When a guest at The Wellsboro House Restaurant and Brewery remarks that he has never had birch beer, owner Chris Kozuhowski is immediately on a mission to make introductions.
“I’m gonna get you a sip of this. You’re gonna freak out!”
Chris’s exuberant personality is limitless and it serves as the philosophical center of the restaurant. The rebirth of The Wellsboro House Restaurant and Brewery has sprung from the simple mission of his family: to turn strangers into friends and an ordinary evening out into something special.
With his tattoos, squared off haircut, and penchant for hugging people at the first meeting, Chris seems an unlikely champion of Wellsboro revitalization. But he has the place, the plans, and the prizes to prove a genuine love of his adopted hometown. More than that, he and his team have built up a hefty balance sheet of sweat equity that backs up his vision. And when the Governor’s office took notice, Chris felt an affirmation of what he holds dear.
More about that later. First, let’s spend a balmy fall evening at the new-old Wellsboro House.
On a recent Monday, folks assembled in the bar and dining areas, sitting only after researching the specialty beer boards and televisions to select flavors of both drink and sports viewing. There is much to look at. The décor is an eclectic grab bag of sports memorabilia, local history highlights, and family mementos. Dozens of signed photos of Philadelphia sports heroes, each with a story. A wall of musical tributes. Football and fire department helmets. Even a rare, autographed poster from Mr. Yuengling himself, a thanks for being a great partner. “See that?” Chris says, pointing to a framed poster. “Best burger in the state. Beat out the big guys from the cities, too!”
One table hosts a young man in a t-shirt emblazoned with “University of Alaska at Anchorage” having a detailed discussion with the waitress about the beer selections.
“Do you like an ale with more of a sweet taste? I can recommend something.” The staff really knows their stuff, chatting easily about lagers and food pairings.
Chris knows nearly everyone who comes in and assures a newcomer, “I know everyone by the time they leave!” A visit to the Wellsboro House feels more like crashing at a friend’s home to debate football and brew.
The menu is pages long, with a fresh seafood selection impressive for landlocked Wellsboro. One popular appetizer is the lightly breaded calamari, which, forty-eight hours before, had been minding its own business off the coast of Rhode Island. (Chris’s daughter has perfected the squid prep.) If you prefer something warm water never fear, Chris has an “affiliation with a guy in Hawaii.” Steak, chicken, salad, a kid’s menu, a Sunday menu—the offerings broaden the potential audience to include just about anyone.
While the entire concept of professional sports is embraced at The Wellsboro House, the true place of honor belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles. Chris is a thirty-year holder of season tickets and is such a devotee of the team his Sunday hours in the restaurant completely hinge on the length of the Eagles’ season. If they don’t make the playoffs, don’t plan to watch post-season football here. “Man, I hope I’m open on Sundays in January,” he says with the passion of a disciple.
Monday nights can be a bit sluggish for the owner, as he still hosts an early live radio sports show called “Monday Night This Morning” from Mansfield. But even fatigue has to bend to Chris K’s schedule, especially when people still want to talk about Sunday’s gridiron action. “That game was ugly.” He sighs over the Eagles twenty-ten loss to Dallas.
Any reference to the Philly-based pro team and late season play inevitably leads to Chris’s archived frustration about the Big Game. “Guess when was the last time the Eagles won the championship game? The last year before they called it the Super Bowl! One more year and they would have been Super Bowl Champs! Who remembers who won the last of the old game?” Keep in mind, we are talking about 1966 here. A nearby waitress observed the flailing and raised an eyebrow. “The Eagles in ’66? Yeah, that will take the volume up to ten pretty quick.”
What is really fun is the genuine affection with which she says that. An atmosphere of teamwork permeates the Wellsboro House. There is much chatter across the staff members, an easy sense of togetherness that would be difficult to fake. Chris is quick to point out that he, and his business, would be nothing without his employees. He admits to being picky over hiring and a challenge to work for. But, he is adamant about sharing the credit for his success.
You get the impression that, if there is someone out there Chris cannot develop a conversation with, he hasn’t met them yet. He roams the tables with high fives, hugs, and razzing as a standard part of the experience. Stories sprinkled with names from all walks of life flow from him like water from a spring. One could comfortably assume that his is the behavior of a long-time tavern owner.
One would be wrong.
Chris was a landscaper before his knees betrayed him. It was 2005 when he and wife Laura took a breath-stealing plunge and bought the 100-year old building on the verge of being condemned. Driven by a passion for preserving not only the building, but also a way of life, they were unfazed by their complete lack of any previous food service experience. First order of business was to reclaim the facility, a project that took three years to complete. The basement level required an entire year to stabilize. They sourced all local lumber, mostly white ash, to capture an early 1900s look. The details are not to be ignored. Rosettes adorn the elongated window frames, and a massive carved mirror anchors the private dining room.
When asked what he regrets about the process of opening the restaurant, he shrugs. “I hardly have enough time to make the decisions I need to make. I sure as hell don’t have time to waste second-guessing myself.”
Part of a large Polish family with a solid blue-collar work ethic, Chris takes his hosting cues from the memory of his family meals. The table always had room for one more and the welcome was always warm. “A place like this, where you want people to sit and stay awhile, to talk and laugh as well as eat a good meal, it has to be a reflection of the owners. We set the tone.” He speaks warmly of his father, who taught him how to work, and whose countenance beams down from framed wall photos.
