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It’s officially been 15 years since Caven and Nettie Boggess opened up Nettie’s Irish Pub at 733 W. Wisconsin Ave. in Pewaukee.
In many ways, their little Irish bar is much like any other. It’s quaint, convivial and imbued with the sense of Irish hospitality for which the neighborhood pubs are known.
Step inside and you'll find comfortable bar stools and walls filled with Irish paraphernalia, including promotional signage from Guinnesss and Bushmills, Celtic stained glass art, stuffed leprechauns and a plaque that reads Fáilte (“Welcome” in Gaelic) that hangs just above the door inside the pub’s tiny entrance.
And yes, you can order up a pint of Guinness or a shot of Bushmills. But for guests who’ve never stepped into the inconspicuous 400 square-foot bar, located just over a half-mile west of the Village of Pewaukee, there are sure to be some delightful surprises.
More than meets the eye
The building which houses Nettie’s Irish Pub – also called NIP’s – has a history that dates back to 1942 when it was Linder’s Pub. Over the years, the cozy bar also housed Heinzelman’s (AKA Alice’s Palace), Rooster’s, D&J’s, Joey’s Den and JC’s.
But until the Boggesses took over in 2008, it seems no one thought to explore the potential of the bar and its lot, which comprises nearly three acres of land. So the bar remained a small cozy respite where friends and neighbors could gather for a drink.
Caven, an Iowa native who also happens to be part Irish, says he met Nettie at a Notre Dame tailgate party in the mid-80s. “We hit it off right away,” he says. “We both loved being around people and socializing. So, after we got married, we always talked about how we should own a bar someday.”
Although it was 17 years before the Boggesses would find the bar of their dreams, they got one step closer in 1999 when Caven’s work brought the couple to Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Once they settled in, Nettie took a job at another popular local bar, Curley’s Waterfront, W272 N2696 Lakeview Blvd.
“I was out golfing one day,” recalls Caven, “And Nettie called and told me I had to come home… because we had to talk."
What he didn’t know is that Nettie had been offered the opportunity to take over operations at the former JC’s bar, which was owned by her boss at Curley’s, Kevin “Curly” Kleczka.
“We talked Friday, made the decision to move ahead with the offer on Sunday and started remodeling on Tuesday,” says Caven, who notes that they transformed the former Northwoods themed bar into an Irish Pub in just one month’s time. The bar was also treated to a variety of upgrades that year, including new windows, drywall, bathrooms, flooring, an upgraded sound system and four new TV’s.
They kept things cozy for a couple of years, paving the parking lot in 2009 and starting horseshoe leagues that summer. In 2011 they made the decision to build out the back of the bar, adding a 700 square foot four-seasons room with multiple televisions where folks can gather, participate in the dart and dartball leagues they host during the winter months or catch a Brewers, Packers, Bucks or Badgers game. Caven even added a bit of Iowa color to the decor. Look closely and you'll find a Herky sitting smack dab between two of the television sets, taunting all the Badger fans with his black and gold wings.
In 2013, they added a 2,000-square-foot L-shaped deck that wraps around the four-seasons room. They also built an outside bar, giving them the capacity to host a variety of events from live musical performances to weddings and fundraisers. (NIPs is well-known for supporting varied causes from Variety Wisconsin to the Kidney Foundation of Wisconsin, HAWS and Milwaukee Homeless Veterans).
“All of the improvements we made were based on suggestions from patrons,” says Caven. “We had a business plan that we reviewed and revised every quarter, and we added things as we could.”
In turn, guests responded by bringing friends and neighbors to the local bar, which grew to be a year-round hang-out for couples, families and folks who range in age from 35 to 75.
Among the biggest draws to NIP’s is their St. Patrick’s Day party, which features live music, corned beef plates (with proceeds that support the Pewaukee Fire Auxiliary), and free transportation to and from the festivities within a 10-mile radius of the bar. The event attracts upwards of 2,000 people every year.
Caven says the yearly celebrations are always memorable. “The first year we held the party, it was 82 degrees outside,” he says. “Another year, it was cold and windy.”
But Caven says he’ll never forget St. Patrick’s Day in 2020. It was 5 p.m. and they were in the midst of their annual celebration when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bars across the State. “It was probably the most confusing and incredible day of business in my life,” he says “It seemed like the rules changed overnight.”
