PRAIRIETON, Ind. — It’s a beautiful summer evening along the Wabash River, one perfect for fishing or porch sitting, when people begin filing indoors at Prairieton’s lone night spot and one of the most unusual venues in Indiana.

The swelling audience at Joan & Yogi’s 1 Stop includes families with small children, middle-aged couples and old folks out by themselves. They are drawn here, to this roadhouse south of Terre Haute, by the $6.99 barbecue chicken special, the chance to share a few beers with friends and the irresistible allure of the spotlight on karaoke night.

“It’s like being at a birthday party,” said 56-year-old Doug Butrum, who will take a shot at a Glen Campbell tune before the night is over. “It’s that kind of atmosphere.”

Karaoke nights are plentiful across the state, and so are the watering holes hosting them. But what makes this one special is that it occurs in one of the few places in Indiana where you can get gas, grab some groceries, have a sit-down meal and leave with cold beer.

“I’m not the type of person who would know what to call an establishment like this,” Butrum said. “But it’s just a very cool place to be.”

Indiana has long been a state built on some essential truths — basketball is king, change is unwelcome, and you can’t get cold beer in a convenience store. But in March, the state’s political establishment convulsed when word came that the Ricker’s convenience store chain had introduced the sale of cold beer at stores in Columbus and Sheridan. Ricker’s managed the feat by offering prepared food on site and having the requisite number of seats to qualify for a restaurant permit, allowing it to sell cold beer.

Angry lawmakers said Ricker’s had distorted the spirit of the law by using a restaurant permit. They vowed to close the loophole. But what quickly became apparent was that the legal gap used by Ricker’s was already employed by a Country Mark convenience store near Evansville and at Joan & Yogi’s place.

The push to close the Ricker’s loophole looked like it might ensnare Joan and Yogi Pohlman’s enterprise. Long content to lay low, they were thrust into the middle of the alcohol wars.

“We got caught in the crossfire,” Joan Pohlman said.

Unintentional pioneers

The Pohlmans path to cold beer was a matter of ingenuity and survival.

Their low-slung building on Prairieton Road, also known as Ind. 63, had been a grocery store as far back as the 1920s. By 2007, though, it essentially had been abandoned.

“When we bought it,” Yogi said, “I wouldn’t let my dogs stay in here.”

He had intended to use it to sell fireworks but quickly found that people were more interested in groceries and cigarettes. Yogi remodeled and rewired the place and turned it into a convenience store. That worked well until a Dollar General opened nearby, posing an existential threat to their business.

To survive, Joan concluded their store had to offer something unique. It had to evolve into a restaurant first, a country store second. And it had to offer cold beer. They sacrificed some of the grocery space for the dining room. They added a dance floor and string lights. The put mirrors on the wall, Yogi said, because “women like to watch themselves dance.”

In 2012, the Pohlman’s acquired the permits to sell cold beer as a restaurant. And their business began to thrive. Over the years, Joan & Yogi’s has become a cornerstone of the Prairieton community, hosting fundraisers and doling out water to people affected by floods.

By the time the Ricker’s controversy erupted this spring, Joan & Yogi had been selling cold beer for five years. But the legislative upheaval suddenly put their business model in doubt. Uncertain about their future, they backed off planning some of their big charitable fundraising efforts.

Ultimately, lawmakers decided to allow Joan & Yogi — and the Country Mark near Evansville — to continue operating as they had. Ricker’s was less fortunate. Lawmakers crafted a bill to end its cold beer sales by next spring. That could change, however, if a plan to review the state’s tangled thicket of alcohol laws results in new rules about cold beer sales.

Different business models

The three businesses have cold beer sales in common, but their approaches differ.

Near Evansville, the Country Mark, also known as the Fishtail Food Mart and Cafe, is essentially a convenience store with a separate dining room for cold beer sales.

The only hot food on the premises — mostly fried chicken, fried fish, potato wedges, hamburgers and barbecue sandwiches — stays warm under heat lamps in the convenience store.

Ask for a beer and the clerk points you down a corridor to a dining room with seating for about 40 people. There, another clerk comes out with your beer in a bag, places it on a table and rings you up. Strangely, the beer is kept out of sight — in a windowless cooler. The only indication of what’s available is a menu of alcohol offerings left on the table in a blue folder.

The Ricker’s store in Sheridan, meanwhile, is a convenience store with a restaurant in the corner and seating for diners arrayed along windows and in a cluster of tables in the middle of the store. It’s a convenience store for the digital age, with touchscreen ordering of everything from coffee, movie rentals and burritos.

Easily visible behind the main cash register is a shelf of wines — Barefoot, Apothic, Korbel — and smaller packs of Sutter Home. Also visible is the second cooler of beers — maybe 20 varieties ranging from Amsted and Budweiser to Ultras and Yuengling.

Both of them contrast greatly with Joan & Yogi’s place, which essentially is a restaurant with a country store out front. While Ricker’s and the Country Mark have multiple islands of gas pumps, Joan & Yogi’s has one — a relic of a bygone era that has analog numbers that spin as you pump the gas.

Inside, there is a small store with a few aisles of chips and groceries, soft drink coolers, a glass case with cheese and lunch meats and phosphorescent Slush Puppies swirling in a tank. Behind the counter is a beer cooler with a glass door, and nearby, the opening to a bustling kitchen where Joan and her staff rustle up menu items, including the signature chicken and noodles, which sits atop two mounds of mashed potatoes.

The dining room, covered with mirrors behind the dance floor and a pool room off to one side, seems to go on to infinity. And indeed there’s a fenced in beer garden out back with room for 150 people.

“It’s just a friendly, neighborhood bar, restaurant, convenience store,” said Cheryl Belcher, a regular patron and fan of the Pohlmans. “They’ve built it up to be what it is.”

It is almost more than the Pohlmans can handle. Both in their late 50s, the couple are self-described workaholics. Yogi works full time in his family’s slaughterhouse. Joan runs food trucks at festivals and carnivals. And the roadhouse is a 7-day-a-week operation that’s left them running on fumes — and looking for a buyer.

“It’s been good,” Joan said, “but it’s more for a younger person who has a lot of energy and free time because it’s a lot of work to put into.”

Their plans to sell have been greeted with resistance. FOR SALE signs they’ve planted outside the roadhouse keep turning up missing. Joan begs people to leave the signs alone, but the pleas have gone unheard. Many in the crowd, though, are understanding but hopeful the good thing they’ve got doesn’t disappear.

“I hope whoever buys it keeps it like it is,” said Belcher. “It’s a nice place for everybody to come out here and listen to music and chit chat.”

As the evening wears on, Yogi threatens to take to the microphone and serenade Joan. They’ve been married 40 years, but he still loves to sing to her Charlie Rich’s “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” Tonight, though, he’s left the stage to others.

That includes a fresh-faced teenage girl who sings a grunge metal song and a grandpa fresh from the hospital who sings a Willie Nelson ballad.

There’s a middle-aged woman who screams the lyrics to AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood” and a middle-aged man who strides out among the ladies in the audience like a Vegas lounge singer, as he offers a dramatic rendering of Journey’s “Faithfully.”

Some of the performers are here every week. Some of perform their favorites time and time again. In that sense, Joan & Yogi’s is not only a place where everyone knows your name. It’s a place where everyone knows your name — and what song you’re going to sing next.


Source: The Indianapolis Star, http://indy.st/2sUtdi8


Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

This is an Indiana Exchange story shared by The Indianapolis Star.