40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Six: From a 1990 portal, Sportstime Pizza to Rich O’s BBQ to NABC

Current view of New Albany’s north side, where pastures became a tax base.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer, Part Twenty-Five: The end of the beginning (1989-1990).

An anecdote to kick off this installment, as relayed by the Irish musician Sean Cannon (The Dubliners, The Dublin Legends).

“In the Irish love triangle there are three parties involved: A man, and a woman – and drink, and so the girl gives an ultimatum to her boyfriend: It’s either the drink, or me. He chooses the drink. But afterwards, he relents. They get married and live happily ever after … the three of them.” 

Earlier in this series we saw that Sportstime Pizza came into existence during the summer of 1987 when a budding entrepreneur named Richard “Rich” O’Connell took over the management of a moribund Noble Roman’s pizzeria franchise located off Grant Line Road on New Albany’s about-to-explode north side, and got to work.

In 1990 I turned 30. As the New Year dawned, I was poised to join the Sportstime Pizza family, both personally and professionally. At the time, it seemed a logical symbiosis; considered in retrospect, the phrase “be careful what you wish for” springs quickly to mind. The 1990s made me and broke me, all at once, but regrets?

Okay, I have a few, but then again, too few to mention. The challenge is remembering enough of it to tell the story properly.

The Sportstime Pizza saga begins in the early 1980s, when a well-heeled local property-owning troika commenced the conversion of hitherto green pastures, which adjoined the main road on the outskirts of town, into those purely stereotypical American car-oriented strip malls, eventually to include larger entities: Kroger, Applebee’s and Wal-Mart.

Less than a mile away to the north across the I-265 interchange was (and remains) Indiana University Southeast, the satellite campus where I received my philosophy degree in 1982. Then as now, New Albany’s main industrial park is situated exactly between these poles.

In short, the acreage was ripe for plucking, and commercial development proceeded apace. The developers intended their Noble Roman’s to be the restaurant anchor at one of their first strip malls, and they bought the franchise in spite of having neither the interest nor any real aptitude to operate it.

Predictably, it foundered. O’Connell correctly surmised that the simple act of hands-on, on-site presence would be a significant corrective to the steady downward slide.

Richard O’Connell. I’ve not seen him since 1994.

O’Connell convinced the developers to allow him to assume command, work up to speed, and then purchase the business from them. His plan was to sever the franchise affiliation, take the pizzeria local, and after a few months, negotiate to buy the entire building.

It might be noted that O’Connell, who was in his late 40s at the time with a wife and two daughters, knew absolutely nothing about the pizza business and hadn’t ever worked in food service. Turns out we had that in common.

However, having traveled a time or two around the block, he was a quick read and prepared somewhat remorselessly to devote the time necessary to grow any small business, something the property developers hadn’t once grasped. To them, a franchise was turn-key, ready-made and self-contained. Turn it on, and it made money – or so they thought. The reality was very different, naturally.

Having wearied of working for others, O’Connell sought an outlet for his entrepreneurial bent, and notwithstanding our later differences, I must in fairness acknowledge his work ethic and good founding intentions.

Granted, he was relentlessly pursued, and eventually overtaken, by his own peculiar internal demons. But at the start, he viewed the advent of Sportstime Pizza as a pathway toward bringing his family together in pursuit of an old-school “family business” archetype. For a while, at least, this might have been true.

Verily, O’Connell had a great many solid, common-sense ideas about management. While his extravagantly bad habits were fewer in number, their impacts registered impacts far more disruptive and injurious, and the fault lines exposing the latter were destined to reveal themselves gradually over time, leading to a shabby, graceless denouement down the road.

I’ve come to view all of it as sad, and might even consider referring to Rich O’Connell’s human tragedy as being cast in the Shakespearean mold, except I’d be offering too flattering an assessment. There was too much of King Lear in him, and too little of The Fool. Instead, we must turn to the great Hoosier writer Kurt Vonnegut for the proper sentiment.

“So it goes.”

Unidentified woman, “Czech George” and a bottle of Pilsner Urquell; circa 1988.

For a time O’Connell was an effective front man. As a glad-hander and bull-shitter, he possessed a populist style all his own. He also had a useful knack for analyzing systems, and the ability to reformulate them rationally. Noble Roman’s was notoriously prone to circuitous and wasteful operational methods, and these were uprooted and corrected.

Nothing is perfect, and yet from the very start, Sportstime Pizza was an energetic independent pizzeria in all the myriad ways that a franchise with oblivious absentee owners could never be, and O’Connell’s purchase plan for both business and building proceeded according to schedule.

It transpired that in 1989 two of O’Connell’s college-aged sycophants signed on with a scheme to convert unused office space on the opposite side of the common kitchen area into an autonomous eatery to be called Rich O’s BBQ.

They seemed to believe this new addition would belong to them outright, although it was obvious to everyone else involved that such a concept could not ever be entirely independent of O’Connell’s spider-and-fly master plan, for he had shrewdly surmised that the two toadies would do much of the heavier start-up lifting (like installing and venting a commercial smoker oven in the kitchen), soon enough to become overwhelmed, and to beg him for a way out.