But the Boggesses made the most of their 10-week shutdown by spending the time refreshing the bar. Among the improvements they made was replacing the 40-foot walk-in they’d used for 10 years with a larger unit. They also kept in touch with their staff via Zoom, an effort that paid off when every single one made the decision to return to their posts at the end of the shutdown.
When the employees returned to work, a few things were different. For instance, out of an abundance of caution, the Boggesses made the decision to forgo the communal bowls of peanuts once served at the bar.
But Caven says they tried to make things feel as comfortable as ever. That summer, they made the decision to host live music outside on the patio, giving guests the opportunity to be social in a safer open-air environment. Caven says they didn’t enforce any rules regarding masks, but they did remind customers to be respectful of one another and their individual decisions.
As things have returned to normal, NIP's back patio and adjoining green space are more popular than ever, with customers gathering to drink and play horseshoes, bags and bocce ball most days of the week.
Caven says the growth they’ve seen in their summer leagues has been phenomenal.
“We started horseshoes with six teams and now we have 24. In 2011 we launched cornhole on Thursdays with six teams. This summer we have 88 teams with league games that run Monday through Thursday.”
On Thursdays, NIP’s also brings in live music and food trucks, making it one of the most popular places to gather in the area.
“Meet up with old friends, make new ones, have some conversation,” Caven says. “People come here for the family. And that’s what’s important to us. It’s a place to kick back, tell stories and have a good time.”
At the same time, he says that – for many – the bar’s sprawling quarters are still a mystery.
“It’s surprising how many people have driven past this place – as they put it – ‘hundreds of times’ and they never knew we had all of this,” he says with a chuckle. “A friend of mine always says that we’ve got ‘reverse curb appeal.’”
Where strangers become friends
Step into the bar at NIP’s at any time of the day and you’ll undoubtedly find at least a few people sitting at the bar, sharing conversations over a drink.
On Wednesday afternoons you’re likely to run into these three young women: Jane Powers, Linda Kornfehl and Bonnie Fera who drop in to visit with longtime bartender Jules Denk, give the men a hard time and catch up with one another.
“When we walk in, everyone at the bar says ‘The ladies are here!!’ says Kornfehl, who has been a patron of the bar for 40 years who orders up her usual vodka tonic in the summertime and Korbel and water when the weather gets chilly.
“The brandy warms us Wisconsin folks up in the winter,” she says.
Powers laughs, holding up her drink of choice: a brandy and coke. “This place is kinda like ‘Cheers,’” she says. “It’s so friendly, and people make you feel so welcome.”
Fera, who denies having a regular quaff, says she drinks whatever she feels like. “Vodka and water, beer, bloody marys… I drink it all,” she says. And then she pauses.
“What he’s done here is amazing,” she says, nodding at Caven. “It brings people here from everywhere.”
But the customers aren’t the only ones who love the gathering place that the Boggesses have created.
“Caven and Nettie are some of the best people I’ve ever worked for,” says Denk, who tends bar four or five days a week. “They make it so easy. It’s like a family here. In fact, the one thing I’ve always appreciated about this place it’s that anyone can come in and feel comfortable. It doesn’t matter who you are, there’s warmth and you’re welcome. We have an incredible number of women who feel comfortable coming here alone. And that really says something.'
Denk says she loves being at the bar any day of the week, but that there’s something special about Thursday nights in the summer.
“The patio is full. There’s music. Folks are playing bags. And it’s just such a nice vibe,” she says. “For a bar in Lake Country with no actual lake access, this place is incredibly busy.”
Of course, if you ask Caven what the secret is to NIP’s success, he might just answer you with two words: respect and integrity.
“It’s not a hard formula,” he says. “My mom always said: ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated.’ And that’s what we do here.”
Celebrate with NIP’s
On Aug. 12, 2023, NIP’s will host its first-ever anniversary party to celebrate 15 years in business. Festivities will include a band and a pig roast.
“It’s a token of appreciation for our extended family,” Caven says. “It’s for those who’ve supported us all these years and for those who are no longer with us but who supported us when they were. It’s really just a great big thank you.”
NIP’s is open Monday through Thursday from 1 p.m. to 12 a.m., Friday from 1 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Happy Hour drink specials are available Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 6 p.m.
You can watch NIP's Facebook page for updates and events.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.