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By TONY SCHAEFER
I was fortunate enough to work for Chris Watts at Pony Express Pizza when he purchased the old Odd Fellows Lodge building at 701 Main St. in Tell City. No doubt I was a cheap source of labor for the two years of demolition and renovation.
There is no shortage of stories resulting from the adventure that was its creation.
Sadly, these have mostly remained inside jokes, recalled only in private over a round of drinks. I hope to share a glimpse into what made Capers so unique.
There were many hands involved in building Capers and operating it for 20 years. Please understand that in presenting my perspective my intent is not to diminish the immeasurable contributions of others.
The first year was spent making the first floor a big empty space into which Chris and Dotty could build. We knocked the plaster off the walls and hand-cleaned every single brick. Then there was the patching, sanding and sealing of the hardwood floor.
Those huge beams holding up the ceiling were caked with a hundred years of paint. It took two weeks and a lot of experimenting to remove as much as we did. At the end of that summer, the Watts family had a whole building of empty space where they could indulge their creativity.
The second year started with a road trip to New Orleans and visits to architectural restoration dealers. The days were spent hand-selecting individual architectural pieces and the nights were spent in the French Quarter. Let’s call it “embracing the environment” we would ultimately recreate.
Most of the more interesting items in Capers were more than a hundred years old. All of them were hand-selected. Not every piece had a designated use when it was purchased; a few were just too neat to leave behind. We would simply have to make a place for them. With Chris behind the wheel of a loaded U-Haul, we headed home.
As an example of how the unexpected worked so well, did you ever wonder why the chairs in Capers were so darned heavy and certainly didn’t seem like they belonged in a restaurant? It’s because they were built by a chair company that supplies libraries.
One day, Chris brought in a couple of chairs for us to try. They were heavy, relatively awkward and because they had arms, you could not pull up close to the table or slide sideways to get out of your seat. In almost every facet, these were not meant to be in a restaurant. But once you sat in those chairs you realized they were designed for people to use for hours at a time. This is exactly what Chris wanted; people to sit in comfortable chairs for as long as they wanted. You could spend an entire evening in those chairs and never get tired of sitting.
We worked through the summer of that second year, slowly seeing how everything was coming together. Every day at 5, the Tell City Chair whistle would blow. We took turns walking down the alley to Star Liquor, picking up a six-pack, and we would discuss what we wanted to do the next day.
Chris held the master plans but all the details were up for discussion. Dotty stopped by with fresh ideas and sometimes the Watts girls would make suggestions.
That’s how the look and feel of Capers came to be: a little input from everyone offering different perspectives.
So many times, businesses try really hard to create a place they think customers would like. They spend so much time worrying about what other people might care about that they completely forget what it is they wanted to achieve. They don’t realize until it’s too late that in their efforts of not offending anyone they have watered down almost every idea until the final result is a sterilized version of the original concept.
Capers, on the other hand, was put together by a group of friends sitting around, tired after a full day of work, sharing drinks, telling jokes, listening to Jimmy Buffett, trying to build the kind of place where a group of friends would want to sit around after work, tell stories, and listen to Jimmy Buffett. But also open and accessible enough that the kids could come in, sit down, and be completely comfortable. In a word, the design and layout of Capers could best be described as “Watts.”
There is no shortage of stories about people traveling many miles because they heard about Capers. It came to be almost normal to learn that the couple or group at the next table was from Evansville. Or that the family over there drove in from Louisville for a night out. In recent years, I have met people who, upon hearing I’m from Tell City, tell me about this cool place on Main Street they visited.
I don’t get home as often as I should. But when I do, I always stop at Capers for lunch or dinner, or just to sit at a table and relax. And so it is that my next trip home will be with mixed emotions.
I’m sure people will understand if I avoid the corner of Main and Mozart for a while.
When I do finally venture that way, I hope it is to offer my assistance with the rebuilding effort. After all, it’s not often you get the opportunity to participate in the same adventure twice.
You know, as I read what I’ve written, it occurs to me that I never did explain where the name “Capers” came from.
Schaefer is a Tell City native now living in Chicago.