Wich Pub is not changing as long as he has anything to do with it.

______________________________________________________________________

Josh: Do you remember the first time you came to the Ale ‘n Wich?

Robert: Sure, I came in to the Ale ‘n wich the first time on Valentine’s day, the girl I was dating at the time went to Cook. I’m originally from Jersey City and [her friends] said ‘oh, we’re gonna take you to a real local bar’ and it was the Ale ‘n Wich Pub and I fell in love with it.

J: Do you remember anything in particular from that first time?

R: I remember that I came down from Jersey City in a suit to take her out to dinner and when I got back to Cook campus after- they said, you can’t go to the Ale n’ Wich in a suit. They gave me a pair of jeans that were way too big, then they took a piece of rope and made a belt out of it for me- they gave me a pair of construction boots that had no laces and were about three sizes too big, and they gave me a flannel shirt that smelt like a dog. That’s what I looked like the first time I came in.

J: hahaha so how often did you come back after that first time?

R: Anytime I came down to visit my Girlfriend at Cook we always came down to the Wich and then before she graduated I got a job with 3M in Somerset so then I moved down here and got an apartment in North Brunswick and this was my go to place.

J: What did you do for work before you bought the bar?

R: I was a Banker. I was a Banker for 15 years, I was a mortgage banker, then I became a sub-prime banker and it was my golden parachute when my bank was bought out that allowed me to make the down payment to purchase the Ale ‘n Wich. At first I was 50/50 with the original owner.

J: Right, that is what I heard.

R: Yeah, then I bought him out in 2012. He was a much older guy living down in Florida.  Although he created all of this, he didn’t like coming up and couldn’t contribute- he realized it was time for him to sell.

CCI00009

Dart board is in the same spot today

J: He was the guy who bought the bar from- what was the name of the other place?

R: Angie’s Place- I’ll give you the quick low down on this building- because I’ve done the research at the New Brunswick Library.  On my computer somewhere I have all the old documents.  This building was built in 1920; it was built without electricity-

J: Wow-

R: It was built without electricity, and the reason I know that is because all of the electrical outlets that are in the building, none of them are built into the wall, they are all on the outside of the wall- and having worked on the place- even in 1920 there was gas lighting in this building. So it was built in 1920 and downstairs which is the bar now was originally a tailor shop. The tailor lived in the shop- so the place where the pool table is now, that was the bedroom. The game room area was the kitchen and where the bathrooms are there was no bathtub- where the ladies room is- was the original bathroom and we know that because when we re-did the walls, we pulled the walls that were in there down and it had the cut-out for the old style medicine cabinet that was similar to the same one that is up. Everything up here, everything you see up here, all these doors are all original.

J: Right,

R: So it was a tailor shop where the tailor lived downstairs, then it became a dry goods store and then in 1934 with the repeal of prohibition this became a bar called the Hamilton Grill. The game room was the kitchen and in order to get to the bathroom, you had to go through what is the pool room now- I don’t know what it was then- there could have been a band, there could have been tables there. You went through there and made a left just like you do now but there was a hallway there with the doors for the men’s room and ladies room. The game room was a kitchen and you can still see the bricks that used to be behind the grill and you can see the hole that goes into the chimney where the exhaust used to go.  So in 1934 it was the Hamilton Grill, In 1970 it became Angie’s Place and it was still a restaurant because when I took over management of this building in 2005, the basement was just full of pots and pans, glasses, cooking utensils, dishes. Angie’s Place was a fishing and hunting club. They didn’t want students, they didn’t cater to students.

