Hospitality Runs in the Family: Tuohy Siblings Bring to Life a Handful of Vibrant Pubs

By David Corriveau

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-12-2017 11:56 PM

After about a decade of working for other people in the hospitality industry, brothers Josh and Joe Tuohy started an on-and-off, transcontinental phone conversation in 2001 about returning to their roots as hosts of their own family pub.

Finally one night in 2002, Joe called Josh, then in Portland, Ore., from the Upper Valley.

“He said, ‘I found the spot,’ referring to this room we’re sitting in now,” Josh Tuohy said earlier this spring at the Salt hill Pub on the mall in Lebanon, over the lunch-rush din. “What’s funny is that when he said ‘Lebanon,’ I thought he meant West Lebanon. This part of town was a whole new neighborhood for me.”

The new kids in town signed the lease for the space that anchors one of downtown Lebanon’s most visible corners early in 2003, with an infrastructure that amounted to what their sister, Lynne Tuohy, describes as “a panini maker and Guinness on tap.”

Fourteen years later, Josh, now 46, and Joe, 50, with Lynne and brother Matt Tuohy also on the payroll, find themselves shuttling among a network of five pubs around the Upper Valley, including one on the Newbury, N.H., site where their parents started the Shanty Chalet near the Mount Sunapee ski area in 1969. Their latest, in the former Seven Barrel Brewery in West Lebanon, opened this spring.

For the Tuohys, hospitality runs deep, and while family and hard work have been essential to the rise of Salt hill, so has the input of their growing network of patrons.

“Obviously, you fall in love with your guests,” Joe said. “It’s about loving your guests, loving your family. The better we do that, the more guests are connected to the team.”

That team keeps growing: From Lebanon, the Tuohys expanded to Newport in 2007, Hanover in 2010, and Newbury in 2015 before opening the West Lebanon pub. They follow the same ideals, including customer input. Regardless of which pub you find the brothers in on a given day or night, you can ask them about adding a new craft beer or suggest an up-and-coming musician or band for a Friday or Saturday night gig.

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“I’ve never not liked this business,” Josh said. “I’ve loved it. You never get the same day twice. You might have to cook. You might have to wait tables. ... Your customers are people who are here because they want to either celebrate or commiserate.

“I think we’re still fine-tuning all the time.”

Among regular guests of the Lebanon pub during its early years, Tim McNamara of Lebanon appreciated the dedication the Tuohys showed from the start.

“They’re local guys,” McNamara, now a member of the City Council, said last week. “They’re friendly guys. While business is a major motivation for what they do, another motivation is creating a community space. … It’s a formula that works. It’s a place that’s very family-friendly. It’s under control but it’s lively, with the music and the camaraderie.”

So when the Tuohys were shopping around downtown Hanover for their third location, McNamara, in his role at Dartmouth College’s real-estate office, was happy to help them sew up a deal to move in below Dartmouth’s offices at 7 Lebanon St.

“There weren’t a whole lot of informal spaces like that in the downtown,” McNamara said. “Everything was more of a formal restaurant. It’s a gathering place, something we wanted to see that’s filled an important niche … When they came in it was pretty sparse: They were looking at a white box — concrete floors, open ceiling, nothing on the walls — and they made it their own.

“Now it feels like it’s been there forever.”

The Tuohys have been making hospitality their mission for most of their lives. Joe, Josh, Lynne, Matt and their brothers Dan and P.J. learned the business while Judy and Tom Tuohy ran the old Shanty Chalet after relocating from the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, where Tom had co-owned and operated The Corner Tavern.

While Judy Tuohy oversaw the Shanty kitchen and Tom presided over the pub downstairs, the kids all pitched in, often between classes and extracurricular activities at Sunapee Middle High School. And the lessons about hard work and attention to guests and to detail sunk in, even while several of the siblings went off to school and tried other lines of work.

“Growing up with it, we never went on vacation,” Lynne, a longtime journalist who now manages the family’s new Salt hill Shanty in Newbury, said between the morning and evening shifts one day last week. “When Dad opened the original Shanty, everyone else around us was closed on Monday and we were open, so Tuesday was the only night the whole family sat down and had supper together.”

After Tom died in 1987, several of the brothers continued to help out during college, while Judy kept the old Shanty going. And after the family sold the property in 1993, Joe remained in the hospitality industry, in roles ranging from managing Murphy’s, the former satellite of Hanover’s Murphy’s on the Green, on the site of the old Shanty, to running the North End Pub in New London.

“I’ve had it in me since first grade,” Joe said. “I’ve been fairly singularly focused. I’m a ski bum passing as a restaurant owner. Burnout? Not yet.”

Meanwhile, after graduating from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in environmental conservation in the early 1990s, Josh lived for more than seven years in Oregon, waiting tables and tending bar … and trying to figure out what to do next with his life.

“When one of us called the other on the phone, Joe and I started talking in very strong terms about how we should open our own place,’ ” Josh recalled. “We exchanged a lot of frustration about working for someone else.”

Once on their own in Lebanon, the Tuohys initially served customers from 7 in the morning till 11 at night, with what Josh recalls as “a cafe-and-pub hybrid.” During those early days, Salt hill drew in many of the older residents of the nearby Rogers House first thing for coffee and tea.

“It was a welcome surprise,” Joe said of the senior clientele. “It made for incredibly long days, but it won us a lot of friends. It started a lot of conversations.”

Before long, the focus swung to lunch and supper and the Tuohys ended the punishing early-morning hours.

