The Phone Booth Lounge is back in business! Last Friday, the neighborhood favorite Kettering bar, which closed in its old Stroop Rd. location January 20, reopened for business in its new home at 1912 E. Whipp Rd. The location was formerly home to Dog’s Breath Tavern, which shuttered at the end of January. After a successful opening week, owner Jack Wilderman sat down with us for a chat about the relaunch.
DAYTON MOST METRO: What led you to choose this space? It was surprising that you were able to move the business and reopen less than a month after you closed the old space.
JACK: We were very fortunate. [Wife and co-owner] Betty and I couldn’t come to an agreement with the people who owned the building on Stroop. We’d bought the business itself, and we wanted to buy the property, but it just didn’t work out and we didn’t want to keep paying rent when that money could be spent improving the bar. But we didn’t even have time to look at new locations, really – as soon as word got out that we were looking to buy a bar somewhere nearby, five different bars in the Kettering/Centerville area called us immediately and asked us to buy them out! I won’t give any names, but these were each large bars with long histories. (Laughs) Everybody’s trying to get out of the bar business but us! We came to a deal with Dog’s Breath, and worked out a deal that suited everybody, then got to work.
DMM: For those who’ve not been yet, what changes has the new space brought?
JACK: We’ve got a much bigger stage and dance floor. There’s really good room to dance here, and room for bands to fully set up. On the old stage, a lot of their sound equipment would have to sit on the floor and take up space there, but everyone should be able to get all their equipment onstage with them now, which gives even more dancing room.
The bar here was not convenient; it was very difficult to move and work behind it, so we tore all that out and redid it, and now it’s a space where people can work without crowding and blocking each other. On Stroop, one of the things that drove me crazy was we only had room for three taps. I’m proud to say we’ve more than doubled that and we now have eight beers on tap, and room for more if we need more. So, along with the standard beers, we have Great Lakes, Goose Island, IPAs, and we have Warped Wing on tap now, too. We’re so happy about that.
We’re not even close to being done [with renovations]. We wanted to accomplish so much more before we opened, and we’ll still be working on those things. When I announced our reopening, I didn’t realize how much time it would take for all the permits we needed to clear with the City. One thing is we’re going to gut the bathrooms and renovate those. We’re not happy with them at all. We cosmetically fixed them for the time being, but they’re still not to our standards.
DMM: What about the kitchen? Any new menu plans?
JACK: There are two phases ahead for the kitchen. Starting hopefully this weekend, we’ll have a limited menu available. That’s phase one. Burgers, wings, and appetizers. It won’t be open tonight, but we’re hoping tomorrow.
Once we get the permits, we’ll run gas lines to the kitchen and get a ventilation system in place for our deep fryers and grills. That’s phase two. We’re probably looking at five or six months before we’re fully operational in the kitchen, and then we’ll expand the menu. We were going to do it at the old place, but it
got paused because we were in negotiations. You gotta change up your menu once in a while; people get tired of the same old things.
We’re also building a relationship with Cousin Vinny’s Pizza next door (1916 Whipp Rd.). People can buy pizzas over there and bring them into our bar. There’ll be a small fee, two or three bucks, to be able to do that, but we’re even going to continue allowing it once the kitchen is fully operational – no more of those Tombstone pizzas we used to heat up at the old place! (Laughs)
DMM: And what traditions have you brought with you to the Whipp Rd. Location?
JACK: The Phone Booth Lounge has always had live music and dancing on Friday and Saturday nights, and has never charged a cover. We stand by that, and it remains that way in the new bar. The rest of the schedule remains the same, as well: Sunday euchre tournaments, the Monday night Wii bowling that usually brings in between 12 and 16 people, trivia with Rob D’Agostino on Tuesdays, karaoke on Wednesdays.
Also, for a good while, the Dayton Jazz Orchestra was playing here once a month when it was Dog’s Breath. They’re big band-type jazz, and they had a huge following here when it was Dog’s Breath. I came to their last show here before Dog’s Breath closed, and the place was packed. That’s been very popular, so we’d like to continue giving them a home one Thursday a month like before. We’re seeing if we can work that out. If people want to come out and support music of any sort, and the band can fill our bar, then we’re happy to talk with them, and the Dayton Jazz Orchestra is a class act that performed very well for the previous owners in this space.
The most important thing in this business is finding something that works and staying consistent with it. Even if two or three years go by, people want to know that if they come back to The Phone Booth on a Tuesday night, they can still do trivia. If they grew up here and live somewhere else now and come back to visit on a Friday night, we want them to know that they can still come in and hear a good band and do some dancing. We say we’re open until 2:30 a.m. every night, and we mean it. There are a lot of places that don’t stick by their hours. If we say we’re there, we’re gonna be there for our customers.
DMM: You said earlier that everybody’s trying to sell their bars and get out of the business except you and Betty. Why is that? What keeps you in the game?
JACK: It’s the people we’ve met. Our customers. We have met so many great people in our bar. They give us the drive to continue with this. It’s not the money. It’s not a lot of money; we’re never gonna get rich doing this. And it’s an exhausting job; Betty and I haven’t had a vacation in five years – the whole time we’ve owned the place – and we’re kind of starting over again now. The customers, thankfully, are all coming with us, but as far as moving into a space and making it home and getting it where we want it again, we’re starting all over. It’s the people we see every day.
And we’re too young to retire. What are we gonna do, go get nine-to-fives somewhere? I served 25 years in the Air Force. I met Betty when I was retiring, and we decided we wanted to work for ourselves. Her father was in the bar business for many years. He’d never owned a bar, but he’d worked in them for a long time, and he guided us in what to do. We’d never run a bar before The Phone Booth, but it’s been something really special for us.
And the clientele has even expanded, which we really enjoy. We’ve got young kids who are regulars, we have 40- and 50-year-olds, we have people in their 70s, so we’ve gotten a really broad crowd of interests. Everybody knows everybody here. The Phone Booth Lounge has to be one of the oldest bar establishments in Kettering. It opened in ’64 at that location on Stroop, and it stayed there until last month. It’s like Kettering’s Cheers. When we bought the business of The Phone Booth Lounge, we made very sure we also bought the rights to the name.
We may be in a new location, but we’re still a family, and The Phone Booth most definitely lives on. – DB
The Phone Booth Lounge (1912 E. Whipp Rd.) is open from 2 p.m. – 2:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, and 1 p.m. – 2:30 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. This weekend will feature the Just N Tyme Band tonight,
February 23, and The Elderly Brothers on Saturday, February 24. The bar can be reached at 937-979- 1497.