CCI00010

J: More of a “Locals only” type of place…

R: Yeah, you know what- at that time, this neighborhood was strictly Hungarian, so students didn’t live down here. So when the Hungarians started moving out and people started buying the buildings as investments and renting them out, thats when they started renting to students. So, my original partner, Ronnie, the gentleman that created the Ale ‘n Wich, he turned it into the Ale ‘n Wich Pub in 1974. Still a kitchen, still didn’t cater to students- once it was no longer Angie’s Place though, he had no business and he realized, I gotta cater to the students, because the neighborhood is changing more students are moving in. Sometime in the early 80’s they took the kitchen out and made it a game room. It used to have live music all the time until they started really enforcing the residential noise violations. So, it used to be managed by a guy named Bull who according to my ex-partner robbed him blind.

J: haha

alex3

Alex, Bar Manager in the 90’s

R: Then sometime in the early 90’s, it was taken over by Alex and Alex ran the bar until I think 1991 when he went back to school and became a professor at UConn. Then it was taken over by Bob McGee and Bob ran it until 2005 when I took over. Unfortunately Alex at 43 and Bob at 44 both passed away suddenly.  I came in as a 50/50 partner in 2005 and I really didn’t change much. All I did was clean it up a bit, increase the beer selection, increased the taps. This bar, the basis of it, the nucleus of it is exactly the same as it was when I walked in here the first time- which was I think 1983 maybe. It was just a cool, chill bar. Nothing against the Easton Avenue bars, they’ve got their demographic- we’re the hippy, hipster, artist, musician, people with tattoos, every race, color, creed, sexual orientation. It’s just the chillest bar in town.

J: Yeah, totally.

R: That, cut and dry is the history of the Wich. We’ve had a lot of famous people come through throughout the years…

J: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that- I spoke with Bill Martin, your bar manager and he said he knew you from back in the day when you both hung out at the bar. You eventually ended up buying it-

R: Well I was a bartender- when I bought my first house- six months after I was working for 3M, 3M decided to move my job to Pittsburgh and they just said well sell it, and I said I can’t, I’ll lose money.  So I became a doorman here. I had a severance, I was collecting unemployment.  For like 3 years I was here 5 days a week working. Eventually I went into banking and I still kept my Friday night shifts, and when I took the bar over I was still a bartender but then about three or four years in I realized I couldn’t do both- I couldn’t be behind the bar trying to service a customer and looking around everywhere else and going ‘alright what’s going on over there, they shouldn’t be doing this in here.’ At that point- I put my hands up and said okay- and the shifts went out for everyone else.

J: Bill said he basically asked you for a bar-back job and you told him, forget that you can just bartend.

R: When I took over the bar, I had already been working here so I knew everything that was wrong. I knew everything that needed to be fixed. One of the problems was we didn’t have enough bartenders, and when someone got sick it was a real pain in the butt- you’d have to work doubles, you’d have to work two, three days in a row- we had a very small staff- so I said this is what we’re gonna do. You guys have been here, you’ll get the Thursday, Friday, Saturday shifts- but I’m going to hire more people. We didn’t always have two bartenders on, and we didn’t always have door guys either. I increased the staff so we’d have an 8 o’clock bartender and a 10 o’clock bartender. There was always three people in here at any given time. But the great thing about the Wich is you can just be hanging out and you’ll see a lot of employees here too. I encourage that, it’s good because if the bartender needs to do something, use the bathroom, go for a cigarette or whatever there’s always a staff member here.

CCI00002

Outside smoking patio

J: What made you initially decide to buy in to the bar?

