Despite humble beginnings, the gay bar is a staple on the South Side
In the 1986 comedy “The Money Pit,” Tom Hanks and Shelley Long portray a young couple who purchase a fixer-upper mansion. The two quickly realize the financial, emotional and physical cost of repairing the property — a bathtub falling through the floor is just one of many disasters — is more than they bargained for.
Bill Belig, Connie Hukill and Val Thogmartin likened their experience opening up the LGBTQ-friendly Southbend Tavern about seven years ago to the film.
“On the first day that we bought it, [we found out] the person who had owned it before us had not been paying his sales tax for over a year,” Thogmartin said. “He had bounced checks to all of the beer companies [and] the liquor store that we get our liquor from, so we had to mend fences with everybody.”
“Not only did the guy not pay the sales tax, he had the gas shut off,” Hukill added. With no hot water, the resourceful new owners purchased four coffeemakers to heat up water to wash dishes.
As if that weren't enough trouble, they discovered a water leak, not to mention the problems with their ice machine, which was located outside. “In the wintertime it would get covered with ice and we'd have to beat it,” Hukill said.
But over time the trio found their groove and built a clientele, beginning with patrons who stayed around to support Hukill, who tended bar for several years prior to buying the establishment. They also hired loyal employees.
“We've had the same staff since we got here,” Thogmartin said. “They treat everybody like family.”
Additionally, the owners developed an impressive lineup of entertainment and activities. There is an open mic night, comedy night, game night and a euchre night that packs a large crowd into eight tables. In addition to bringing in performers on the weekends, the bar hosts a whopping five pageants: Ms. Southbend, Mr. Southbend, Mr. Southbend King, Ms. Southbend Newcomer and Miss Southbend Classic. And the place puts on too many benefits to count.
Belig and Thogmartin agree that Hukill is the “heart” of Southbend Tavern, and she's also arguably the face. Customers come in on Thursday for her famous blended drinks, and she has a blog, “Connie's Corner,” on the bar's website. But Hukill is modest about her status. “I just know a lot of people,” she said. “I've been bartending since the early '70s.”
Hukill also helps prepare food for the bar's holiday potlucks. This past Thanksgiving, Southbend had a 22-foot table spread. It was a success, despite a slight mishap; at one point, the roasters blew a fuse or two.
“We made it through,” Hukill said.