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Last Friday, Joel Hoecherl quietly opened JD’s Pub & Grill in the former Jonny Hammers corner tap at 6300 W. Lincoln Ave. in West Allis.
At least he expected it to be quiet.
“We opened up, just soft opened,” he says. “I was like, ‘let's turn the lights on and see.’ We had probably 80 people in here within the two hours. Just by opening the door and turning on the sign.
“And it just kept going.”
In mid-August, after a quarter-century serving up some of the area’s most heralded wings in a dark tavern enlivened by music by and artwork inspired by owner Jon Cervantes’ beloved Grateful Dead, Cervantes sold the bar.
In January, Cervantes was diagnosed with stage four metastatic prostate cancer and running the bar had become too much.
That’s when Joel (middle name Daniel, hence the JD) Hoecherl – who has no background in bars and restaurants – dove in headfirst and bought the place.
He immediately set to work cleaning and refreshing the interior.
He removed the wood-slatted window blinds that kept the sunlight at bay, he scrubbed, he renovated the rest rooms, he redecorated the bar, itself.
He also expanded the old opening behind the bar that offered a view into the billiards room. By expanded, I mean completely removed the wall, adding a 16-foot, 14-inch steel I-beam and a couple posts to handle the static load of the apartments above.
The result is a much brighter, more open space that feels welcoming.
“I lived here for five weeks,” says Hoecherl, who did much of the work himself. “We had friends that became family, because everybody we knew was like, ‘Hey, I'll help.’ And I had people that were plumbers and electricians. Everybody that I knew pitched in.”
And, he adds, it was a real family affair. Hoecherl’s 15-year-old daughter created the bar’s logo.
“She made it on her iPad,” he says with a smile. “ I got a picture of her standing out there (looking at it, going) ahhhh, because she made it. So that's the cool part about it was this became, to everybody, one big family.”
The brightness is the most striking aspect of the interior, where Hoecherl is still working on decorating the walls with beer signs and other bar ephemera.
“It was really dark,” he agrees. “And my whole thing was we don't live like that so why would we drink like that? The thing was for us was to change it and brighten it up.”
Out back on the patio, he’s planning to add another pergola and a gas firepit, too, in time for the cold weather.
But he knew better than to mess with the wings.
“We kept the wings exactly the same,” says Hoecherl. “But what we did is, with the garlic parmesan, instead of doing the green can we took fresh parmesan cheese and we shred the cheese.
“So then that makes that different. We're going to try to do some fresh sauces: fresh pineapple, fresh habanero.”
Hoecherl also hired back most of the Jonny Hammers staff.
“We got most of them,” he says, “we really got a couple of the cooks, the main ones.”
Those folks are tasked with giving a Friday fish fry a shot tonight. If it goes well, it’ll stay on the menu.
Hoecherl says his goal is to create a classic, welcoming corner tap. The kind of place where everyone wants to be and where everyone is having a good time.
“Everybody asks, ‘what's your design, your plan?’,” he says, “and I want to bring back that corner bar spirit. The families come and mom and dad have a couple beers and everybody's watching the game.”
Some of the old Jonny Hammers regulars have been back in to check it out and the response, Hoecherl says, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve had tons of regulars in here. All the regulars are coming in and everybody walks in and we just watch their faces. Because people go, ‘Holy cow!' Which has been nice. It's been a great change.
“It's a lot of work, but it's fun work, I think. Everybody is in here happy and bubbly and ready to have fun.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.