DAYTON — When his father-in-law died in 1995 and he took over the primary responsibility of running the family’s restaurant, Gary Fisher carefully followed the restaurant founder’s advice: keep prices down, and keep things simple.
“I left things alone, for the most part,” Fisher said.
The strategy paid off, the customers kept coming, and 17 years later, on Aug. 30, Joe Kiss Hickory Bar-B-Q restaurant at 1082 Brown St. will celebrate its 50th anniversary — a startling accomplishment for a any restaurant, and especially rare for a restaurant that has remained in the same location, owned by the same family, as Hickory has.
And the location is not without its challenges: the restaurant seems an island of calm in a sea of chaos, located in the heart of the University of Dayton commercial strip, surrounded by new construction and businesses geared toward college students. Despite an extensive street construction project that tore up the street and sidewalks this summer, Hickory’s loyal diners — most of whom are well past college age — made their way to the restaurant they’ve been patronizing for many years, or decades.
The restaurant’s atmosphere is a throwback to an earlier time. Fisher manages the restaurant, and his son Gary Jr. handles lunch service. Gary Sr.’s wife Margo, his sister-in-law and restaurant co-owner Shirley Kiss, his brother, daughter, and other family members also work at the restaurant. Six other employees who are not part of the family have been working at Hickory for 30 years or more. Customers who walk in the front door for an early dinner are greeted by name, and they know the names of servers and other employees.
That familiarity can be traced directly to Joe Kiss and his wife Irene, who co-founded the restaurant in 1962 and became sole owners in 1989. Fisher described his father-in-law as “the first secret to the restaurant’s success. He opened and closed seven days a week. Customers loved him. He was giving. He poured a good drink. And he kept prices reasonable.”
In the restaurant’s peak years — when General Motors and NCR were in full swing, and before restaurants filled Miller Lane, The Greene and other area malls — long lines would form before the restaurant opened its doors for dinner and would stretch down Brown Street, Fisher said. But times have changed.
“I don’t think anybody makes the money today that they made years ago, because of the economy,” Fisher said. “We’ve cut back where we had to cut back. But we’re still doing all right.”
Hickory Bar-B-Q joins the Oakwood Club and Golden Nugget Pancake House as the third Dayton-area restaurant operated by the same family in the same location to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. And as you might expect of such an exclusive club, the owners of all three know one another’s establishments well.
“When my dad was still around, we all used to go to Joe Kiss’ place every Sunday for dinner,” said Stacey Frangomichalos, co-manager and part of the Thomas family that has operated the Golden Nugget in Kettering since April 1962. “Mr. Kiss was a great guy.”
Lance Stewart, the second-generation owner of the Oakwood Club, still dines at the Hickory frequently and sees several similarities between the two restaurants.
“Both Gary and I had great mentors — for me, it was my dad, and for him, his father-in-law,” Stewart said. “Both were self-made men who were very determined to be successful.”
Both restaurants have a loyal clientele, several long-time employees, and a strong family atmosphere, with the third generations of the founder working in the restaurants, Stewart said.
“Gary is a hands-on owner, as I am,” the Oakwood Club owner said. “And we are both very consistent in our food and our service. I have great respect for Gary and Margo.”
Fisher and his son have an eye toward the future. They launched lunch service in 2008, and business has grown slowly but steadily. And they wouldn’t mind mixing in a few college-age students in with the restaurant’s more seasoned customers, but are mindful of not alienating the restaurant’s regulars.
Hickory now accepts the “Flyer card” student debit card. But Gary Fisher Sr. balks at adding draft beer taps that could bring an influx of customers interested more in the brews than the restaurant menu, which focuses on steaks, barbecue chicken and especially barbecue ribs, the most popular menu item.
And those ribs are prepared the same way they have been for decades.
“I have customers who tell me, ‘Everywhere else we go, we have to choose from eight different sauces,’” Fisher said. “We have just one — the one that Joe Kiss had.”
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