Franklin pub crossroads for people, history
By Jake Flannick • SMN Correspondent
The legendary Rathskeller Coffee Haus and Pub, an institution and social mainstay in downtown Franklin, saw a generational changing of the guard this year after 15 years in the hands of its original founder and owner.
Two young couples — Brandon and Kate McMahan and Adam Kimsey and Natasha Sebring, ranging from ages 27 to 31 — took over the neighborhood pub last month.
Such a transition might not draw much attention elsewhere, particularly in more urban areas where such establishments abound.
But in Franklin, a town of less than 4,000 residents whose social scene involves high school football games, heritage festivals and grocery store encounters, it is seen as significant.
“I’m glad it survived,” said Stacy Guffey, who runs a consulting business downtown.
He noted the Rathskellar’s reputation of drawing a diverse group of regulars, their ages varying as widely as their attitudes.
“How often do you see people from that diverse of a background of opinions sit down?” Guffey asked. “I’ve never seen anyone unwelcome.”
For Franklin Mayor-elect Bob Scott, who celebrated his recent election night victory at the Rathskeller, the new owners represent a “renewed sense of vitality” to a downtown economy that has been drawing an impressive number of young business owners in recent years.
“The young people of this town are the future of this town,” said Scott, who campaigned partly on the promise to try to offer local business owners, particularly those of younger generations, a larger hand in helping shape the town’s political landscape.
After a weeklong lull in business as the new owners made final preparations, the Rathskeller reopened in early October, but not much has changed in the appearance or tone.
The flags of more than a dozen nations still color the ceiling around its bar, behind which pretzels and spinach pies, among other pastries, are made with a four-burner stove. Customers, after ordering drinks, reach for one of dozens of beer glasses of different shapes and sizes that are kept on a wooden rack against a wall. And amid Prohibition-era music emanating from its corners, its charm still resembles that of a speakeasy.
The new owners are working to spread word about the pub, using social media and a new website a longtime patron offered to design. They want to have more live music and extend its reach to younger generations.
But they are making it a point to preserve its character as an inclusive, familiar setting where conversation seems to come easy.
Former owners, George Hasara and Heidi Hunter, recalled encounters at the pub over the years they spent tending bar there.
“After a while, it becomes like a sitcom in here,” Hasara said of the predictable dialogue among regulars. “We all started to become caricatures of ourselves.”
Among the familiar visitors, he added, were what are known as thru-hikers, whom Hasara sought to dissuade, perhaps jokingly, from continuing their trek on the Appalachian Trail.
“If I had six months to myself,” he said, referring to the estimated time it takes to hike the entire trail, “I wouldn’t spend them putting one foot in front of the other.”
The couple opened the Rathskeller in the basement of an old three-story brick building in downtown Franklin in 2000.
Even though alcohol sales in town were still banned at that time, beer was not lacking at the Rathskeller, where it was served under a tacit agreement with customers. The beer was free — so the bar technically couldn’t be accused of “selling” it — but customers left big “tips” in exchange.
That went on until town voters lifted the alcohol sale ban in 2006.
Over the years, the pub evolved into a space of what the owners described as “cerebral happenings.” Among them were monthly discussion forums drawing dozens of people sometimes to talk about political and philosophical point. It saw celebrations, too, including what is known as Festivus, a parody holiday a couple days before Christmas in which people air grievances at one another.
The new owners almost turned down Hasara’s offer to sell the Rathskeller to them.
“We never really took it seriously,” Brandon said.
The young couples were already facing the pressures of building a life together and had various occupations of their own already. Kate had a full-time job teaching high school. Brandon had gone back to college to get a teaching degree himself, and was working part-time at a supermarket in the meantime. Sebring worked full-time as a dermatologist.
A tipping point came in September when Kimsey unexpectedly lost his job as human resources officer at a construction company in a round of layoffs.
The four agreed to pool their savings and buy the Rathskeller — a place they had all hung out as teenagers.
Hasara is happy it is in good hands since it was such a huge part of his and Hunter’s life.
“It’s about making connections,” said Hunter, with whom Hasara exchanged vows there in 2004. “We’re targeting a certain mindset … looking for a place to have conversation, to relax. To me, that’s a pub.”
Whether such characteristics will remain as evident at the Rathskeller in the future is uncertain. But its history, parts of which lingers in photographs still hanging on the old brick walls inside the cafe, will endure as one of them.
“You can’t make old,” Hasara smiled.