The people of Hope had a slogan in the 1950s: “There’s no hope in liquor. Why should there be liquor in Hope?”
At times during the town’s 183-year history, it has seen Women’s Christian Temperance Union protests and hundreds of residents petition to squash alcohol sales. In the 1960s, someone even fired shots into the window of a packaged liquor store.
Three Hope bars closed in the 1930s, according to historical accounts, and since then only one restaurant has attempted to give alcohol sales a go — in the 1990s. But with customers staying away, the town square diner was out of business in a matter of weeks.
This year, another restaurant on the town square is giving alcohol sales a try.
There was no opposition when El Jefe Mexican restaurant, 628 Main St., went before the Bartholomew County Alcoholic Beverage Commission. El Jefe was granted its liquor license last month, and customers have been enjoying beer, wine and margaritas since Jan. 23.
Eduardo Bautista, who owns El Jefe in Hope and Edinburgh, said response has been positive at the Main Street restaurant in Hope, which serves lunch and dinner at the 2,600-square-foot location that previously housed a convenience store.
The restaurant blends in with other establishments on the town square, including small diners, an antique store, newspaper office, library, funeral home and pawn shop. They all face the community park and its bandstand and playground across the street.
In El Jefe, booths and colorful tabletops line the two-room restaurant where farmers, construction workers, businessmen and families stop for a meal.
“My customers have been asking me for a long time to apply for a liquor license,” said Bautista, a native of Mexico who worked his way from a dishwasher and waiter to business owner. “They said they had no place to go unless they drove to Columbus or Shelbyville or Edinburgh.”
Bautista said he doesn’t plan to have a full bar in the restaurant. He only serves bottled beer, wine and margaritas with his three-way liquor license, which also allows the sale of mixed drinks.
“It’s a family restaurant, and we want to keep it that way,” manager Delia Olvera said, adding that the menu includes children’s selections.
It’s not the only place where people can buy alcohol in Hope.
Next door is The Oasis liquor store, and package beer can be purchased at Hope’s Dollar General and Huck’s gas station along North State Road 9. But El Jefe is the only restaurant in town that serves adult beverages with a meal.
About five miles southwest of town, in a rural area between Hope and Columbus, Simmons Winery serves beer and wine at its 450 North Brewing Co. on County Road 450N.
Phyllis Apple, a member of the Bartholomew County Alcoholic Commission, said the commission received no comments from the public in response to its legal advertisements about the request, and no one attended the meeting where residents could speak for or against the one-year license, which costs $1,000.
“I’ve only heard from a few people (in Hope) that they were glad that it was approved,” Apple said.
The Hope Town Board takes no official stand on liquor licenses, said Jonathan Titus, a nine-year member of the board and its current president.
Even with a softening these days of organized opposition to restaurants serving alcohol, Titus said he was surprised to see El Jefe’s liquor license approved.
Apple said she didn’t anticipate problems for El Jefe. But if any issues do arise, the restaurant’s license will be up for renewal in a year.
Hope has a quota of two three-way licenses, which means one remains open, according to the Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission.
“My grandmother used to tell me about the three taverns on the square and the drugstore that sold liquor out of the back door,” said Bill Steinbarger, owner of The Oasis.
Other longtime Hope residents had to stretch their memories to recall how long it’s been since Hope had a downtown restaurant that served alcohol, other than the brief attempt by The Filling Station at Main and Washington streets in the mid-1990s.
Rena Dillman of Hope recalled how her late husband, Don, a community leader, pushed to maintain alcohol-free restaurants.
“He morally thought it was wrong for the town’s sake,” said Dillman, who remembers her husband meeting with The Filling Station’s owners and asking them privately to refrain from selling alcohol.
“It’s a Christian community for the most part, and he did the right thing by talking to them first,” she said.
When the owners decided to go ahead with a plan to sell alcohol, Don Dillman and others lobbied for Hope residents to stop patronizing The Filling Station.
“The senior citizens quit going to the restaurant,” said Ollie Cowan of Hope.
With too few customers, The Filling Station closed. It later reopened under different ownership, without serving alcohol, and operates today as Cornett’s Corner Cafe.
Cowan sat in a booth at El Jefe last week, enjoying lunch and contemplating why a backlash didn’t occur this time when Bautista went ahead with his liquor license.
“I think there’s a younger generation in town now that wants the change,” Cowan said.
Another longtime Hope resident, Tom Beeker, remembers stories of his mother, Sara Beeker, being part of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
“They went monthly to the liquor hearings in Columbus,” Beeker said. “They protested each and every liquor license.”
“When I was in my teens, there were three taverns on the square,” said Bob May, who moved to Hope in 1933.
But prior to The Filling Station’s brief attempt, Hope had not had a cafe or tavern legally selling alcohol by the drink since 1937, Hope historian Barb Johnson said.
In 1968, despite protests, The Oasis received its package liquor license and opened on the town square.
Approval came about the same time as State Road 9, which runs north and south through Hope, was being widened and construction workers were frequently in town, said Shirley Robertson, a longtime Hope resident and former clerk-treasurer.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union did fight The Oasis’ opening, owner Steinbarger said, but opposition died down after a while.
These days, Steinbarger sits near the front door watching television until customers walk in. He then greets them by first name, often knowing what they want to purchase before they tell him.