NORTH FORK — After investing four years of blood, sweat and money into reviving a North Fork treasure, owner Jennifer McMillan has run straight into a roadblock as she tries to reopen the restaurant and saloon at Bandit Town (formerly known as Old Town).
The historic Old West-inspired little town is located at 55420 Road 226 just west of North Fork, and for years was a favorite spot for dining and dancing, attracting people from all over the mountains and the Central Valley.
When Jenn paid $14,000 to apply for a liquor license a few months ago, she waited for a response from ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control). When she didn’t hear back from them, she called, and was informed that one couple had lodged a protest, and it could take many months before a hearing will be held to determine the fate of her application — and her business.
“Do I buy restaurant equipment, or do I not?” she wonders. “Do I have to cancel the weddings scheduled for this summer? I’m afraid to book any bands and then have to cancel. I have no idea what’s going to happen with this, and my hands are tied. It’s amazing that two people have this much power.”
Old Town was built by Bud and Gayle Klette in the 1970s. Designed after an Old West town, it was a favorite spot for locals and visitors alike, featuring the Klette’s antique store along with several unique gift shops, plus a restaurant and Donna Pride’s Land Office.
In the early 1980s, Tommy and Donna Pride, and Bob and Beverly Stern joined forces to purchase Old Town and began the construction of a Saloon and Restaurant, where visitors enjoyed dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings and brunch on Sundays, complete with entertainment provided by local musicians and theater groups.
After closing down in the early 1990s, the site was rented out for weddings and other celebrations, Civil War battle reenactments, and served as a location for Coarsegold resident Richard Kiel’s 1992 film “The Giant of Thunder Mountain.”
Jenn purchased the derelict property in December 2013, and immediately began making massive repairs. All across the 4.4 acre property roofs leaked, porches were falling down, and repairs were needed on all of the buildings, from the livery stable to the chapel, cabins and storefronts.
“We would like to have amazing food paired with amazing music and a place to eat past 7:30 p.m. We want to have friends, couples and families with children create memories at Bandit Town. That is why we applied for this particular license and not a club license, because we want it to be all ages.”
In addressing any noise concerns, Jenn says that will not be an issue. She refers to one incident where an outside promoter came in, and operated without the same respect for the community that she has.
“They played loud, they played late and then they left town with me holding the bag,” she says. “But contrary to popular belief we don’t want to be loud neighbors and bother anyone. I totally get the neighbors’ frustration since most of us live here and we love peace and quiet.”
Old Town/Bandit Town holds a special place in the hearts of many people, says Jenn.
“Many people got to experience it in its glory, and many wish that they could have. It means a lot to me. It means a future for my children and grandchildren. Jobs for my friends and family. It means my kids and grandkids can grow up and make memories here. That is, if I don’t lose it.”
In order to survive financially, Jenn needs to be able to operate as a fully functioning business, and stop relying on vendors and outside entities to host events. She posted this open letter to the community of North Fork on the Bandit Town Facebook page on Sunday:
In retrospect I guess I should have explained what change(s) a liquor license would mean to Bandit Town, to the neighbors, and to the community. I applied for one two years ago and was approved, but I turned it back in because … I unexpectedly but happily became pregnant and decided that being with my baby for his first two years was more important to me than opening Bandit Town.
I can no longer afford to put it off. I don’t have a traditional mortgage. I couldn’t qualify for one. I have a hard money high interest rate loan. It’s due in about three years. Zero of my payment goes towards principle. So far I have been totally dependent on outside promoters, caterers and another bars’ liquor license which SEVERELY limits the $ we make. I split the bar profit and make zero dollars off the food.
I will continue to help people in our community to be vendors, but I would like a shot at making a living here also. These things all limit me in a lot of ways. I haven’t made a dollar there that I’ve gotten to keep yet, and have invested damn near every dollar I make (and way more credit than I care to admit) at my “real job” – my t-shirt brand – into paying for and fixing up Bandit Town. Roofs and tree work alone have made me broke. I need to make enough $ in a few months every year to make payments, etc., through the winter months.
Since moving to the area, Jenn has been a major force in the community – opening a B&B and other businesses, including her new store in the old Trading Post location on Highway 41 in North Fork.
She has also been nominated twice for the honor of North Fork Citizen of the Year.
Jenn says that the worst thing she’s been accused of since she’s been here has been that people can hear music coming from Bandit Town several nights a year – Labor Day, Memorial Day and 4th of July.
“Not litter, not violence; my dog doesn’t poop in anyone’s yard; I don’t steal from anyone… I have been accused of spreading music through the woods. MUSIC.”
She says the thing that doesn’t make sense is that “we can have concerts whether we have the liquor license or not. We’re going to have food, and will be closing at 10 p.m. so as not to disturb the neighbors.
“I am not sure if this will reach the couple that are protesting. I wish they would have come to me first and that we could have spoken like neighbors, not at a hearing with a mediator. Not in a way that threatens my livelihood and my future. I have spent over four years now getting to know the town, and the town getting to know me. I wonder if I’m forced to sell if the next people will be as mellow as me.”
Though she doesn’t know when the hearing will be held to determine whether she will be able to get a liquor license, she has been receiving massive support from the local community.
District 5 Supervisor and North Fork resident Tom Wheeler has written a letter in support, along with the North Fork Boosters, Women’s Club, Chamber of Commerce and many others.
There is also an online petition where people can sign to support her efforts. As of this writing, 1,082 people have signed.
Anyone who would like to write a letter supporting Jenn and Bandit Town can email to firstname.lastname@example.org or snail mail P.O. Box 344, North Fork, CA 93643.
To read more about the history of Bandit Town/Old Town, click here.