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Local Landmark fights to survive

By Joshua Baethge
Van Alstyne Leader

For nearly four decades the iconic Cowboy Club on US 75 has been the go-to place to kick back with a drink and catch up with old friends. Though not technically within the city limits, it’s quite possibly Van Alstyne’s most recognizable landmark. The quintessential Texas joint has been immortalized in song and revered by generations of locals.

Cut: Cowboy Club owner “Mama Sandy” Hemel and her son John Kehler are working to re-classify their bar as a restaurant so that it can open again soon.

But these days its doors are closed and the music’s off. Inside the tables may not be different from any other socially distanced restaurant, but there’s one key distinction. The Cowboy Club is one of only three Grayson County businesses to be officially classified as a “bar.” As such, it is prohibited from opening per Governor Greg Abbott’s latest executive order to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“We were promised no more shutdowns by Abbott, and then five weeks later we’re shut down,” manager John Kehler said. “We just want the opportunity to make a living.” 

Running the club is a family affair. In 2007, Kehler completed his tour of duty in the Navy and returned home to help his mother, Sandy Hemel, run the bar. She’d taken over the place a few years earlier from her mother Shirley Smart, who’d been in charge since the mid-1980s. Several other family members also play key roles in the business.

Known affectionately to customers as “Mama Sandy,” Hemel takes pride in making sure things at the bar stay safe and friendly. In bygone years it had earned a reputation as a rough place, but she has no tolerance for that.

“If you want to have a good time, we can have a good time,” she says. “If you want to be an ass you can go out the door—we don’t want ya.”

On a good night, the bar may see up to 50 or 60 patrons. That’s a far cry from what many of the chain restaurants up the road attract. Area churches also have congregations much larger than those. Yet they are allowed to stay open while bars are closed indefinitely.

This is the third time changing regulations have forced the Cowboy Club to close.  In March, the first statewide shutdown forced it to shutter its doors until summer.  After opening for five weeks, it had to close for more than three months.  It reopened a second time in October before shutting down yet again five weeks later. 

Hemel and Kehler emphasize that they are willing to follow all of the recommended health guidelines. Sitting at the bar is no longer allowed, and all tables are spread apart. Some are even on the dance floor to ensure that there is not too much congregating there. Groups of more than six are prohibited. They have even added additional outdoor seating and banned smoking inside.

Cut: Cowboy Club owner “Mama Sandy” Hemel and her son John Kehler are working to re-classify their bar as a restaurant so that it can open again soon.

“We just want the opportunity to make a living,” Kehler said

At this point, the only thing keeping the bar alive is the fact that Hemel owns the building and property. If there were still a mortgage to pay, it would have been shuttered for good months ago.

To make matters worse, during the ten weeks Cowboy Club was allowed to operate, it could only stay open until 11 p.m. even though Hemel pays for a license allowing her to open until 2 a.m.  There will be no refund coming for those months she was closed, but the bill for next years’ license will be due soon.

Like many bar owners across the state facing the same issue, Hemel is working to get a new food and beverage license so that the establishment can be considered a “restaurant.”  It’s not like the Cowboy Club doesn’t serve food.  Mama Sandy is known for her giant grilled burgers, homemade hot wings and specialty ranch. But since food does not make up more than 51 percent of the club’s revenue, it is not allowed to open.

According to Kehler, finding information on what they need to do has been especially difficult. Grayson County’s alcohol laws mean that the Cowboy Club technically operates as a private club where members have their licenses scanned. At first, he was told that the bar could not operate as a restaurant.  After making additional calls, he was then told otherwise.

Over the past month, he’s been working with TABC officials to make the necessary changes and apply for the $1500 food and beverage license. Customers may notice higher food prices and slightly lower drink costs to boost the food and merchandise revenue above 51 percent. 

“Once we do that, magically coronavirus doesn’t affect us anymore,” he jokes. “We can be open until two and operate exactly like we used to.”

The year has been particularly challenging for Hemel. Her husband died this summer during one of the times when the bar was shut down.  It was especially hard for her to grieve alone at home without her friends at the bar that she’s known for 15 years. 

The relationships she’s built with them transcends business. When her grandson was diagnosed with leukemia a couple of years ago, nearly 600 people showed up to a benefit for him.  He’s now been cancer-free for over a year.

More recently, when customers were allowed back, they made sure to order plenty of food, knowing that pushing those sales up would be the key to the bar’s comeback.

For now, all Hemel and Kehler can do is wait.  They were told it may be a couple of weeks before the license is approved. Their hope is that the bar’s annual Christmas party, planned for Dec. 19, will be able to proceed. Singer Robbie White, a Van Alstyne native now living on Padre Island, plans to fly back so can perform that night.  Just like he does every Christmas.

 “This is a unique bar,” Hemel says. “We care about the people that come in here. They’re family to us.”