NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – If each pub in the city has a distinct personality, the Ale ‘n ‘Wich has always been your best drinking buddy, your favorite uncle and your happy-to-see-you dog rolled into one.
It has been a local landmark inviting hippies and hipsters to knock back some cold ones, and artists and musicians to play some pool since 1974.
If you’re from another country, if you’re a member of the LGBTQ community, if you are a Rutgers student – or all three – this exposed brick and rolled-steel ceiling pub at 246 Hamilton St. has always had a barstool open for you.
“But now with the six tables in the bar, no stools at the bar - even with the lighting and the most personable bartender behind the bar, it's cold,” said the Ale ‘n ‘Wich owner, known to customers as Robert Wich.
Cold and mostly empty.
The Ale ‘n ‘Wich closed when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March. It reopened when indoor dining restrictions were relaxed and some limited outdoor dining was permitted in June. It has since struggled to draw a crowd even as it continues to adhere to social distancing and other safety guidelines.
Wich thought he was in good shape to ride it out, but his reserves have dried up, and he’s been forced to cut back on operating hours, inventory and work staff just to stay afloat.
And as much as his heart yearns to return to the days when the place was packed with happy people, he’ll tell you that the employees at the Ale ‘n ‘Wich – the loyal ones who have stayed on – have been hardest hit.
That’s why he recently launched a GoFundMe page.
Simply put, Wich is looking to raise enough to pay his 10 employees for about six months and give them a little something as a Christmas bonus.
“It's not an operating expense, but in reality, payroll is an operating expense,” he said. “But what I mean is I'm not using it to pay utilities or the mortgage or anything like that. I've got that covered. My people are so good, so dedicated. Nobody complained when we started cutting hours down and moving everybody around. I want to be able to pay them and throw them something as a bonus.”
The Ale ‘n ‘Wich has seen it all since it was built in 1907 and served as a tailor’s shop. It has survived Prohibition, The Great Depression and a fierce windstorm that blew the sign down (Robert enlisted the help of a Mason Gross student to help repair it).
Jerry Garcia is said to have stopped in one night, and members of the Smithereens and Phish frequented the place. A couple of Rutgers kids named James Gandolfini and Mario Batali would take breaks from studying to pop in.
Robert started off as a patron, stopping in when he was dating a girl from Rutgers who ended up becoming his wife. He needed a job at one point, so the then owner offered him one manning the door.
He loved the vibe at the Ale ‘n ‘Wich so much, he dropped out of the banking business in the early 2000s to run the place.
Over the years, the employees have been like family to him. He’s had them over his house for summer barbecues and thrown Christmas parties for the staff. He’s been known to reach into his own pocket during their times of need.
This holiday season, he’s hoping to get a little help through the GoFundMe page.
And he’s hoping that he can hang on until the pandemic passes and the bar is full again.
“I'm waiting for the wolves to start knocking on the door, ‘Hey, we want to buy your bar’ and then offering you 50%,” he said.