She’s always had a plan. It hasn’t always been the same plan, but her steps consistently have been in the direction of a vision that involved what she would become when she grew up.
Angie Szalay has, since her teenage years, been faithful to her day planner, jotting down her goals, appointments – even her wardrobe – because she’s long believed organization would be the key to finding her path. Now, at the age of 41, she realizes that through her mistakes, failed adventures, and poor decisions, it was her roots that would finally guide her to where she finds herself today.
“That was my thing. I couldn’t figure it out,” Szalay admitted. “What was I going to be? That’s a question I started asking myself back in high school, and I took that question to college with me because I still didn’t know.
“I studied psychology at West Liberty and West Virginia Northern Community College because I thought that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “I got jobs with Russell Nesbitt and Northwood working with their clients, and it’s great that the people do that kind of work, but it was hard. It was difficult for me, and that taught me that it wasn’t the field for me. But it didn’t take me too long to realize I could make way more money slinging beer.”
Her grandparents had long been in the food service business. Her grandmother opened Rosie’s Bar on North Main Street – the current location of Down on Main Street – once she and her husband arrived to America. Her grandfather served as the head chef at both the Fort Henry Club and the Belmont Hills Country Club.
“My parents, though, didn’t go in that direction. Instead, my father retired from OVRTA after serving in the Air Force, and my mother retired from Comcast after working there since the days it was WACO Cable,” Szalay explained. “But when my grandparents came to America from Budapest, they didn’t know English – not one word – but that didn’t stop them. They learned, and I have a lot of memories of visiting them and enjoying that atmosphere.”
So, following her brief stints at Russell Nesbitt and Northwood, she followed in their footsteps by working at Caponze, and then Peach’s.
“But that’s when I started thinking I wanted to be a massage therapist,” she said. “I started looking into it, and I found a school up near Pittsburgh. So I enrolled and commuted believing that a career in that field was a good place for me to be as an adult. For whatever reason, working in a bar serving beer after beer wasn’t being an adult in my mind. Not at that time anyway.
“But the schools in Pennsylvania were still trying to get accredited. They had guaranteed it would happen, though, so off I went,” Szylay said. “And then one day some official came into the classroom and said the accreditation didn’t come through like they thought it would.
“I remember my first thought was, ‘Well, that just got shot in the butt.’ It was a great experience, though, but at the end of the day I think I really knew what I wanted to do. I just couldn’t figure out how it was going to happen,” she continued. “I started working in the food business when I was 15 as a short-order cook in a bowling alley, and then worked at the two bars so I decided to return to Wheeling and look for another bartending gig.”
The 1991 graduate of Wheeling Park High School landed at Uncle Pete’s in North Wheeling, and she remained there until she was invited to lunch by Allen Kage, the owner of the popular 19th Hole Bar on National Road.
“I remember that Al took me to lunch at Zein’s, and he wrote his offer on a guest check and pushed it at me. He didn’t say a lot, but he wrote down what my hours would be and how much I would get paid. For whatever reasons he wanted me to be his manager, and I took the job,” Szalay recalled. “But then as the years passed, I started thinking about not having any retirement plans or a savings account like most adults do.
“So yes, that’s when I started thinking about growing up again,” she said. “Now, a lot of people don’t realize that in this business as a bartender you make damn good money if you’re working at the right place. You’re making more money than most people who walk into the place where you’re working, but the more money you make, the more money you spend. So when I should have been saving, saving, saving, I was spending it all.”
Twelve years later, on the morning of Dec. 20, 2011, Szalay received a phone call that changed her life forever. Kage, at the age of 43, had passed away in his sleep. His memorial service was at the bar three days later, and Allen’s widow, Katey, offered to sell the business to her husband’s longtime manager soon after the ceremony.
“Although I was sadder then than I had ever been, I think it finally came into focus. What I was supposed to do. That’s when I finally figured it out,” Szalay recalled. “And today I love being the owner of the 19th Hole because this is a staple in our city. What Al created is something I want to maintain and make better over time. Ya know, if it’s not broke, why try to fix it, right? But I have made some changes over the last two years. At first, I had a lot of plans and drawings of what I thought I wanted to do, but then after I bought the bar, I realized, shit, I have a lot of bills to pay. So the changes I have made have been gradual, and thanks to those changes we now sell more food than we have ever sold since I started here nearly 15 years ago.