The stories behind the building itself were a huge part of the appeal for Chris and Laura. Directly across Charleston Street from the Wellsboro train station, the original Wellsboro House was the first stop for passengers disembarking. They would check in at the hotel and take a horse and buggy into the village center. In describing the history of the House, Chris allows a pause pregnant enough for twins and then pronounces it “dubious.”
“It was a place of its time.” He says, light eyes twinkling. “There was a card room and a smoking room. Lots of stories of alleged misbehavior by prominent people. Look, if you had the choice between a place with a boring past and one with some character to it, there’s no contest, right?”
One of those “alleged” incidents involved Teddy Roosevelt, the mourning train that came through town after the assassination of President McKinley, and an unidentified local woman. The world will never be sure of the details, but suffice to say that, shortly after, the inn was renamed The Roosevelt Hotel, complete with the motto, “Where jolly good fellows meet.” Character, indeed.
Comfortably situated on Charleston, a couple of blocks off the main thoroughfare, the current Wellsboro House presents a dining option a tad less visible than the eateries on the main drag. Perhaps it is the location that leads to the lopsided division of clientele. Chris estimates that 80 percent of his customers are locals, as opposed to out-of-towners spending time at one of Wellsboro’s famed events. But the owner is grateful for the support of the businesses that refer traffic his way. “There is a certain vibe to Wellsboro, and it attracts a lot of people. I’m not sure we strike the exact same chord, but we have definitely found our place in the community.” Not one for traditional advertising methods, Chris advocates for “putting your money into your product.”
Apparently, the efforts of the Kozuhowski family have also found a place in the mind of the Governor of Pennsylvania. This part of the story begins with beer.
A Southern Tioga School District teacher named Rob Kathcart shares Chris’s passion for good beer. A home brewer in his spare time, Rob brought samples to the Wellsboro House, and the discussion got serious quickly. The two teamed up to use the restaurant as the brew spot and sales location. The variety changes frequently, thus the use of chalkboards to list current offerings.
Enter that epic Kozuhowski vision and the energy to fuel it, and the empty Wellsboro train station across the street is reborn as a brewery. To his mind, expanding to include beer making is supremely logical, if only because it returns the art of brewing back to the same hunk of land that carried it 100 years ago. Chris reams off details like a tour guide. “A lot of the German immigrants, that was their talent to use in their new country. They could really brew beer!” The building is rehabbed, the gleaming tanks are in place, and the deal is inked with the state to be an approved beer supplier. If all goes according to plan, and it had better if the plan knows what’s good for it, the first of the year will bring the froth to a head.
Mr. Yuengling should be pleased. The Wellsboro House is the chosen site for unveiling their classic Ground Hog Day beer. Perhaps he would also like sampling the house craft beer specialty, Wynken, Blynken and Nod Out IPA. The smart money says Chris would be happy to stroll up to the village green and point out the Wynken, Blynken, and Nod statue to Mr. Y.
This level of buy-in and faith in a community is worthy of recognition, and Chris, Laura, and their staff were recipients of a formal pat on the back when they were named winners of the 2015 Governor’s ImPAct Award. The honor spotlights businesses who make a significant contribution to the economic and cultural health of their communities. Chris beams when he talks about the award ceremony. “It was like Oscar night!” In the next breath, “But, I felt bad that I was the only face up there. None of this happens because of just me. I have an incredible staff, and they are the ones who make it work every day. I need to thank them, my current folks, and all the ones from the beginning.”
He refers to his kitchen as a “democracy” with ample cross-training and a subdued sense of ego. “My best chef is just as willing to wash dishes, and that’s the only way we can work. There is a feeling of ease I want to convey here. The bar closes at a sensible hour. There are nights when there are more kids in here than at Chucky Cheese’s. A lady can be here on her own without worrying. There is a very deliberate effort to get that feeling.”
As disconnected as it may sound, the proprietor draws some of his inspiration from his former occupation. When laying out a new building on a busy campus, say Harvard University, smart landscapers don’t even design walkways until after the building is up and open and the traffic begins. Then they study the wear patterns in the grass and let human preference dictate where pathways should be placed.
Chris carries a similar philosophy about his business. What should his hours be? Wait and see when it is busy. How about serving lunch? Let’s try it and if it doesn’t fly—and it didn’t—take the cue from your customers and don’t do it. He is surprisingly zen-like in his decision-making, often waiting for input from sources he cannot control and meeting them way beyond halfway.
Still, grand gestures seem to be Chris’s bread and butter. He talks fast, he’s decisive, and he trusts his instincts. Consider Exhibit Three: after the restaurant and the brewery, naturally the Wellsboro House needs to regain its status as an inn. The second floor is gutted, awaiting the renovation that will bring twelve rooms back to life. Once again, people will enter Wellsboro near the train station, be warmly welcomed with a local brew sample, then saunter across the narrow road for a stellar meal and place to rest. That sort of historical symmetry makes Chris Kuzuhowski’s face split into a grin that bounces around the room.
Ask him if this—renovating old buildings and running a restaurant, a brewery, and an inn—is this what he is supposed to be doing? Is this why he was put on the Earth? Not to plant trees, not to pontificate on ESPN, not to be the coolest history teacher ever? This?
Possibly the only one word answer he has ever offered in his life.