R: Kinda tired of the corporate life. I enjoyed putting a suit on, but I was just tired of the bullshit. In some cases i would be more knowledgeable than my boss because of my work experience. I was in mortgages and sales so sometimes your boss is the guy who sells a lot more than anybody else the month before and they make him the manager- but it doesn’t really mean he knows how to manage, and plus I came up through the Core States, First Union, the Money Store, Wachovia mergers. So it was always the same bank but the identity was always changing and I constantly needed to reapply for my own job. I was lucky enough and I always got it but then it came to the point where I was like, let me see what else I can do. I got a really nice severance package from the last mortgage company I worked for and approached my ex-partner Ron and said listen- a lot of problems with the Wich- it’s dirty, its not being managed right- I’m not afraid to say this, there was a lot of drugs going on at the bar at the time, and I told him you’re gonna lose the bar. Let me become your partner, I’ll manage the place. Let me run it my way, and if you don’t like what I’m doing you can buy me back out and I’ll disappear. But he loved it and we went through some really good periods. A lot of my friends in banking were really jealous but I told them I’m working 7 days a week, I have no sick days, I don’t get to go home if there’s a snow storm or a hurricane- I get no vacation days I’m working my butt off.  But If I wanted to go away for a few weeks, I could- it just takes a lot of planning- that’s why I made Bill the Manager. He takes care of all the little things when I’m away. Bill’s a great guy and so are the rest of my employees.

J: They sure are, I know most of them. So did you have any reservations buying your partner out?

R: Yeah, there was a bit of nervousness- a little twitch in the stomach.

J: Yeah, absolutely I bet.

R: But it was like- which way do I go. There’s two choices- either out, which I knew Ron didn’t want to do or selling to someone completely different. But my thing was always keeping it the Wich. Keeping the basic vibe going. What you see now is basically what I saw when I walked in the bar- just a little bit cleaner. The original tin ceiling is exposed, there’s a lot more beers. A little more drink selection, but basically exactly the same.

DSCN1118

The old tobacco stained drop ceiling

IMG_4268

Original tin ceiling

J: Yeah, I mean I think of Ale ‘n Wich as kind of like my second living room-

R: Thats what I love!

J: -I think that’s what sets it apart from other bars in New Brunswick.

R: Yeah, its a place that people can come in and sit down, be relaxed and pull out a newspaper or their laptop- and sit there and work. That’s what we get in the afternoon- people coming in and doing school work. Like I said, nothing against my Easton Avenue partners but we’re one of the few bars that’s actually open during the day.

old wich

J: Yeah, So you’ve told me a little bit about how you’re interested in keeping the original vibe of the place alive- how important is the history of the building and the culture here to Ale ‘n Wich?

R: It’s great, I have an exit plan. I’m hoping one day to sell it somebody under the pretext that they have to keep it the Ale ‘n Wich Pub.

J: Right, that’s great.

R: I’ve had offers, people want to come in, one time, back when hookah was popular they wanted to make it a hookah bar and change the name. They wanted to turn it into more of a cocktail place. I just said no, one- I’m not ready to sell, two- I wouldn’t sell to anybody who would do that. They way you control that is, you sell it and you hold the note as long as the buyer is paying back on the loan- it has to stay the Ale n’ Wich Pub. At the end of the year kids will come in with their parents, and their parents went to Rutgers and hung out here.

IMG_7551

Before the new bench was put in

J: Yeah I’ve seen it. What can you tell me abut the Simpsons mural in the back. When was it done, who painted it?

R: That was painted in the early 90’s by Mike Ciccotello- he was bartender and an artist- he worked for CNN for a long time as a graphic artist. He did the Simpson’s mural and the game room mural. I’ve had a lot of people come in and say they wanted to paint over the Simpsons mural, which I won’t allow-

J: Well, is there any chance of him coming back and refurbishing it a bit?

R: Yeah, so here’s the problem with that- it’s on brick so the brick just naturally flakes. Wherever you see pieces missing thats where the brick flaked off. I’ve had people come in- two Rutgers students- one an artist and the other a documentarian. What they wanted to do was redo it piece by piece and make a film about it. I was all for it, I said I would fund it but I have to tell you, the medium is very tough to paint on- and they wanted to do it a piece at a time. I never heard back from them because I think once they started doing the research- you would have to take a piece away and coat the brick with something to make the paint adhere. I kinda like the fact that its dying very slow- I go out there every once and a while with the pressure washer and very gently take the green off. It was really dark at one time and I cleaned it. Everyone was like, wow! There’s some things on that mural- if you take a really good look- like Homer’s getting a handjob. There’s a little pot leaf somewhere on there. But it’s tough to paint on those bricks, so there’s nothing I can let it do but die its own death.