“And now I am constantly looking at little changes that we can make so it’s a better experience for the customer. It’s all about preparation and communication. I’ve worked with a lot of these folks for a long time, and I think some of them are still trying to get used to the fact that I am now the owner and not just the manager.”
Szalay has remained hands-on, but she admits owning and managing are two very different roles in the operation of such a business. She’s learned her lessons and has made costly mistakes along the way, but for the first time in her life her path seems clearer than ever.
“I admit it; at first I thought it was a no brainer to buy this place because I had managed the bar for more than 12 years before I bought it, but then I thought, “Holy crap!’ There was so much more than what I expected,” Szalay admitted. “It’s been daunting, and I’ve been learning the whole time.
“My friend Leslie Antonik has been one hell of a mentor for me; she’s taught me so much about knowing what to expect and what not to expect,” she continued. “Jeff Yourkovich has been a great friend and an awesome accountant. He’s been wonderful. And honestly, I can’t say enough about my employees.”
Andi Marshall is the manager, and Amy Butler, the assistant manager. John Cunningham is the head cook, and Dustin Schrump and Denver Criss man the busy kitchen, too. Kristen McConn, Bethany Crumpler, Chastity Anderson, Kristin Niggemeyer, and Sheila Watson serve up the beverages while John Wehrle and Dan Olack are in charge of the door.
And Szalay arrives at work each morning by 7:30 a.m., and she handles everything from daily deliveries to piles of paperwork. When staffing deems it necessary, she jumps behind the bar to tend to customers and also straps on an apron to cook in the kitchen. But she also learned valuable lessons from the ways Kage operated the eatery.
“I’ve been trying not to micro-manage because I don’t want to be the kind of boss that sits here and watches everything they do. I have enough to do on my own,” Szalay explained. “When Al was here and he’d pull into the parking lot, if you weren’t doing anything, you found something because that’s the way he was.
“But I don’t want my employees to be afraid of me, and I want them to love working here. At the same time, they have to do their jobs so that overall goal is met,” she said. “And I’m very lucky because I have a great staff, and many of them have been here for several years. We’re all very close, and I really want it to stay that way.
“Al was a great friend, and I loved him, but he was always here – morning, day, and night – and I think that weighed him so much that it really hurt him,” Szalay continued. “I don’t want to go about this that way. I want to live a long life, and I want to enjoy this. I always want to enjoy coming here and doing the work and then living my life outside of here.”
Kage, though, continues to oversee the operation of the business he founded in 1998. The urn holding his remains was hidden by his widow above the dropped ceiling. Soon after the surprising discovery, Szalay framed it along with a photo of the two that was taken soon after her first day as manager.
“Ya know, I had a feeling he was here with me, but I didn’t know he was literally here with me,” Szalay said. “It is awesome to be able to be here and have that urn up there to look at from time to time. That brings me back down. It brings me back to reality. It makes me remember the big picture.
“But it was the weirdest thing, though, when we found him. It was a total shocker,” she said. “Some of the people had heard a rumor about it, but I hadn’t. And then we were doing some work in the ceiling, and there he was. I didn’t know that his widow had placed him there, but it’s the perfect place for him. I think that’s where he would want to be.”
Her parents, Chuck and Patty Szalay, are her best friends and her rock, and both of them help clean the establishment four days per week, but another important lesson Szalay has learned during the past two-plus years concerns allies and enemies.
“My parents are the best parents anyone could ever hope for, but one thing you most definitely learn when you buy a business is who your friends really are. You learn who will stand by you and who will walk away from you,” she continued. “My skin isn’t that thick, and I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, and I know that. It took me a little while to realize that it wasn’t me who was doing anything wrong. All I have been doing is working very hard to make this business as successful as it can be.
“There have been times since I bought the bar when I would walk in here, and the place would be packed, and that would make me emotional. I would think, ‘Oh my God, this is my bar and people love coming here.’ That means everything to me. It’s scary and stressful and it’s awesome. It pisses you off, and it makes you the happiest you have ever been in your life. You feel accomplished, and it’s also peaceful for me because I now know what I’m going to be when I grow up. Through everything I really never saw myself as a business owner, and it’s still a little weird for me when I say it. But here I am, and I love my life.”