Then O’Connell would absorb Rich O’s fully into the family business, toward his stated goal of rendering the building tenant-free.

This is exactly what happened, and the disposable lickspittle duo honestly never knew what hit them. By early 1990 daughter Amy was in charge of Rich O’s (as regrettably named by the departed minions), and seeing as she was my then-girlfriend and future wife, our conversations following the previous year’s travel season predictably centered on how the barbecue outlet could be grown to incorporate good beer.

At this juncture, as preface to the remainder of this series, here’s a quarter-century’s worth of overview as to what happened next.

The good beer project moved slowly forward until 1992, when I joined the business officially, and Rich O’s BBQ was redubbed Rich O’s Public House. From that point forward, there was a conscious decision to move the Public House’s beer program onto ever higher ground, away from the area’s typical slavish allegiance to mass-market American beer, and into a full embrace of the revolution of better beer in bottled, canned and draft form.

In the beginning, the emphasis remained on imported beers. As the American “craft” beer revolution unfolded, we devoted ever greater attention to it. One of the prime movers of this evolution was the Fermenters of Special Southern Indiana Libations Society (FOSSILS), a homebrewing and beer appreciation club, which was founded in September 1990. The inception of FOSSILS will be discussed later as part of this series.

In 1994, when Rich O’Connell divorced himself out of the family, my wife Amy (we were married in 1993, and divorced in 2002) and her sister Kate took complete control of the business (their mother was, in effect, a partner too) and reincorporated it as the New Albanian Brewing Company, with the stated intention of eventually brewing on site.

This took longer than expected, but in 2002, incorporating the small 4-barrel brewing system salvaged from the defunct Tucker (Salem IN) and Silver Creek (Sellersburg) breweries, NABC began brewing. The original kit at 3312 Plaza Drive remains in use, and as of 2023, NABC is Indiana’s 9th-oldest brewery in terms of continuous operation.

Meanwhile, by 1995 the entire building at 3312 Plaza Drive was under our control. We’d long since incorporated a small office suite into pub seating, then annexed the former lobby area. The remaining wing of the building became the Prost! events and meeting area (it now functions as NABC’s arcade), while offices to the rear became the company’s nerve center.

Much later in 2007, in preparation for NABC’s expansion to a second location, customers at the Grant Line Road location were encouraged to begin thinking of Sportstime Pizza and Rich O’s Public House as one combined unit called NABC Pizzeria & Public House.

The old-timers still don’t, won’t, or can’t think this way, and that’s understandable. People call it what they did upon their first experience, and most other people understand the anarchic shorthand that customarily ensues.

And then:

2008: Renovation work began at the former “day old bread store” at 415 Bank Street in downtown New Albany, prospective site of NABC’s Bank Street Brewhouse. As the build-out progressed, the first Fringe Fest (an artsy alternative to the city’s annual Harvest Homecoming festival) was held in October.

2009: Bank Street Brewhouse (billed as a gastro-brewpub) debuted in March, at first serving NABC beers brewed at the Pizzeria & Public House. The new DME brewery (15 barrel hot side, 4 x 30-bbl fermenters) at Bank Street Brewhouse opened in August, and distribution in kegs to Southern Indiana and Louisville began later in the autumn.

2014: In May, after five years of critical acclaim but sadly limited profitability, the Bank Street Brewhouse kitchen was shuttered. For a time, BSB joined forces with Taco Punk on weekends. Later the food service component became Earth Friends Café, and after that, Taco Steve.

2015: I ran for mayor of New Albany (and lost), first announcing a sabbatical from NABC, then concluding it was time for me to move on from the business. I remained a co-owner “without portfolio” until February of 2018, when the buyout process finally concluded.

2015 – 2019: My soon-to-be-former partners continued as before at the original NABC location at Grant Line Road as well as downtown at Bank Street Brewhouse. In 2019 they sold the brewing system to Louisville’s Monnik Beer Company, which assumed the lease and opened in January 2021 after the worst of the pandemic was past.

Monnik closed in September 2022, and the site awaits its next tenants as I write in the summer of 2023.

For the moment, we’ll return to the spring and early summer of 1990. I’d gone back to package store employment at the relocated Scoreboard Liquors, and also picked up some hours substitute teaching. In my spare time I helped with the evolving beer program at Rich O’s, now being operated by Amy O’Connell, and filled an occasional shift at Sportstime. The FOSSILS club was launched in September.

I might have gone into the food and drink business full-time at this point, save for an unexpected opportunity that held out the prospect of delaying adulthood just a little bit longer (always a priority in my world). Consequently, for six months during 1991-92, I worked as a conversational English instructor in Košice, Czechoslovakia (today it’s situated in independent Slovakia).

This proved to be my last lengthy excursion to Europe, to be followed by full immersion in the Public House endeavor, and my first marriage, as well as the adulthood I’d worked so hard to forestall. For me the teaching gig was a genuine bucket list achievement, one that requires a proper explanation.

And that’s coming next, in Part 27.

Sportstime Pizza, circa 1988. It did not change very much for a long time.


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