J: Yeah that’s cool.

R: Mike Ciccotello also painted the game room. There’s a city-scape and the column there- if you stand at the bar and look at it, the painting on the column- if you line it up at the right angle- it completely matches the painting on the wall behind it.

J: Right, a total perspective thing.  Tell me a bit about the original sign, you got it back from a woman who found it in her basement?

R: Yeah, I got a call from a woman in Maryland or Delaware and she said “hey I have something you might be interested in.” And I go okay, what is it- there’s two things that disappeared from the bar- she says I have an Ale ‘n Wich sign, its cut out of wood and its got a crest on it and she says, I think it was originally in the bar. I said, let me look into it- send me a picture- so she sent me a picture and I remembered the sign immediately, it was hanging in the pool room. They were redoing the walls in the poolroom and they took it down and put it on the ground. At a time, we didn’t use the backyard for people to hang out in- but you could use the back door and there was a little fence- you could hop over it and come right in- it was a big security issue back in the early 90’s. So the sign just disappeared.

CCI00003

The old fence

J: You didn’t always use the back yard?

R: No, the back yard- when Bob McGee took it over was literally a junkyard. Everything that was in the bar at one time and got broken was just thrown out there. VIPs would hang out there and smoke but back then you could smoke in the bar. So Bob fixed it up and put tables out there- and the city has a law that says you can’t sit in a residential area and drink, but our liquor license allows for the entire building, the first floor, the basement and this floor, and the back yard out to the garage. The back yard is only for consumption- but you can dispense throughout this entire building. We can’t send waitresses or shot girls out there or kegs but Bob McGee set it up with tables so the City complained and my ex-partner had to go and fight with the city- but they compromised. The city said we’ll let you consume out there- which is a rarity in New Brunswick.  The compromise was putting a big fence up on both sides so that’s what we did.

J: I see.

R: So I asked about the sign and my partner says that it was stolen so I call the woman and tell her, and she just goes- Oh! I’ll bring it back.

J: hahaa

R: She goes, I’m coming up for an alumni thing so I’m thinking she’s probably married to someone who stole the sign. She brought it back and it was suprisingly in mint condition. For the last twenty some odd years it was just sitting in her basement. The other thing that dissapeared- the crest that is above the front- there used to be crest like that that was bolted on the door. Somebody onbolted it and stole it. The crest was made by a wood artist from New Hope in the 80’s

J: Rumor has it that a handful of famous people have stopped by through here- Jerry Garcia, James Gandolfini. I’ve got two questions: why did you get rid of the Soprano’s pinball machine and can I see the Jerry Garcia table?

R: Sure, the Jerry Garcia table is in the liquor room, but the pinball machine was just constantly breaking down- and I didn’t own it but the company that puts in all our machines except the pool table basically just said somebody made me an offer I can’t refuse, so I had to give it up and I got the bowling machine instead which does really well.  James Gandolfini lived with a bartender that worked here, Ed- they were roommates and even though Gandolfini worked downtown as a bouncer- I forget which bar- he hung out here because he lived over in Brookside.

J: Oh, the apartment complex.

1622703_10201986545358057_110515225_n

James Gandolfini outside the Wich with Bob McGee

R: Yeah, so The Dead played Rutgers- it had to be in the 70’s. We were the hippy bar- so they came here. Phish used to also hang out here because when Phish was starting off, whenever they traveled they would stay at fan’s houses. So we had a lot of Phish fans who came here and when Phish came to town they would hang out here, and the house they crashed at- I remember it because when the bars would close at 3 o’clock then, there would always be a big party at that house. It was on Livingston and Suydam- The first house past  the church- a big house that was just full of Wich patrons and hippies and Phish fans. We also would have Glen Burtnik who was in Styx, Tony Shanahan from the Patti Smith Band show up from time to time.

