By Derrick McKee
As you sit at one of the high-top tables circling the bar with your burger and beer-battered fries or walk across the new causeway to the outdoor patio overlooking Big Wheeling Creek, you might not know that the building you are in has harbored over a century of various successful businesses for one local family; though if you spend enough time looking at the pictures adorning the walls and notice the building’s outer facade, you’ll realize that as many things change, others remain the same.
Since 1914, at the foot of Wheeling Hill in Fulton, a Duplaga family business has been a constant. Its current iteration is the appropriately named Generations Restaurant and Pub, but it originally stood as Stanley Duplaga’s I.G.A. — a neighborhood market serving the Fulton community. Michael Duplaga Sr. purchased the business and building from his father in the 1960s, and the business morphed into the Swing Club which became famous for live music, especially amongst the area’s Polish community. Bobby Vitton, a polka legend, would come to the Swing Club for concerts, and with him came busloads of fans shipped down from “Little Washington” and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
As the times changed, so did the business. Michael “Butch” Duplaga Jr. recognized that jazz and live music clubs were declining in popularity, and younger patrons instead wanted to work up a sweat on the floor. So, he purchased the Swing Club from his father and transformed it into a night/dance club in the 1980s. His hand held steady until 1998, when his son, Michael Duplaga III and his family moved home to Wheeling from Elkins. Upon arrival, Mike continued on the family tradition; he purchased the family business from his old man.
Mike immediately closed the Swing Club located at street-level and went to work on the building’s little-used basement. He quickly transformed the space into a restaurant, appropriately named Generations, saving as much of the rustic pillars and woodwork as possible while ensuring that the space was clean, modern, and inviting.
“We don’t get a lot of people just passing by down here in Fulton,” confessed Mike. “So, we’ve worked hard to make it a destination of sorts so that when people go out of their way to visit Generations, it’s worth it.”
Although Mike had little restaurant experience himself, he proved to be a natural as Generations proved to be a hit. Within a few years, Mike needed to take on renovation number two, turning a little-used portion of the basement into the larger kitchen and service area that feeds the beast today. His next step was to renovate the old upstairs Swing Club into a modern banquet and gathering hall for wedding receptions, concerts, and business meetings. Shortly thereafter, Mike pulled the trigger on his biggest expansion yet, where the downstairs restaurant saw its space more than double into the grand hall it is today.
Never one to be satisfied, Mike added on a deck and outdoor stage in 2007, and an outdoor seating pavilion overlooking the creek in 2014. Currently, he has plans to expand his dining hall out over the current deck later this year so that bar patrons have more space to mingle and dance on packed Friday and Saturday nights.
What’s led to Generations’ resounding success? That’s what I was determined to find out. With a very specific mantra in mind, Generations has aimed for a sweet spot in Wheeling’s culinary field.
“I don’t believe in reinventing the wheel. I believe in keeping things simpl and in making sure that the quality of the food you serve is always there. Most importantly, you have to look to see what works and what doesn’t at other restaurants in and outside the area in order to make sure yours can appeal to as large a market as it can without sacrificing quality. That’s the sweet spot. But, at the end of the day, if I don’t like the food or don’t think it tastes as good as it can or wouldn’t want to eat it after knowing where it is sourced from, it’s not going on the menu,” admitted Mike.
While I always knew that Generations served up reliable and tasty pub fare, I didn’t realize just how local and fresh they are.
“Our steaks and pork chops are cut fresh from Jacob & Sons in Martins Ferry multiple times a week. Our vegetables come from Jebbia’s, our pies come from Oliver’s, and our hand-breaded cod is our own recipe. While we have to freeze it in order to keep the batter on during frying, it isn’t some out-of-the-box fish filet off the frozen delivery truck. We make and grill our own burgers by hand and marinate those chicken breasts for cooking every single day.”
Impressive, but what about one of Generations’ most loved items: the beer-battered fries?
“Those are delivered. We tried to cut our own fries once to keep everything as fresh and prepared here as possible — not to mention cutting your own is more profitable — but there was a revolt. People complained and wanted their beer-battered fries back, so we brought ’em back to stay.”
Listening to its customers is one of the reasons why Generations is able to pull off the amazing feat of staying current through the years.
“Like I said before, we have to give people a reason to come down this way, so we’re always looking for a way to either stand out slightly through our food or our events we put on.”
Over the years that has meant throwing concerts that featured current-day monster acts such as Eric Church, Luke Bryan, and even a young John Mayer, to local favorites such as The Clarks, Katie Orlofsky, Hit Play, and Radio Tokyo. Even yours truly has thrown an album release concert or two at the site.
Generations has also been known to test out the stand-up comedy and live-band karaoke markets in Wheeling from time to time, but they always have food specials every night of the week.
“Meat Platter Mondays feature steak and pork chop specials. Wing / Perogie Wednesdays and Burger Nights on Thursdays have been successful, but nothing has been as big a success during the week as Team Trivia,” Mike said with a smile. “Tuesdays were dead; now they’re packed week-in and week-out for three consecutive years. If you play and order a pitcher of beer, you get a free pizza. Trivia winners get gift certificates.”
I can verify the success of Trivia Tuesday as fact, as my team, Domination Station, has qualified for both the state and national tournaments competing for hefty cash prizes two years running. While cities like Morgantown and Charleston may host trivia several nights a week, no single game has grown as large or successful as the one found in the Friendly City, per the event’s host, Jon Banco.
“I give a lot of credit to my staff, and in particular to my manager, Matt Benson. He’s kept an eye out, not just for entertainment, but for excellent beers to put on tap or in the fridge. He’s a craft drinker, so he knows what will resonate with the younger generation of beer drinkers who want to constantly try new and different brews. If it resonates with Matt, chances are its going to resonate with the 21 to 35 crowd.”
As Mike humbly celebrates over a century of his namesake’s success, I asked him where he sees this going from here.
“I want to see it grow, but I want to see it stay the course. We’re a casual, family friendly restaurant that offers slightly upscale pub fare. We want to continue to emphasize entertainment, and we want to continue to figure out what our market wants so that we can serve it to them.”
That’s not to say Mike won’t take a risk every now and then and introduce something entirely new to the market. Like any good businessman, he didn’t commit on the spot, but you should have seen how his eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas morning when I described the gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches Cleveland is currently making famous at places like Melt and B-Spot. If I can get Mike to bite into one, all I can say is start doing your jumping jacks, people.
“We’re in a position now where we can try new things and see if it works. We had a trying time when all the chains first opened up at the Highlands in 2006, but we’ve made it through that and are going strong.”
Perseverance through the hard times, with a bright outlook on the future? How very Wheeling.
Cheers, Duplagas! Here’s to another hundred.