“People who worked at City Hall and the law offices and Lebanon College started coming by,” Josh remembered. “They’d say, ‘We’ve been wanting this. Thank you.’ The lunch crowd was and is our anchor.”

The evening crowd started growing not long after the Tuohys started bringing in bands and singers to serenade customers with Celtic and Americana music on “trad” nights on Tuesdays, and a mix of rock, folk, funk, soul and country-tinged acts on Fridays and Saturdays. It all started that first year in Lebanon with veteran singer-songwriter Jim Hollis, of Enfield, who now plays regularly in Lebanon, Hanover, Newport and Newbury and is looking forward to his first gig in the new West Lebanon location.

“They’re willing to give people a chance, and to give all styles of music a try,” Hollis said last week. “The diversity is an important part of why they’re successful. Diversity’s the stand-out.”

From the start, the Tuohys also impressed Hollis with their attention to detail — from consulting on future dates well in advance to creating space to play where the performer feels most comfortable.

“There’s a lot of integrity there,” Hollis said. “They’re very concerned about the musicians. It’s been steady work for me, straight along. They’re very easy to work with. … They’re open to suggestions, regarding the food, the presentation, as well as the set-up of the performance area.”

The Tuohys were able to do more on the entertainment side, and to otherwise take a step back and fine-tune the operation later in 2003, once they hired five recent Lebanon High graduates to wait tables and cook.

“Our first small victory came when Joe and I started giving each other every other Sunday off,” Josh recalled. “That was a few months in, I think.”

Over the first 18 months, the Tuohys acquired spaces adjoining the Lebanon pub that they turned into their kitchen, allowing them to expand their menu beyond paninis and soups and salads to full entrees, and the Galway Room for private parties to hold special events. That kept the brothers busy enough that “we had no plan for growth as far as other pubs,” Josh recalled.

Then the Eagle Tavern vacated its space in downtown Newport’s Eagle Block, prompting the Tuohys to talk about returning to the part of the Upper Valley where they grew up and many people remembered them and their parents. Before acquiring the location in an auction early in 2007, they recruited their big sister, then writing for the Hartford Courant in Connecticut and raising three daughters, to jumpstart the new venue.

“They tried to get me to quit the newspaper to come back and manage that pub full time,” Lynne Tuohy remembers. “I took leave from my job and gave them three months. It was grueling. Absolutely grueling. Long hours. It’s akin to giving birth when you open one of these pubs. It’s 24/7 devotion to the business.”

The same year that they opened the Newport pub, Joe Tuohy’s son was born, and over the ensuing three years, Josh became a father twice over. Somewhere in between, they found time to establish the Hanover pub, in the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession.

“It wasn’t easy,” Josh said. “In Hanover, there’s lots of places to get a beer and a bite. There are groups that all have their favorite spots, so you have to establish an identity.

“But if you’re confident in the things you do well, it resonates in the community.”

It resonated with artist and yoga teacher Kim Wenger Hall long before the Tuohys hired her to paint a 8 ½-foot-in-diameter Celtic knot on the ceiling of the new pub in West Lebanon.

“I have been to both Lebanon and Hanover Salt hills many times and I’ve always had a great experience with their food and live music — a fun, comfortable atmosphere, and you always see someone you know there,” Hall, a West Lebanon resident, said last week. “I especially appreciate how invested the Tuohys are in the Upper Valley and in staying true to their mission.”

The Tuohys point to the pubs’ staffs and to their siblings, as well as to their customers, for helping them follow and expand upon that mission.

“Steve Swenson, our kitchen manager at the Shanty, was one of the first group of Lebanon kids to work with us,” Josh said. “All of that group are in their 30s now, and some of them come in with their families.”

Their own family offered support from the beginning. Lynne Tuohy recalls the siblings providing some of the financing for the Lebanon pub, using the equity in two rental properties that they share in the Sunapee area.

And after the expansion into Hanover in 2010, Matt Tuohy, who had been doing Salt hill’s taxes, became the full-time accountant and human-resources chief of the growing network and then part owner of the Shanty when the Tuohys bought the Newbury site in 2015.

“It’s enabled us to begin to have a normal life,” Joe said. “We’ve never had a vacation together or at the same time, but now we see more of our families.”

Added Josh: “As we’ve grown, we realize we can’t do everything. During the first four years in Lebanon, we were handling most of the details, and it was hard at first to give any of that up. But we’ve been blessed with some awesome people who get it.”

They got Lynne back last summer, talking her into retiring from the Associated Press to run the Shanty.

“It kind of got under my skin again,” she said. “Somehow it hit at the right time. My daughters are all out of school.”

And her brothers are running this business with the same devotion she remembers their parents committing to the old Shanty.

“We want a feel to these pubs that is friendly to everyone, and Joe and Josh cultivate that,” Lynne said. “Plus they are wicked-smart guys. There’s smarts and there’s smarts. You need the street sense and the common sense, and they were born with it.”

And if they can coax brother P.J. back from the Pacific Northwest, and brother Dan from the newsroom of the New Hampshire Union Leader, who knows? Maybe they could expand yet again.

“I joked with my brothers after we opened in West Leb,” Lynne recalled. “I said, ‘You know, we’re running out of siblings.’”

The novelty, on the other hand, isn’t wearing off yet.

“There’s always an opportunity to make it better,” Joe said. “Having the daily interactions, spending time with your guests. Getting feedback. It’s old school: Talk to people face to face. And learn.”

David Corriveau can be reached at dcorriveau@vnews.com and at 603-727-3304.

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