J: What happened to open mic night, any chance it will come back?

R: It didn’t do well! But I’m working on two things. There’s a gentleman who does a podcast and brings in bands- little bit more Heavy Metal or Punk bands- but I’m in discussions with him to do his podcast from the bar.

J: Wow, that’s great.

Rhodan

Band set up in the pool room

R: It starts early enough that I could make it an all-ages thing- less than 21 to a certain point and then the under 21 people would have to leave but I’m also in discussion with a writer for the Home News who does the music reviews about doing Sunday showcases earlier in the day on Sunday. It would be one band, you get the bar for 2 hours, you promote it, we’ll promote it on our Facebook page and our website, you run the door and you would keep all the money you get at the door- I’m not looking to make any money off of it. You can sell your merch, we’ll move the pool table. So I’m kinda working on that- it’s not something we can do legally- but if we do it early enough over the summer with the windows closed and the air on and the noise doesn’t go out- it’s all about volume. Some bands will just come in and they wanna play super loud. I’m working on that.

J: So Tony Clause,

R: Tony Clause!

J: Yeah lets hear about him, how did that whole thing start, how does he manage to buy and wrap all those gifts?

R: That’s a Santa Clause secret! He’s a very generous guy, but we also just started taking donations to cover his expenses. But he just started doing it, and now Christmas is our biggest night of the year.

J: I know, I’ve never seen the bar more packed in my life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tony Clause with a sack of gifts

R: It’s kinda scary that it gets as crowded as it does. But it’s just word of mouth. He was doing it before I took the bar over, and I wasn’t even aware of it until maybe four years ago because I’m never here on Christmas so I never knew what was going on. But I know Tony, I consider him a friend- and I was just like what? what goes on here? I’m Italian so Christmas is big, wine is big but I’m just like I’m not drinking- I need to be at the bar by 10. But it’s an amazing thing. The people who wind up in the bar and have no idea what’s going on are just so shocked- and the oddity of the gifts he gives out- everyone is laughing like crazy about it. Tony Clause is an amazing thing. There was a time when we are the only bar open on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, and they saw how busy we would get so they’ve been doing it too now.

J: Pretty much wrapping it up here but, in closing do you have any good stories about some things you’ve experienced you might want to sure or maybe you don’t particularly want to share?

R: There’s many interesting stories at the Wich, but I funny story- I get a phone call on Monday- and it’s a girl and she says, I’m pretty sure I left my phone out in the indoor smoking patio. So I say what time were you there and what do you look like? She gives me the time and says she has a mohawk. So I go back, and it’s a real pain in the butt because when you search, you have to search real time- so if somebody gives you an hour time frame-

J: You gotta sit through the whole thing-

R: You can make it 2x, 4x, 8x, 16x faster but then you miss stuff. So a lot of times people will say they put their phone down and walked out- but I can track them through the bar with cameras- and you see them walking out the bar with their phone in thier hand walking out the door. Then you say, I got you on camera walking out the bar with your phone in your hand- and then they figure they must have lost it somewhere else. This girl said she was charging it and left it on top of the electrical outlet. Luckily for her, the phone was still there. Unluckily for her, when she was out there she decided to drop her pants and take a piss hahaha

J: hahahaha

R: So I call her back and I go, yeah I got your phone- but I also got you on camera peeing. She goes, oh you saw that? I say, yea you knew there is a camera- you started the conversation with ‘you might be able to see who took my phone’ so of course I saw you pee in the bar. hahaha

J: haha

R: She was really, really embarrassed. I didn’t know who she was, and I didn’t ban her but I just said- you know we have bathrooms. But she was embarrassed.

J: hahaha Geez, well I’m tapped out- thanks for your time.

R: Sure

Advertisements

One response to “Ale ‘n Wich Pub: An Oral History With Owner Robert D’Elia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s