WAPAKONETA — A 124-year-old cafe in downtown Wapakoneta is steeped in such a rich history that it could have its own exhibit in a museum.
Alpha Cafe, a restaurant and bar located at 7 E. Auglaize St., is a Wapakoneta landmark that opened in 1893. It was originally located across the street, but it was relocated in 1962 when the building’s owner decided to expand an adjacent bank.
Though it’s not in the original building, much of the decor and memorabilia was transferred during the move.
The back bar, which was built the same year the cafe opened, is 24 feet long and is made of hand carved white oak. The wall on the opposite side of the bar is lined with a matching 8-foot tall wainscoting with arched mirrors and the same intricate carvings. A 6-foot wide, 10-foot tall liquor cabinet with glass sliding doors and narrow pillars sits in the basement, no longer in use. Each piece was part of the same bar set that was built in the late 1800s.
The walls are decorated with pictures and other items from the early to mid-1900s. An Alpha Cafe menu from the late 1930s hangs across from the bar, and photos of basketball teams from the late 1920s and 30s that the establishment sponsored can be seen throughout the building’s interior. Even the neon sign out front is 82 years old.
Owner Tony Steinke also has a personal collection of memorabilia that has been passed down from his grandfather and former owner Bill Gutmann, as well as previous owners.
“I’ve got stir sticks, bottle openers, key chains, salt and pepper shakers, an old leather coin pouch from the early 1900s and some original drink tokens from the original owners,” Steinke said. “I’ve also got a piece of metal that you can spin and it says, ‘you buy,’ and whoever it ended on would buy the next round of drinks.”
The original owners of Alpha Cafe were Jake Wentz and Peck Heisler, who owned the bar for a few years before selling it to Joe Miller in 1912. Gutmann started working there in 1938, and soon became a part owner. He became the sole owner in 1969, and ran the cafe for several decades before selling it to Steinke. The current owner said it is also rumored that the infamous Dillinger Gang tried to buy the bar when it was in its old location.
“It’s been in continuous operation for the last 124 years,” Steinke said of the cafe. “It didn’t even shut down during Prohibition. During that time it became a ‘food establishment,’ and before that it was a men’s only place. I’m sure it was a speakeasy, so you could go in the back room or upstairs and get your drinks, just like a lot of the places did.”
One of the other items the original owners passed down was a recipe for a Tom and Jerry mixed drink that is sold exclusively in November and December.
“The recipe is a secret, so before I bought the bar I had no idea what was in it,” Steinke said. “When I bought the bar, my grandpa held the recipe for a couple weeks to make sure the check cleared.”
A Tom and Jerry is a hot, alcoholic drink that is served in a coffee cup. Steinke described it as “sweet, spicy and frothy.”
“We have people who never go into a bar any other time of year that come in here from Thanksgiving night when we start serving it until the last Saturday in December, just to get a Tom and Jerry,” he said.
That has made Alpha Cafe a popular destination for local families and those who come back to Wapakoneta for the holiday season, Steinke said.
“It’s one of those places where everybody meets up at,” he said. “People want to meet up with old friends and family, have a Tom and Jerry and eat some great food. They know when they come here they’ll have a good time.”
The cafe’s popularity among local residents and out-of-towners, along with its rich history and family connection, are a source of pride for Steinke, who said he would have never owned a bar if it hadn’t been for his grandfather.
“Grandpa lived for another 15 months after he sold it to me, so he was able to see the bar stay in the family and that made him happy,” Steinke said. “It’s the family history that makes it so important to him and to me.”
Reach John Bush at 567-242-0456 or on Twitter @Bush_Lima.