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Kennedy Hill Pub thrives with throwback family feel

SEFFNER

Cigarette smoke clings to the ceiling, and the dimly lit pub starts to come alive as local workers file in. • The mugs are cold, the conversation is warm and the selection is limited. • "We don't have any of those funny beers," bartender Judy Mugrage said. • It's another weekday happy hour at the Kennedy Hill Pub, a small Seffner bar tucked away next to the Hardee's on U.S. 92. • Sitting at the foot of the hill, a passerby could easily fail to notice the nondescript building. The white brick exterior might not catch a driver's eye from the road, but there's no shortage of eclectic personas inside. • "There are some serious characters in here," bartender Sharon Blanton said.

The Kennedy Hill Pub is way more Pabst Blue Ribbon than award-winning craft beer.

They like it that way, and what else would you expect from what may be the county's oldest continuing bar?

Two guys begin busting each other's chops, trading quips like schoolkids shooting the dozens.

"See that guy over there?" Dave said, pointing to Nick, a local postman. "He's our Cliff, but he acts like Norm."

Only family can get away with that.

• • •

Established in 1947, Kennedy Hill would never make it on SR 60.

In a time when megaplex bars keep popping up, each trying to outdo the other with more taps and high-definition televisions, the Kennedy Hill Pub is a throwback.

"We like to keep it simple," owner Joe Moreno said. "It's just a local, community watering hole."

The stripped-down pub harkens back to a time when bars were about gathering, storytelling and conversation.

"It's a blue-collar place for blue-collar people," Moreno said. "The simplicity of it all is its charm."

Three taps extend up from the bar, which seats about 20 and snakes through the tiny room. There's a jukebox, a small pool table and a couple of outdated-looking televisions scattered about.

"Oh sure, we have food," Mugrage playfully said while pointing to a rack of potato chips behind the bar. "There's our bag lunches right there."

A stuffed deer head hanging on the wall eyeballs those who walk in the door, window unit air conditioners churn incessantly to cool the place and what may be the oldest working fan in Hills- borough County still spins.

"It's the original fan," Moreno said.

That would be the one hung 65 years ago when Kennedy Hill was born. Harry Truman sat in the Oval Office, Jackie Robinson broke the Major League Baseball color barrier and the United States was still recovering from World War II when the pub opened its doors in an area that was mostly orange groves and cow pastures.

So how could this cozy little no-frills bar with cheap beer still be in business nearly seven decades later?

"Everyone watches out for everyone else," Nick the postman said. "It's one big family."

• • •

Moreno bought the Kennedy Hill 18 years ago, and for the former mechanic from Queens, N.Y., it was love at first sight.

"I'd been all throughout Ybor City to Hyde Park, everywhere, looking for the right place," Moreno said. "When I found this, I knew right away that it was my kind of place."

Moreno's wife, however, was not nearly as convinced.

"She was like 'Are you sure?' " Moreno said.

That's because even though Kennedy Hill is a bare-bones bar in its current form, Moreno had to roll up his sleeves and put in quite a few renovations upon purchase.

What needed to be fixed?

"Everything," Moreno said.

One of the first things he did was hire Mugrage, a thin woman with an infectious laugh. Mugrage lived in a house on the pub's property when one day Moreno's wife, Jill, leaned out the back door.

"She yelled over to me and asked if I wanted to cover a shift," Mugrage said. "The girl working left for a pack of cigarettes and never came back."

Mugrage filled in that day, then the one after that and the one after that. Eighteen years later, she's still pouring beer and making sure her customers go to their scheduled doctor appointments.

"If we haven't seen someone in two or three days, we go over to their house and check on them," Mugrage said. "I don't have any family around here. These guys are all my family."

• • •

Blanton, another 18-year veteran of Kennedy Hill, mans the taps at night. Stocky and sweet, Blanton has been known to dance atop the bar on her birthday and answers to "Pork Chop."

"Only certain people can get away with calling me that though," she said.

Most of the regulars, or just about all of the Kennedy Hill's customers, have a nickname. There's Lizard and the Supervisor and Squeeky.

"The customers are what makes this place so great," Blanton said.

Many work construction, others do maintenance or turn wrenches. The workday and the Rays are the main topics of conversation. Occasionally, the talk turns to politics.

"Too often," Nick said.

Mugrage rolls her eyes when two patrons begin discussing the merits of President Barack Obama. When asked what she thinks about the Republican National Convention being in town, Mugrage breaks into that catchy laugh and chuckles.

"Honey, I live in a trailer with no transportation," she said. "I care about that hurricane and whether or not my trailer is going to go washing down (U.S.) 92, not some convention."

Blanton and Mugrage aren't the only longtime employees. Denise Fortunato has been there for eight years and Gina Slushmeyer another four. When they're not pouring beer or playing bar pub psychiatrist, the girls look after their own.

"When someone needs help," Blanton said, "we do what we can."

Like host fundraisers to help offset patrons' medical bills. A few weekends back, Kennedy Hill was packed to the gills for a benefit that raised $6,000 for a sick customer.

"Annie's having surgery this week," Blanton said. "What we made is going to help her out."

The bar clears out at the end of happy hour because a number of the regulars are stopping by the hospital to see Annie on the eve of her surgery. But that's what family does. They brush aside differences, rally around each other and chip in what they can.

• • •

The Kennedy Hill Pub lives on because of the community spirit of the folks who walk in the door each day. People have vested interest in the lives of the person sitting on the stool next to them.

Try finding that at a big-city beer emporium.

"When that door swings open, everyone says 'hello,' and you feel at home" Mugrage said. "And if we don't know you, we're going to say 'hello' anyway."

Brandon Wright can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Kennedy Hill Pub thrives with throwback family feel 08/30/12 [Last modified: Thursday, August 30, 2012 5:30am]
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