When he started the Penny Lane, the going was easy. “When we first opened our doors we would get a lot of foot traffic from Thalhimers and AT&T, which were both nearby at the time,” O’Neill said. “Most people would come to have lunch with us, and then we had a string of regulars who would come by in the evenings to have supper and a couple of pints.”
But when first Thalhimers and then AT&T closed, O’Neill’s pub came upon lean times. It was forced to let the cook and waitresses go, and he and his wife, Rose, took over the whole operation. For six months, they teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, but a string of locals and the strength of family helped them pay the rent. “It was rough but we got through it,” O’Neill said. “I had the kids waiting tables, while Rose and I ran back and forth to the kitchen. It was so bad at one point that we all had a running pool on how many customers we would get during the day.”
The loyalty of Penny Lane’s regulars has helped to ease the transition of moving the pub to its new location. Many longtime customers have chipped in to help. The pub was offered free advertising from two executives who were regulars during college. Even a professional interior designer has offered her skills to decorate and design the bathrooms. “People have such an affinity for the place,” O’Neill said. “When word got out that we were going to move, I got a long string of messages from people wanting to help. I’m actually a little afraid that some of them will be mad at me for not taking them up on their offers.”
Help also came from his own family as well. His son Terence and daughter-in-law Lisa moved to Richmond after quitting their restaurant jobs in California. Both are now assistant managers at Penny Lane and are eager to help out with a new generation of ideas and insights into the family business. “When Dad told us he was moving the pub after all these years, we couldn’t wait to come out and help,” Terence said. “We figured since we’re working in the restaurant business anyway we might as well work for Dad. Now whenever he decides to step from behind the bar the pub can stay in the family.”
Turning the new location into a comfy pub has not been an overnight job. The new Penny Lane is in a building with 20-foot ceilings that once was the Security Federal Savings and Loan bank. Over the years, the bank has been transformed into different restaurants; first Michelle’s French Quarter and then Maxwell’s. While the near-palatial look of the place was fine for French food, it didn’t make a cozy pub. So O’Neill and clan lowered the ceilings by 12 feet ,capturing the look of the original Penny Lane. “A pub is a special place,” he said. “It has a real community feel to it. It’s more of a place to talk than anything else. You can come there either dressed up or casual, as long as you’re comfortable. That’s it really; a pub is just a comfortable place to be.”
The new Penny Lane boasts the same cornucopia of Beatles memorabilia as the old one. But Terry’s unflagging dedication to the Fab Four goes beyond that of mere fan. He grew up in Liverpool, and the Beatles were more like family to him than superstars. John, Paul, George and Ringo all went to the same schools as he and his family. O’Neill was even the bouncer at The Cavern, where the Beatles first started playing together. Still, O’Neill has his mind open to different kinds of music, as well. “There are only two Beatle songs that I’ll request from any band that comes here to play,” he says. “‘Penny Lane’ and ‘A Little Help from My Friends,’ because without friends and family there wouldn’t be a Penny Lane at all.” S
The pub is scheduled to open this week. Call 780-1682.
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