Business Editor MIKE KONZ Hub
KEARNEY – First the bad news.
Owner Jim Gardner will close Kearney’s popular Old Chicago Pizza and Taproom on October 2.
Gardner will remodel the building, and in February he will reopen the location at 115 Second Ave. under the name Nebraska Ale Works.
He describes his plan for Nebraska Ale Works as “a bit of this, a bit of that and a bit of the other.” It is our own concept.
As the name suggests, Nebraska Ale Works will feature local beers. Gardner said he was confident any selections brewed in the region would enhance the appeal of the Ale Works menu, which will feature local foods and recipes.
“We’re excited about this,” Gardner said Friday.
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He has been involved with many restaurants in Nebraska and the Midwest. Any history of the restaurant scene in South Kearney would include references to Gardner. He got into the industry as a dishwasher, and at age 23, he bought the old Country Kitchen at 407 Second Ave. for $450,000 in 1979. Later the place was reborn as Whiskey Creek.
Of all the places he has owned or operated in his 47 years of restaurant ownership, he said Whiskey Creek remains his favorite. The dining room has never changed or been renovated, and many Gardner guests in the Midwest plan vacations around a stop at the wood-fired restaurant.
Whiskey Creek will play a role in the launch of Nebraska Ale Works.
Gardner said he recently informed staff at Old Chicago of the closure and renovation plans. He said some of the Old Chicago staff will temporarily be absorbed into the Whiskey Creek operation, and when the new facility opens in February they will become Nebraska Ale Works staff.
Whiskey Creek will also serve as a temporary depot for Old Chicago’s large pewter beer mugs. Members of Old Chicago’s World Beer Tour will be able to refill their mugs at Whiskey Creek “for the price of a pint,” Gardner said.
The 66-year-old Gardner said impending retirement was part of his plans for Nebraska Ale Works.
It was time to renew the franchise for Old Chicago, but he was ready for a change, so he brought on a partner, restaurant veteran Robby Yendra, to run the Ale Works. Gardner trusts Yendra, who is from Kearney. Among his accomplishments, he managed Lincoln’s premier Famous Dave’s barbecue restaurant. For the past five years, he has worked for Kearney-based Pepper Jax Grill, Gardner said.
“I have great confidence in all my guys and girls who work with me. It’s really important to be around people I trust,” he said.
Gardner was just 15 when he became a dishwasher, but his restaurant experience began earlier than that. Gardner grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and sold hot chocolate in the shadow of Metropolitan Stadium, former home of the Minnesota Twins of MLB and the Minnesota Vikings of the NFL.
“That’s where they built the Mall of America. If you go there, they still have home plate where it was at the stadium,” Gardner said.