Kevin Whitby was fed up with his boss, so he bought a bar.
In 1989, the former teacher was working on staff with the Ohio Education Association. A new boss replaced the old boss, and Whitby wasn’t sure how much longer he would keep working. The Long Island native had made southeastern Ohio his home and he decided to make his dream of owning a bar a reality.
“I was driving home from work one day and called up my office partner,” said Whitby of the fateful conversation that began his venture into the bar and restaurant world. “[We had a new boss.] I said, this guy’s an idiot and I don’t know how long I can work for him or how long he’ll let me. And the best time to borrow money is when you have a job.”
An old acquaintance, a farmer, suggested Whitby look into purchasing the Harmar Tavern. Despite being initially told it had sold, he checked it out anyway. It was a small space, but Whitby had a vision for it.
“I came in here, I looked at it,” said Whitby. “I didn’t know anything about the liquor business, the restaurant business. It was all new to me. So it was a learning experience.”
The previous owner was Bill Knellinger, who had purchased the tavern in 1974. Knellinger had given Whitby some parting words, which he ended up going against.
“He warned me against doing food!” Whitby said, noting that the tavern is now known for its “Sure to be Famous” bologna sandwich. “There was no music in here when I bought it, only an old TV that stood at the end of the bar. It was only allowed to be on when there were sports. Bill came in one time to see it a couple of weeks after it was open and the first thing he did was get up and turn off the music. He finished his beer and never came back again.”
Still, Whitby is thankful to Knellinger. “He was a good man, an honest man,” said Whitby.
In addition to significantly expanding the bar, including adding a patio, many important visitors have graced the tavern in 30 years. Politicians like John Edwards and Ted Strickland have stopped by, but maybe most notably, an ambassador from China.
“He was giving a speech at Marietta Memorial and his niece was attending Marietta College,” said Whitby. “We set the patio out and decorated the whole place, but the secret service came in and said he couldn’t sit outside. I tell people he had bologna, but he had oatmeal.”
Whitby went on to purchase what is now Spagna’s, the Italian restaurant next door, in the early 2000s.
“Spagna is my mother’s last name,” he said, adding, “trying to get an Italian mother to put together a recipe is a nightmare, they don’t measure anything.”
When he sent in a team to develop the space, they stripped a pole outside to reveal what had once been a barber’s shop pole. They decided to leave it as a unique touch.
He plans to stay in the area and is glad to have built a life here. When he was 59, Whitby reconnected with his high school sweetheart from his time in Levittown, New York. She is now his wife, Cathy Whitby.
“I was leading a good single life up to that point,” joked Kevin Whitby.
Today, Whitby owns the entire block, including commercial and residential spaces. He is proud of what the West Side has become in recent years.
“The west side, we have a lot of good people here,” he said. “The labor hall used to be vacant and boarded up, the parking lots were full of weeds. It was a depressed area.”
He believes his businesses, and a refusal to give up on the area, have made a difference on the west side.
“It took a long time,” he said. “We started putting flowers out, people would walk by and rip them out. It happened, but you just keep planting them and eventually people started having more respect.”