Wilmington’s ‘Famous’ tavern owner reflects on 35 years in the bar biz
According to a July 2017 report released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.6 million American workers were holding down multiple jobs, up 2 percent from midway through 2016. The numbers vary between those with full-time gigs and one or two side jobs and those with two and three part-time jobs.
Paul Ogden can beat those numbers handily. At 57 years of age, the Wilmington native currently runs eight bars, part of an incredible total of 33 establishments he’s owned or operated (or both) over nearly three-and-a-half decades. Some of New Castle County’s most popular bars (and most “Famous” taverns) have been successful under Ogden’s guiding hand, and that includes the recently opened Rockford Tavern, which Ogden reclaimed from the short-lived Halligan Bar.
On a recent—and rare—night off, Ogden swigged a Miller Lite at his new establishment, which occupies a cozy spot on Lovering Avenue, and reflected on his affinity for bars. “I love being here like I love being at all my establishments over the years, because I get to see so many employees and customers that have really become my extended family. This is probably my favorite spot right now, but mostly because I live just up the street and usually make Rockford my home base.”
Rockford Tavern features a new bar design—the standard style, with 17 seats, as opposed to the awkward, multi-sided rendition of the past—as well as high-top tables made from reclaimed shuffleboard tables and better sightlines for the many TVs and new stage that can accommodate six-piece bands. For Ogden, it’s just another watering hole in his long line of establishments that stretches back to 1982.
That was the year the Wilmington native began his journey in the bar biz, shortly after dropping out of the University of Delaware. Ogden first ran the Logan House for the Kelly family, and then opened his first solo project—aptly named Logan’s Run—on Maryland Avenue. He even used to bus people to and from both establishments, as a way to boost revenue and popularity.
“From the moment I started running bars, I was in up to my ears,” Ogden says. “I did everything at the Logan House—managed, tended bar, cleaned toilets—and basically had the same role at Logan’s Run. But y’know, I loved every minute of it. It was just the right career path for me. When I look back at all the places I’ve run over the years, the good times everyone had just make me smile.”
A Policeman’s Son
The son of a former Wilmington police officer—and fourth of five brothers —Ogden stayed close to his roots in the city, opening classic haunts like Legends and Bottlecaps, as well as his beloved Stuffed Shirts (currently the Washington Street Ale House). The last of those three holds the fondest of memories for him.
“It’s hard to pick my favorite bar, but if I had to, I’d go with Stuffed Shirts,” says Ogden. “You just always got the sense in that place that everyone was friends, because it had such a great neighborhood vibe to it. Heck, I made some long-lasting friendships in that place, and have even attended weddings of some former employees.”
One example: John “Howdy” Hudson, who was working the bar during a packed Halloween Loop back in 1991. It was on that night, while serving hundreds of locals, that one young girl, Georgia Shafer, stood out. She walked in without a costume, and Hudson called her out playfully, which led to conversation. Today, the two have been happily married for 22 years.
“We poured more drinks in that place per square foot than any bar in Delaware —I’m certain of it,” says Hudson, who now lives in Siesta Key, Fla. “But she comes walking in with no costume on—she had just gotten back from Hawaii—and she’s absolutely stunning. I couldn’t help but strike up a quick chat with her—after I served her a free beer, I’m sure—and we met up the next night at Legends.”
Hudson says his story is not unique. “I guarantee you we’re not the only couple that fell in love under Paul’s watch,” he says. “Stuffed Shirts was a blast, and Paul had a knack for repeating that type of fun atmosphere at all of his places. I’ll bet a lot of guys and gals met at his spots, and then got married down the line.”
Marketer Par Excellence
Ogden sees himself as more of a marketer than a bar owner or operator, and in 2008, he had one of his better marketing ideas when he opened the first of his many “Famous” taverns—Famous Jack’s—on Naamans Road. Ogden’s hook to get folks in the door was spawned by the economic downturn and rising gas prices.
“We actually started the $3 everything when I owned Bar 317 on 4th Street in Wilmington, and the tagline—‘Our pints are cheaper than gas’—worked pretty well,” says Ogden. “Once we started up the Famous franchise, we used it at every place and packed ‘em in. We’ve moved away from it a bit—now most beer is still $3, but wine, liquor and the good craft beers are $4. No matter what, they’re still some of the cheapest prices around.”
The same prices apply at Rockford Tavern, despite it not being one of Ogden’s seven “Famous” taverns: Joe’s, Pat’s, Tom’s, Bob’s, John’s, Tim’s and Buck’s. Drew Rivas tends bar at Rockford a few nights a week and is also responsible for the architectural updates. Rivas, who’s been working for Ogden almost as long as Ogden has been in business, says his boss’s easygoing personality and willingness to listen are keys to his success.
“You always know where you stand with Paul; he’s a real straight shooter and has some really simple rules to follow,” says Rivas. “He jokes that he’s been married to me longer than his own wife, and I guess it’s kinda true. But aside from being an honest businessman, he’s always willing to listen to the opinions of others, whether it’s employees or customers.”
Ogden’s wife, Lisa, and son Jack, 14, aren’t interested in participating in his business endeavors, and that’s fine with all three. As Ogden puts it, “My wife is the smart one, and my son has already made it clear where he stands on taking over, saying, ‘Dad, I’m not built for this.’ He’ll probably wind up being an attorney, like his mom.”
Ogden deflects credit for his long and still flourishing career. “I’ve said it time and again, but I’m really only successful because of my patrons and my employees,” he says. “They have always pointed me in the right direction and kept me on track.”
Whether that track includes more taverns is yet to be determined, but either way, Paul Ogden has certainly made himself into one of Delaware’s most famous bar owners.