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Landmark Covington Burger Joint Has New Ownership - But Same Famous Flavor

A Covington landmark is under new ownership.

On January 1, Suzanne and Joe Fessler purchased what has become a burger institution in Covington when they took over Herb and Thelma's Tavern on Pike Street in Lewisburg. The couple took a flyer on the business after they had been impressed with the building and the reviews they had read about the place online.

“I think the main reason that Suzanne and I tried this is because the history of the place has been here and I think maybe we thought that it needed a little TLC and I think we brought a unique element to it,” Joe said.

They had been looking to buy a place like Herb and Thelma's when some friends had mentioned how much they liked it.

“It was so much different on the inside than it was on the outside. It just had so much history and it was family owned and there was just something about it that wowed us,” Suzanne said. “We thought that we could really do something with this. It would be a shame to see something that has been here for 75 year, with the good reviews and everything to see it not exist anymore. It's been an adventure ever since.”

Since taking over, the Fessler's have added only touches of their own personality because it was important that they preserve the character that the business had maintained over the decades.

“We've taken some of the old pictures of Herb and Herb's dad and tried to maintain that history part of it,” Suzanne said. “We keep finding out different things, like Herb loved Christmas. That's a cool part of this that we don't want to lose some of these things. If you look, there is a lot of beer collecting stuff so people will come in and look at the beer history stuff.”

The beer-memorabilia is a big part of the interior decor as the previous owner had amassed a large collection of stuff that can now be found in cases and on the walls of the tavern.

“The gentleman that we bought it from was a huge beer memorabilia collector. He probably knows more about brewing history in Northern Kentucky than anybody that I know,” Joe said. “He bought it from the original family and he decided after two years that it wasn't working out the way he needed it to. He left a lot of the beer memorabilia. We've collected some of the signs.”

Burgers and beer remain the backbone of the business. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Herb and Thelma's will stay true to what drew customers there in the first place.

“Once you get past the front door, it's really a friendly place. It's starting to become a lot of people's hang out. It's comfortable, it's not your run-of-the-mill Applebee's or Fridays. It's a little different, it's a little unique. That's all we're really trying to portray: put out a good sandwich, hot soup and a cold beer,” Joe said. “We get a lot of third-generation clientele. Their grandfathers came in here, their dad, and now they end up bringing their sons in. That's one of the things that drew us here. We're having fun.”

As far as maintaining the same taste that customers have grown to love, Joe says that the couple uses the same grill that had been there since the 1940's which has been seasoned to perfection.

“The building was built during the Civil War and originally there was a back part of the building that fell off in the 1980's. After that, they reconfigured the bar and made it into two rooms. They were known for their burgers, people would come from a long way away to eat the burgers here,” said Joe. “We hand pat every one of our burgers. It's all fresh ground beef. Nothing is ever frozen. We make what we can during the day. We use really high quality sausages: Italian sausages, metts, brats, they're all very high quality. Everything is local. All of our products are pretty much all local and pretty much small purveyors so it works out pretty well.”

Because the building is so old, it's facade has shown some wear and tear over the years. One of the big goals for the Fessler's in terms of improving the building is to repaint the front and make the entrance a bit more inviting to get people into the door.

“I think we can make the outside a little more exciting because it's such a great building,” Suzanne said. “I think the improvements we want to make will help people get over the hump. People think it might be a little sketchy but it would help people realize that it's not. It's a great place. We have the nicest people in here. We've seen an increase in the beer sales, getting people here in the evening. A lot of people from Park Hills are coming down. I think there is a lot of possibility.”

The couple had the building inspected by a structural engineer who was amazed at the solid and in-tact foundation the building rests on. There is a basement and sub-basement and there is speculation that there may be underground tunnels that lead away from the building.

“We think there may be a series of tunnels that lead down to Lewisburg to the brewery. They might have been lagering tunnels,” Joe said.

Herb and Thelma's has installed six draft beer taps and have filled four of them with local beers like Hudepohl and Rhinegeist.

“It's probably been about two weeks since we've had the taps, but we've made some movement on it. We have six handles and we have four of them filled right now. We're probably going to add another handle very soon,” Joe said.

Suzanne and Joe work there full time, but they also find help within their own household when they get their kids in the tavern to help clear tables and other tasks. It's important to them that the place remain what it's always been and not try to change its feel for modern trends.

“We're really one of the last true neighborhood taverns; there aren't many left that has really just stayed what it's been. Most of them have been sold and became a totally different bar. This tavern has really stayed true to what it was. We just want to keep it a nice place where you can bring your family and hang out and have a nice cold beer and a burger,” said Joe. “We saw it and we knew it was struggling a little bit and thought we had a good opportunity to give it a shot and we knew it had a lot of life left in the place and that's what brought us here today.

"The place has a ton of history, it's been around for over 75 years; everybody knows about it. We've tried to make some improvements, change a few things and continue on the tradition that has always been here and it's going pretty well.”

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Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor