The thing about 25 years is, you can blink and they’re gone. This is particularly true in the bar business. The late nights run together, and the drinking doesn’t help. As a wise denizen of the night once said, “If you can remember it, you weren’t there.”
There is, however, one distant night Lynn Haker will never forget. It happened a little more than a year before he moved his restaurant and sports bar, Babes, from Whitney Way around the corner to Schroeder Road.
Haker, 60, has been thinking about these things lately. There was a day over the winter when he looked at a calendar and realized Babes — which he believes was Madison’s first sports bar when it opened in 1988 — is celebrating two important anniversaries this year.
It is 25 years since Haker first opened Babes in its old Heritage Square location, and 20 years since he took a gamble and bought the building at 5614 Schroeder that has housed Babes since October 1993.
It is typical of Haker that he is taking a low-key approach to the anniversaries. He’s thinking of having some sort of celebration this summer, maybe July, with live music out on the restaurant’s back patio.
In the meantime, there are the stories, including one memorable night in February 1992. It came out of Haker’s friendship with University of Wisconsin men’s basketball coach Steve Yoder. They met through restaurateur Jim Delaney.
Yoder had just announced his resignation — his contract wasn’t going to be renewed — though he would coach the season’s six remaining games. First up was Michigan, highly ranked with its great freshman class known as the “Fab Five.” An emotional Badgers team stomped the Wolverines at the Field House, 96-78.
Afterward, there was more star power inside Babes than on any of its TV screens. The place was packed with sports and media personalities, starting with Yoder. The Michigan sports information director showed up, and so did State Journal sportswriters Tom Oates and Vic Feuerherd. UW football coach Barry Alvarez was there with a couple of his assistant coaches. Broadcaster Matt Lepay came in, too, and later wrote about the evening in his 2012 book, “Why Not Wisconsin?”
“It was a long but very fun night,” Lepay noted.
It was the kind of night Haker envisioned in 1988, when he looked around Madison and decided what the city needed was a good sports bar.
He had, by then, considerable experience in hospitality. Haker grew up in Rhinelander, came to Madison for college, left to ski in Colorado, came back, and wound up as a manager at Nino’s, where someone in a position to hire felt he had a good personality for the business.
Nino’s was a popular chain of steakhouses. The Nakoma Plaza location in Madison, where Haker worked, had a legendary happy hour: half-price drinks and artery-busting free appetizers, including potato wedges, chicken wings and sausages in a mysterious red sauce. It drew such crowds that getting to the food was like breaking through the Packers defensive line.
The chain sent Haker to Joliet, Ill., a city that grew on neither him nor his wife, Peggy. They soon arranged to return to Madison. One bar regular who had recently been a guest of the state of Illinois came up to Haker and said, “You want anyone taken care of up there, just let me know. Seventy-five dollars and bus fare.” Haker said he would take it under advisement.
He soon left Nino’s altogether, first to run TGI Friday’s in Madison, across from West Towne. From there he went to Ciatti’s, off Odana Road.
Haker’s accountant, Randy Grobe, told him he was interesting in being a partner, should Lynn ever want to open his own place. By 1988, he was ready. They settled on a shuttered dance bar at Odana and Whitney that had been called Shooters. “For a while, there were people with purple hair coming in looking for the disco,” Haker said.
Babes was anything but that. Haker took the name from the great Yankees slugger, and it originally had an apostrophe, along with a baseball bat, in the logo. Then representatives from Babe Ruth’s estate got in touch, and the apostrophe and bat went away.
The first Babes had bleachers circling the dining room and bar, five TVs and blow-ups of Badgers sports heroes on the wall, courtesy of former UW Athletics media guy Jim Mott. What it didn’t have was much space inside or parking outside. In 1993, Haker bought the building on Schroeder Road that had previously been Snapshots bar.
The late October launch in the new space was an enormous undertaking. “An hour before we opened, it looked like we were a week away,” Haker recalled. They couldn’t delay; the parking lot was nearly full. He opened the door and was nearly trampled. It was the first Alvarez Rose Bowl season, a great time to be a sports bar in Madison.
Over the next two decades — Haker bought out his partner in 2002 — Babes has endured, though it hasn’t always been easy. The food menu has become more ambitious, and they have occasional live music.
“It’s an incredibly tough business,” Haker said. He’s not really complaining. He’d rather be cheerful. One of these days, he’ll even get around to celebrating those anniversaries.