After owning The Den on Turnpike for 4 1/2 years, Cheryl Holt said it was strange to suddenly have nothing to do on a Tuesday night.
“Tuesday night was trivia night and we were packed on trivia night,” said Holt, who lives next to the restaurant west of Elizabethtown.
She closed the business April 28.
“I set out on my deck and looked over here and thought, ‘I should be over there open,'" said Holt, as she cleaned out the 60-seat bar at 1075 Turnpike Road the week after it closed.
“It is bittersweet for me. I’m already missing it,” she said.
For the 57-year-old Holt, her stint as a bar owner began after more than two decades in banking, while also coinciding with an unprecedented run-up in the price for liquor licenses such bars need to operate.
While the strain of running a restaurant by herself and missing out on family events was the main reason The Den closed, the exact timing was related to the value of the state’s specific permission to operate it.
“Why I picked now was liquor licenses are sky high, higher than they’re ever going to be again,” she said. “And if I’m going to sell and move on, now is the time.”
Holt said she paid $150,000 for the restaurant liquor license when she first opened, but she sold it to convenience store operator Sheetz last month for more than $350,000.
“I’m not going to lie. I wanted my retirement back,” she said. “I put my retirement into this place.”
A banking career
Holt grew up in northern New York near the Canadian border, where her mother owned a bar and grill.
She moved to Lancaster County in 1979 and got a job at The Heritage House in Mount Joy, where Beanie’s Bar & Grill is now.
But when she was starting her own family, she left the bar business and got a job as a teller at Union National Bank in Mount Joy. She was promoted several times, becoming head teller and then office manager before getting a job as a vice president and head of security.
“It was a very good job. I would have retired there,” she said.
But she lost her job when the bank was sold in 2011 and a number of executive positions were eliminated, including hers.
She worked as an auditor, but soon grew tired of traveling. Then she learned that the owners of a nearby bar, The Spot, were interested in selling.
“I always had a dream of having my own business. And because I had the history of bars and grills, I decided to take the plunge,” she said.
After she bought the bar, she changed its name to The Den on Turnpike, in homage to the Bears, mascot for Elizabethtown Area School District, where her son and daughter went to school.
In the beginning, she ran The Den with her daughter, Coni, as she tried to build up the business.
Holt says she was naive about many aspects of the bar business, but found her banking background came in handy, especially with doing the books, managing payroll and handling her taxes.
Plus, her experience as a fraud investigator at the bank made her vigilant about tracking sales at The Den.
“This is the kind of business where you get ripped off easy — just not ring up stuff and put it in your pocket — so you have to have people you trust,” she said.
Holt said she started thinking about selling about a year ago when her daughter had a baby and stopped helping her manage The Den.
Holt said that left her even busier, while making her aware of missing out on time with another grandchild.
“I just needed to be with my family. I had no time to be with my family at all. It was just work, work, work,” she said. “You get home late at night, then get up and do it again.”
Valuable license, sad goodbye
As she was facing more responsibility with the management of the bar, Holt said she was aware of how valuable The Den’s restaurant liquor license had become.
A statewide auction of one liquor license in March 2017 attracted a high bid of $407,600 — nearly four times what they had been selling for just three years previous.
The prices had increased after a 2016 state-law change that allowed grocery and convenience stores to begin buying them so they could open in-store beer cafes.
Holt said she knew about the high prices and put her license up for sale last summer, asking $400,000.
Holt said she got some inquiries about the license, but as the summer turned to winter and she didn’t sell, she started to worry she had missed out.
But then the license sale went through in late April, and and she was told it would be finalized in 10 days, giving her little time to wind down the bar that had become a local hangout.
Holt said there was karaoke on the last night, and she got up and gave a teary speech.
“I was kind of crying a little bit, but I just thanked them from the bottom of my heart because they were the reason I kept my business going as long as I did,” she said. “They were just a loving group of people and they’ll always be family to me.
“It was also the hardest decision I ever made because it really hurt me to take away the hometown bar,” she said.
Holt said she is now trying to sell the real estate, saying there has been some interest in keeping it as some kind of restaurant.
And now that her career as a bar owner is over, Holt says she’d like to get another job at a bank, mostly so she can get her own health insurance and her 66-year-old husband can retire.
“But I don’t want any title. I don’t want to be in charge of nobody,” she said. “Even though I’m way overqualified, I’m going to apply for a back office job.”