Joseph Varela likes to call The Wooden Nickel Tavern the living room of the neighborhood.
Varela has owned the bar, located in the heart of midtown’s Barrio Centro, south of East 22nd Street, for 30 years.
In that time, the venue has played host to birthday parties and wedding receptions, baby showers and funeral wakes.
“This is where most of the neighborhood comes,” Varela says. “They either love me or they hate me. If they don’t behave, I’ve got to throw them out.”
Varela, who turned 55 last month, will celebrate his 30th anniversary with the bar on Monday, in conjunction with its annual St. Patrick’s Day festivities — an all-day party with green beer, 20 gallons of Irish stew and nearly 300 pounds of corned beef and cabbage.
Varela took over the Wooden Nickel when he was 25 years old. He was working as a driver for Golden Eagle Distributors at the time. The bar, which has been around since 1947, was in a neighborhood where he had a lot of friends.
“My dad passed away and left some money to me, my brother and my sister,” he said. “I thought I knew what I was doing.”
He soon realized that there was much more to the job than he ever imagined.
Making a profit was a challenge. Every little thing, from the napkins and straws, to the cherries and olives needed to be carefully monitored.
Sometimes the work seemed endless. It still does.
“It is more than a full-time job,” he said. “I am still here seven days a week, 12 to 15 hours a day. “
Part of what has kept Varela going is the love from his customers.
In 30 years, he has seen the sons and daughters of regular patrons become faithful patrons themselves.
When a driver lost control of his vehicle and swerved into the building in 2007, causing more than $150,000 in damages, it was the regulars who came in during reconstruction that kept the Wooden Nickel going.
“I had a temporary bar with no draft beer or food,” Varela said. “Just bottled beer and mixed drinks in plastic glasses.”
Varela does what he can to keep customers happy. He holds regular pool tournaments and karaoke and bike nights. On Fridays and Saturdays, the bar has DJs spinning music, providing a nightclub environment for the younger crowd.
He used the insurance money from the crash to update the Nickel’s look and feel. Televisions tuned to local and national sports now line the walls.
“It was your typical old neighborhood tavern,” he said, “Now it is more of a sports bar.”
A few years ago, Varela started posting regular food and drink specials on the bar’s Facebook page.
“It is on my phone,” he said. “One of my bartenders set it up for me. All I have to do is press buttons.”
Varela considers himself lucky. Most neighborhood bars don’t make it. He reckons he has about two years left in him before he retires.
“I’ll probably hand it over to one of my grandkids,” he said. “I don’t think any of my kids wants this place. They see how much I am here.”