Lugerville-based restaurant and bar South Fork, owned by Pam and Chuck Goebel, has been selected as this year’s business of the year by the Phillips Area Chamber of Commerce.
Longtime locals, the Goebels took ownership of the business back in 2014.
The unique-looking building, which stands atop a hill overlooking a wide sweep of open fields, was originally built as a barn in the 1940s. Somewhere along the way, the original owners, Jack and Mae Barber, transformed the ground floor level of the barn into a bar. Known as South Fork due to its proximity to the Flambeau River, the place quickly became a popular watering hole.
Over the years, the business went through a series of different owners, slowly evolving over time with the addition of a restaurant and a dance hall in the haymow. Eventually, the restaurant and bar were moved upstairs to the haymow, where it remains to this day. The business closed in 2009 and stood empty for five years before the bank foreclosed on it with plans to raze the worn building.
When Pam — who had built lifelong friendships with customers and coworkers while working behind the bar at South Fork for 17 years — learned the historic business was going to be torn down, she and Chuck decided to invest and start fresh.
“I couldn't let them tear it down,” said Pam, recalling the days when her kids practically grew up in the restaurant while she worked. “There were too many memories.”
The Goebels' purchase in 2014 launched a five-year renovation period where the couple, together with family and friends, worked hard to make the space bright and inviting. It wasn't an easy task to tackle; after standing abandoned for five years, the water pipes had frozen, the interior was dark and dingy, the original wooden floor was rotting, and the bar top was worn down and in need of replacement.
Today it is nearly unrecognizable, with broad views from the many windows, fresh paint, and a beautiful wooden bar.
There is a strong thread of family, biological or otherwise, at South Fork.
In the process of restoring and reestablishing the business, the Goebels received immeasurable help from their four adult children — it's not uncommon to see one or two of their 22 grandchildren running around the restaurant — and they also have seven trusty employees who the Goebels consider an extension of their family.
Open five days a week Tuesday through Saturday, they serve everything from a classic Friday night fish fry to popcorn chicken — with the customer favorite being the homemade pizza. During football season, the bar opens up Sundays for the Packer games. Customers come from all over the area, from as far away as Mellen and Hawkins, as well as people from closer to home.
Over the years, the business has also served an increasingly important function — hosting countless pancake breakfasts as fundraisers for a variety of local projects. The Goebels and their hardworking crew have raised funds for local youth sports and clubs, new basketball backboards at Elk Lake Park, the cost of sending five veterans on the Honor Flight, renovations to the historic Lugerville School, and providing winter coats for local youngsters, amongst many others.
A curious display behind the bar is a wooden tree decorated with lollipops and Christmas lights, and a little sign that tells customers that their purchase of a $1 lollipop goes directly toward buying Christmas gifts for local kids who might not receive any otherwise.
In the first year the lollipop tree was set up, customers raised enough to buy presents for seven kids. Last year, the lollipop tree raised enough for 18 kids, and this year, the Goebels are aiming to get enough for 25 kids.
Now that people are familiar with the Goebels' great success at raising funds for local causes, it's not uncommon for someone to bring a specific need to their attention.
According to the Goebels, what makes the benefits at South Fork so financially successful is the fact that their crew of seven employees donate their time to running each fundraiser — allowing 100% of the profits to go toward whatever cause they are raising for.
When running fundraisers for local youth sports groups, the student athletes come out and lend a hand, helping serve pancakes and coffee to customers, and staying to wash up afterwards.
“By working together, we're able to make a difference,” said Pam. “When there's a need, people in the community always come through. Without the community backing us up, we couldn't do any of this. When they know you give back 100% of what you raise, they are very willing to give.”
This summer, when South Fork held a benefit for Andrew Groot — a local kid and student at Phillips School District who had been diagnosed with a brain tumor — Pam said they received a flood of donations for raffle items from locals who wanted to help out.
When Pam learned that South Fork had been selected as the Phillips area's business of the year, she said she was met with mixed emotions.
“We're not interested in recognition — we want to help people,” she said. “Part of me thought it was great … but that's not why we do it. We do it because we care.”
Pam credits her ethic of giving back to her parents, who she says were very caring and giving people.
“Growing up, my mom would always make sure that the elderly people in town got a meal at Christmas time,” Pam recalled. “My brother or I would take the sled or wagon and deliver Christmas or Thanksgiving dinners to people who didn't have anyone. I grew up with that just being a part of life.”
With Christmas not far off, there will be a pancake breakfast fundraiser held Nov. 24 and all monies raised will go toward purchasing Christmas presents for local youngsters.
On New Years Eve, the Jump River Fire Department will travel to South Fork to put on an impressive mid-winter fireworks display and the Goebels roast a pig as a special thank you to the community for their support.
The Goebels will be honored at the annual chamber dinner at Big Bear Lodge on Nov. 18.