The lunchtime crowd has left, and John Woermer is behind the bar washing glasses.
Woermer’s presence at the Old Corner Cafe in Naugatuck is as connected to the 98-yearold, one-room tavern as the tin ceiling and broad picture window.
The trim, smiling borough native with the calm focus of a diamond cutter was 30 when, after working for a Ford dealership, he bought the North Main Street bar. That was in April 1972, when Schaefer, Reingold and Ballentine Ale were on tap; you needed only to be 18 to drink; and smoking was allowed.
This week, the 68-year-old Woermer will pull his last draft as owner of the Old Corner. He has sold the bar to another local businessman.
“It’s been a good ride,” he says, relaxed in the nearly empty establishment that is bathed in golden afternoon light. “I’ll miss the people. This is my kingdom.”
When he bought the bar, John Woermer had bar-owning in his blood, if not on his resume. His great grandfather, Johan Wilhelm Woermer, owned a music hall in Hamburg, Germany, that served beer, he said.
But Woermer was a truck manager with Sabelle Ford in Thomaston when he made the decision to reconnect his family name to the world of barrooms. He was bringing a new taillight to a Naugatuck customer who wanted to meet him at Behlman’s, a German Tavern. There, Woermer met Fred Behlman, the owner.
“I said I liked the place and he asked if I wanted to buy it,” Woermer recalls. “I said, ‘I think I can do this.’”
By all accounts, it was a rather smooth transition. “I’ve never run up against a wall and said what the heck am I doing this for,” Woermer says.
Original 1911 bar
Woermer introduced food to the bar, replaced the black-and-white television set with color, and started giving it the Irish flair associated with his mother’s side of the family.
Over the years, little has changed about the bar, which still has its original 1911 bar, mirror and even tall, white urinals.
The Old Corner, as he renamed it, has become a family business, with his children and grandchildren taking part in different parts of the operation. “My kids learned how to handle people young and old and then they got the best jobs,” he says. “They could handle money and people. As soon as they could, the kids have been in here, cleaning tables, washing dishes. It’s amazing how a 6-year-old will love washing glasses. You can’t get them to do it when they get older, but they love it when they’re six.”
Since his staff has primarily been made up of part-timers, it’s fallen to Woermer to open and close. “Before, I could get up and work early in the morning, take a break then work late into the night,” he says. “Now I get tired.”
Woermer’s grandson, Chris Fellows, works as a bartender on Monday nights. A recent graduate of the University of Connecticut, the 23-year-old says he’s learned plenty about life from working at the Old Corner.
“I’ve learned patience,” Fellows says, standing next to his grandfather behind the bar. “I’ve learned how to deal with people. Any situation can turn into a good situation.”
Woermer smiles, and says, “What do I always say? ‘If that’s the worst thing that will happen to you today, you’re doing all right.’” Fellows nods. “For a lot of people this is a safe haven,” he says. “No matter how hard of a day they are having, there’s always someone here to listen, someone to talk to.”
Particular with the help
Talking to the customer is a key to any bar owner’s success, Woermer stresses. That means choosing the right people to trust as employees. “I was always particular with the help,” Woermer says. “I’ve never allowed them to drink. We’ve gotten people rides home. If possible, when there’s trouble, you diffuse it. You always have to be on the ball, that’s the key.” This kind of restraint comes a little easier, perhaps, for Woermer, who neither drinks nor smokes.
He gets advice about the beers he serves, which include Belgian abbey ales and highend German lagers, but he says a sweet tooth prevents him from enjoying too much.
“I had my first beer in Germany last August,” he says, laughing. “My wife shot me a funny look when I ordered a beer. But I went there to toast my grandparents. I raised my glass and said, ‘Grandfather, grandmother, I’m here, wish me health.’ I had about three sips and I was done.”
Stay of execution
After pouring a tall German lager, Woermer recalls some of his most memorable customers. There was the elderly, dapper gentleman who was gently crying at the bar. “I asked him if there was anything I could do,” Woermer says. “I thought, maybe his wife had died or something. He said, ‘I just brought my dog, Fluffy, to the vet and told them to put her down, but I can’t go through with it.’ He handed me a piece of paper and told them to call off the execution! He came back 15 years later and introduced me to his daughter as the man who was kind to him.”
Woermer says he appreciated everyone who came into his bar, from football great Johnny Unitas, who had business interests in the area and stopped by the Old Corner at least four times, to judges and business owners and everyday laborers.
Stepping briefly away from the bar to the basement, Woermer returns with a plaque to reflect his feelings. “It’s one of my favorite quotes,” he says, and reads, “’The tavern is the cradle of American Liberty — Patrick Henry.’”
The legacy continues
Woermer will pass the legacy on to another gentleman who is new to the bar business: Eugene Ferreira, known locally as “Beany.” The former dry cleaning business owner says he loved coming to the bar ever since he was 18, which was 30 years ago.
“I’ve always liked the bar,” he says. “At one time I told Mr. Woermer that if he ever decided to sell, I’d like to buy. It’s come true.”
Ferreira says he isn’t changing the name, and any changes to the bar will come incrementally. “I’ll be learning the business and I’ll be doing it the same way as Mr. Woermer,” Ferreira says. “We’ll probably try to get in a good line of wines by the glass, and do some things to attract more women down there. But I’m just learning the industry. I’m one of those people who wants to learn everything right away.”
Woermer says his advice to the new owner is pretty simple. “You’ve got to work hard and talk to everybody. Keep the beer cold, the tables clean, and the food warm and you’re in.”
This column originally appeared in the Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American in June 2009.
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