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Thursday, Aug. 21, 2003 02:39 pm

Barry Friedman’s Downtown Hat Trick

How one local boy came to own the Alamo, Two Brothers, and Norb Andy’s

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As a 13-year-old goalie for the Springfield Kings, Barry Friedman's job was to turn people away and deflect their shots. He did it well enough to win a college scholarship. Now, as owner of three of the city's oldest nightspots--Norb Andy's, Two Brothers, and the Alamo--the poles have switched. Instead of turning people away, Friedman invites them in. Instead of deflecting shots, he pours them. And he's doing so in the neighborhood he's always loved best--downtown Springfield.

"My dad owned a costume jewelry store on 6th Street before he went into real estate," Friedman says. "I grew up downtown. I remember going to Bressmer's. I remember going to Myers Brothers. I remember the light poles and decorations at Christmastime. My dad knew Tobin. There was a Steak & Shake across the alley. It was a small community and I liked that. It always upset me when I came home from college or work and nothing was going on here."

In the past nine years, Friedman has addressed that problem in a most hands-on style. Building more on tradition than innovation, he's become one of downtown's hottest young entrepreneurs.

But first there was hockey.

Before the relative polish of the Junior Blues, Springfield had the Kings--rough, ready, and local. A standout in youth hockey, Friedman got a trial skate with them before he was even done with junior high. Soon he was a regular. When college loomed, his coach placed one call and got him a scholarship to the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

"After Alabama, I had an offer from an east coast league," he says. "But I wasn't going to go anywhere." He still plays on Sunday mornings, though.

While underage, Friedman got the first taste of his eventual career by tending bar one summer at a country club near Huntsville. The next summer he managed the bar. But in the classroom he continued studying communications.

"I learned business more from trial and error than I did from college," Friedman says. "College was just fun. That's what it was for me."

After graduation, Friedman spent three years selling leather goods and sports paraphernalia in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Then his father's death in 1988 brought him home.

"We don't have a very big family left," he says. "I just thought it would be better to come back. Like everyone else in the restaurant business, I was going to get a 'real' job. But first I got a temporary bartending job at the Renaissance so I could have some money while I looked. That led to bar manager to this and that. I was doing fairly well. So I gave up on the real job and just did that."

Friedman's mini-empire began more by opportunity than design in 1994, when he and a friend bought the Alamo II at 2nd and Washington.

"The original Alamo was in Breckenridge," he says. "This one was a little tiny place. They served lunch and dinner and closed at night. We decided to keep the food. The original owner had brought the recipes from Mexico 30 years ago. But we decided to make it a night business too."

This worked out well enough to consider taking a detour down to Chatham three years later.

"We knew the town was growing and we knew people didn't have a whole lot to do there for restaurants," Friedman says. With another friend, he opened the Chatham Alamo, or "Chalamo," at 301 Main Street. After AJ's Corner on Mulberry, it is now the longest running nightspot in that growing suburb. As at the other Alamo, most of the food is made from scratch.

Back in Springfield, opportunity kept knocking. In 1998, Friedman bought Kane's Tavern, which stands on 5th Street across from National City Bank, and moved the Alamo up there. Its original location is now part of Isringhausen's new show lot. On a good day, he serves 200 lunches. On Blue Mondays, which he hosts with the Illinois Central Blues Club, he welcomes as many as 300 music lovers. On Fridays, live jazz fills his beer garden. On summer Wednesdays, F-5 holds forth for the young crowd. Twice Friedman has had a Lynyrd Skynyrd band play.

"The Alamo is more than a hundred years old," he says. "It used to be two separate storefronts. The original Fishman's Sporting Goods was in the north building and a distant relative once ran a tavern in the south building. I guess the tavern business is in my blood."

Friedman's next acquisition, Two Brothers, came more out of love than business sense. But, still, he's made it work.

"I've been going to Two Brothers since I was 21," he declares. With no dinner and no music, it is downtown's oldest pure bar. "All my friends went there. My parents went there. My wife Amy's grandparents went there. The Hirstein brothers called it a 'vaudeville lounge' when they opened in 1948 because the city didn't allow the words 'bar' or 'tavern' in the name. It has an older crowd until 7:30, 8 o'clock. At 9:30 it's kids who are 21, 22 years old. They all think they've discovered the place every year."

