Foodstuffs: As the Portsmouth VFW Closes, the New 'Statey' Emerges
Last week the VFW Post 168's bar and banquet hall on Deer Street in Portsmouth was sold. Mounting costs and competition prompted the sale, leaving members of the VFW without a permanent home.
The day after that sale, an NHPR producer and I went to Portsmouth to learn more about what this means for the veterans who used it, and what the new owner has planned.
There, we run into Robert Thomas Parnell. He's hanging out with a friend on the steps outside the building, bundled up against the frigid wind. He introduces himself as the little Lebowski, the Dude, a reference to the film, "The Big Lebowski," which he's happy to quote for us, with some alterations.
"Every time a rug is micturated upon in this fair city of Portsmouth, I have to pay for it? I think not. Not at all."
Parnell is an Army veteran and he says this post's canteen meant a lot to him. He offers to give us a tour.
"Watch your step kids."
As a veteran of a foreign war, Parnell qualifies for membership. He tries to let us in, but it turns out, the door is locked. The construction crew that's tearing up the interior is out to lunch.
So we stand outside the door to the bar and talk. He looks inside, almost wistfully. Here he says he could count on finding other veterans who knew what it was like to come home from war.
"It's not easy to turn around, Peter, and just go from blowing people up and then all of a sudden you come back into every day Cheerios and supermarkets and then someone drops a pallet and you turn around and...you know what I mean? Loud noises, trains coupling outside. Snap noises like that."
Parnell says people here helped him out in every possible way. And that's that's partly what the VFW is all about. Like-minded veterans who want to support each other and give back to the community gather in spaces like this one. There are 17 VFWs in the state that have their own buildings.
VFW's nationwide have been losing members and consequently posts have been disappearing. But that wasn't the issue here in Portsmouth. Rather, competition with other event spaces was stiff, and the VFW got some of its money from those rental fees. Plus business at the canteen slowed down. The math wasn't working out.
But it became an opportunity for Eli Sokorelis.
"Since the day of the fire, I've been looking for a new location."
His bar, the beloved State Street Saloon in Portsmouth, burned down last year. Now we stand in what was once the VFW's banquet hall, just a walk across downtown from where he used to be.
"When I found out about this location, we sat down, we came to terms, but it's done now, and I'm a happy guy."
Now he says he's anxious to reopen his restaurant. It'll be called the Statey Bar and Grill.
"Because my regulars always called it the Statey."
To prepare for the new Statey, he'll remove fluorescent lights, the thin carpet, the wood-paneled walls. He points to the wide open space.
"This is where the restaurant will be. Rectangular bar here, there'll be high-top tables and big screen TVs, and that'll be a dining room over there, kitchen over there."
Sokorelis, an Army veteran himself, says he hopes veterans do enjoy the new place.
This turn of events is a tremendous gain for him and his employees who were displaced by the fire.
"We're excited. Totally excited. Ecstatic! Hahahaha."
48-year-old Jennifer Stickney of Portsmouth had been tending bar at the Statey last year. She and fellow bartender 41-year-old Kim Laperriere of Hampstead have been looking forward to reopening.
JS: "Seeing our old regulars, all the friends and family."
KL: "Being Back in Portsmouth."
JS: "Being back in Portsmouth, yeah."
KL: "And having such a wonderful man to work for. I mean.."
JS: "He's incredible."
KL: "He pulled us aside after the fire and said, 'You're all family. We want you to stay. So."
Opening day is scheduled for April 10th, one year after the fire.
Sokorelis says he isn't big on grand openings, but he expects the first day will be busy. For NHPR News, I'm Peter Biello.