My Biz: Shakespeare's a neighborhood hangout in Iowa City
Pub and grill a local place for first-timers, third-shift workers
IOWA CITY — A local couple who somehow had never been there before stopped at Shakespeare’s Pub and Grill for dinner one night a couple weeks ago.
“I’m not exactly sure how they found us but they lived in Iowa City a long time and were never aware we existed,” said owner Susan Spalj (rhymes with “smile”).
Near the end of their dinner, the couple’s server told her boss about the first-time customers.
“I came over and said, ‘I hear it’s your first time, great.’ They said, ‘We really had a good time, the staff was really nice to us.’ And they offered some suggestions,” Spalj said.
“It was really nice to have somebody like that. Just knowing that we’d found a new customer that thinks we’re a great place to be. And then actually having somebody say, ‘You know what? Your employees were great.’”
Spalj is especially pleased, but not surprised, when her staff of about 25 — about 10 full-time — makes an impression.
“I value the people that work for me, who make the business successful,” she said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without those people. They’re my front line, they’re the ones that talk to the customers, who prepare the food.”
Spalj’s full-time employees qualify for health insurance, paid vacations and a retirement plan — unusual benefits in the food-service industry.
“I believe this is a real job, like any other job,” she said. “You should take the job seriously.”
Iowa City native Spalj worked at a credit union, then as a clerk at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics after earning her business administration degree at the UI.
“In my late 20s I thought, ‘There must be more challenge to life than the job I was in,’” she recalled. “I liked it, it was just kind of simple for me.”
With no experience in the restaurant business, Spalj went part time at UIHC to work at the Cedar Rapids’ landmark Ellis Boulevard NW A&W Root Beer franchise and at an Iowa City McDonald’s.
“After that experience I thought, ‘Boy, owning a restaurant’s hard work,’ Spalj said. “I decided that maybe just a restaurant wasn’t what I wanted.”
A friend suggested Spalj check out to what was then Jirsa’s, an east-side neighborhood bar. Taverns had operated at the location under various names and ownership since the 1970s.
Owner Rick Jirsa, she said, told her, “‘Yeah, I’ll sell it to you, but I think you should work here because it’s a neighborhood bar.’”
Spalj bought the business, but not the building itself, on June 1, 1999. She renamed it Shakespeare’s for a favorite bar in Austin, Texas.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing when I opened it,” she admitted. “It was pretty hard the first couple years. I worked a lot of hours. I really didn’t want to fail, so I worked as many shifts as I could and didn’t hire many people, to keep my overhead low.”
But Spalj was able to repay a five-year Small Business Administration loan a year early while gradually expanding the menu. A January 2016 electrical fire that closed Shakespeare’s for more than two months was “a blessing in disguise.”
“It enabled us to remodel and make this a lot nicer place,” Spalj said. “We just gutted this building and started over, so it made this building new, updated, and fresh.”
Spalj’s landlord agreed to sell her the building, allowing her to add a larger, re-equipped kitchen with a walk-in cooler, larger, ADA-compliant restrooms and a 40-seat beer garden at the front of the building.
With its neighborhood in mind, Shakespeare’s opens at 7 a.m. weekdays.
“We do have a lot of third-shift workers that come over,” Spalj said. “We have nurses that come in for breakfast and a drink. It’s their end of their day. People are always amazed we’re here this early, but it’s the end of their day.”
Running a successful neighborhood bar means Spalj adapts to changing tastes while assuring regular customers continue to find their longtime favorites — Shakespeare’s is noted for its Rueben sandwiches and breaded pork tenderloin.
“I really try to pay attention to what’s up and coming,” Spalj said. “I like to try and have a lot of up-and-coming beers on tap,” with Iowa craft beers on at least eight of the bar’s 20 taps. “I always try to support Iowa products.”
Spalj bought and continues to operate the Club Car, on Wright Street south of downtown, in 2004. She bought what was then Hanrahan’s, on Linn Street, but later sold that business.
“I’m almost 50 years old, and running three of them is a lot of work for me,” she said. “Every year the bottom line is pretty much getting smaller.”
AT A GLANCE
Owner: Susan Spalj
Business: Shakespeare’s Pub and Grill
Address: 819 S. First Ave., Iowa City
Phone: (319) 337-7275
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