In late 1999, Two Brothers' owner, Gary Taylor, accepted Friedman's longstanding offer and sold him the business at 309 E. Monroe. Not much has changed since. Sandy Roof--as she has for the past 20 years--still tends bar. Birthday drinks still come in fishbowl glasses. The long cane-shaped bar still dominates the interior.

Last year the building's owner, Wanless Trust, considered tearing it down along with the storefront next door. However, a public outcry led by prominent citizens helped to save the Two Brothers building. The other structure fell, and its lot is now nearly vacant. Friedman would like to put a beer garden there someday. He's already had an architect draw up plans, including a new face for the original tavern. Once Wanless Trust agrees, Friedman says, he can have the garden open in three weeks.

The purchase of one business can be an isolated incident. But when Friedman bought Two Brothers, people saw a pattern. He thinks this led to his next opportunity: Norb Andy's Tabarin. Norb's is a tabarin for the same reason that Two Brothers is a vaudeville lounge. It opened in 1937 in the basement of downtown's oldest building, the Hickok House. For decades it's been a popular and convenient gathering place for legislators and journalists.

With the Leland Hotel's original recipe for the horseshoe, Norb's has also been a mecca for aficionados of that cheesy delicacy. But its most recent owners had tried to turn it into a steak and big potato restaurant; they stopped having live music; the horseshoe slipped off the menu. Then career interests led the owners elsewhere and they approached Friedman early last year about buying the whole building.

The deal didn't take long. Friedman was ready for a change at Norb Andy's--a change back to the old way. Live music and the horseshoe returned.

"We don't get our sauce from cans either," he says. "We add flour and butter and milk and make a roux. Then we add the cheese and start beating. It's a process. We're making gallons and gallons."

Earlier this year the Prairie Heart Institute approached Friedman about adding a lighter horseshoe to his menu.

"They knew you couldn't have a healthy horseshoe," Friedman says. "They just wanted it to be healthier. We bake the fries instead of frying them. We use skim milk and lighter cheese. From 20 grams of fat we cut down to eight." Prime rib and traditional horseshoes still top Norb's menu, but the healthier horse is a steady runner.

Although his businesses are night-oriented, Friedman's day normally begins at 6:30 a.m. Deposits and bookkeeping take the first four hours. Later he might show the upper floors of the Hickok House to a prospective tenant. Then he helps with the lunch run at the Alamo. He tries to make it to each of his three downtown sites on a daily basis. The Chalamo is a less frequent destination. Amy Friedman, who ran a wine store in Chatham until last year, now helps her husband manage the Springfield businesses full-time.

"I know day-to-day what I have to do," Friedman says. "But she's like an organizer for me. She keeps a plan."

As with all such enterprises, finding and keeping staff is Friedman's greatest challenge. He prefers to recruit by word-of-mouth rather than through help-wanted ads. He prides himself on being a friend to most staffers as well as their boss. He even made one of them, Alamo bar manager Todd Wilcockson, a partner in Two Brothers.

"I knew I couldn't do it by myself all of the time," Friedman says. "So I let Todd in a little bit."

Friedman thinks the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum will have a surprising impact on downtown. He can see the complex from the Alamo's front windows. Speculating on a rise in property values, he's bought the building at 425 and 427 E. Adams. Rehabilitation of the upstairs apartments is underway. But at the same time Friedman is hesitant. He doesn't know yet what will happen on the lots north of the Alamo where the Governor Hotel once stood. The Capitol Street corridor may or may not get a facelift. Wanless Trust has yet to decide the fate of its Monroe Street properties. And the proposed green space in the National City Bank block, which he thinks would have helped the Alamo, is probably a dead issue.

"I hope so," Friedman says, when asked if he's found his career. "I don't have a mission statement. But I do want to continue Norb's, Two Brothers, and the Alamo. People know them, and I don't want to disappoint anyone when they come in. I want them to feel comfortable. I could have built a new bar out west. But instead I bought three older ones downtown. I like the whole local atmosphere here. I'm entrenched."

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