BY D’ARCY EGAN
Nancy Russell had tears in her eyes when she and husband Jimmy Russell signed the paperwork this week to sell the iconic Bell Mell Tavern on Fulton Street in Port Clinton to noted outdoors industry couple Fred and Dawn Zink.
Nancy stuck to her guns, though, and made her dream come true.
“I told Jimmy, who’s 66 now, that we were getting older. I wanted to make sure we had 10 great years of rockin’ and rollin’ together,” she said from Cleveland last weekend. They popular couple were in the big city to enjoy their favorite things: The blues and rock and roll, some shows and great meals.
“Jimmy and I met in Chicago years ago at the Chicago Blues Fest,” said Nancy. “We’re both big fans of the blues, and we both love rock and roll, the Cleveland sports and music scene and Ohio State University sports.”
Jimmy’s dad, a metallurgist who moved the family often and finally landed in Gypsum, died when Jimmy was just four years old. His mother had grand hopes Jimmy would become a banker or an attorney. It wasn’t meant to be. Jimmy finished law school in Indiana, then flunked his bar exam by the skin of his teeth.
“I didn’t pass the bar, so I bought a bar!” said Jimmy, with a laugh.
Jimmy had begun working for the Bell Mell Tavern the summer before college. He tried banking once out of school, but didn’t care much for the staid
financial life. He finally gave up on banking and began again at Bell Mell Tavern.
“I went full time in 1977, and in 1979 bought out one of the partners, Ted Wierzba, who worked at Vita Plate Batteries and was a darned good walleye guide,” he said. “I worked with partner Phil Maddox until 1983, and bought his share, too.”
Some things never changed, though.
When Maddox had bought the tavern, which was first opened in 1935 by Bella and Mel Russell – no relation to Jimmy – he also bought the unique recipes for the pizza dough and sauce that had become so popular. Jimmy, with help from his mother, Virginia Turner, stayed with the popular recipes, and the Peerless gas-fired pizza ovens with hearth decks.
A Cleveland area girl who met the love of her life at a Chicago jazz concert, Nancy had worked as a wine broker for 36 years. She teamed up with Jimmy in 2003. It seems that once you put on the bar apron at Bell Mell Tavern, you might never leave.
“My bar manager, Barb Erickson, has been here for 40 years,” said Jimmy. “I pulled bartender Dick Below off a Ballrich’s potato chip truck 33 years ago. Mike ‘The Riddler’ Riddle is the captain of this ship. The four of us have been behind the bar for a collective 155 years.”
Selling Bell Mell Tavern was still a life-changing experience. It took almost a year to finally decide to sell, and the only buyers considered were Dawn and Fred Zink.
“The Zinks are wonderful people,” said Nancy. “They’re successful business people, they love this town and this bar. We’ll be their best customers, and for a change we’ll get to sit on the other side of the bar.”
It was Dawn Zink who cemented the deal, said her husband. Her parents owned a bar and grill in Fort Recovery, Ohio their whole lives, and Dawn enjoyed the camaraderie of working in a tavern.
Her daughter, Taylor, has been learning the ropes this week at Bell Mell Tavern, and will be a part of Team Zink. Taylor recently received a Cleveland State University degree and will soon be heading to Capital University to pursue a law degree.
The Zinks had also sold their amazingly successful business, Zink Calls, the largest duck and goose call maker in the country, to Plano Synergy in Plano, Ill., one of the largest fishing and hunting companies in America. While Fred still has a major role with Zink Calls and Plano Synergy, his wife has been ready to let go of sitting behind a desk or plugging away on the computer.
“Dawn and I liked having our own business,” said Fred. “I’ve owned a business since I was eight years old. We are entrepreneurs, and together we made Zink Calls a success.
“Dawn and I loved the Bell Mell Tavern the first time we walked through the door. We’re impressed with what Jimmy and Nancy have accomplished.
“It’s always has been that good, old hometown bar,” he said. “When you stop by, it sometimes seems as if everyone you know is there. We’re going to make sure we carry on their tradition with the same staff, the same pizza, the wonderful ambiance.”
Both the new and the old owners are avid Port Clinton Redskins fans and supporters of its Fullbackers Club — son Gunar Zink, a tall, rangy defensive end and outside linebacker, was a football star — and the Buckeyes, Browns and Indians are a constant topic. Fred Zink enjoyed the Lake Erie walleye fishing as a youngster with his dad while growing up in Dayton, Ohio, and hunting waterfowl in the Sandusky Bay marshes.
“We love the area, its people and the hunting and fishing,” said Fred. “Port Clinton has everything we want. It’s our home.”