Couple Keeps Walt’s Place’s 125-Year-Old Building Chugging Right Along

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Mike Hull’s astride atop a bodacious, cast-aluminum bull in front of Walt’s Place, the McKenna Tavern he owns with his wife Susie. And somehow — perhaps it’s because Hull’s a bit of a bull in stature himself — he looks as natural on the bovine figurine as if he’d just ridden it from South Dakota and decided to pull up at the whistle stop for a beer.  

The shiny black bull, by the way, is wearing a red American flag-festooned face mask to ward off COVID-19. 

Hull is not.

Once inside Walt’s last week, though, the 68-year-old dons a blue mask to chat with an equally mask-clad Nisqually Valley News reporter.

“Yeah, I bought that bull from a yard-art dealer in Spokane three years ago for $2,700,” Hull said, as if no other explanation was necessary.

It wasn’t, really, because other yard ornaments — seemingly ingrained in Walt’s Place to augment an already comforting atmosphere — grace the inside of the tavern, too: There’s a gorilla and a pig, for instance. The bronze two-toned porker — a $1,000 purchase from the same Spokane dealer four years ago — greets customers near the tavern’s front door.

And near the tavern’s billiard room, Walt’s sports a standing, stuffed, snarling black bear that seems to be in no mood for human companionship. Retired hunter Susie Hull, 61, shot the bear in 1989 on Kapowsin land in Pierce County. She shot two more before shelving her Browning 30.06 rifle in 1997.

Back outside, on the tavern’s second level facing the side parking lot, a 25-year-old almost-life-sized wooden statue of Seattle Mariner’s great Ken Griffey Jr. stands with bat at the ready. The statue’s seen better days — rain and wind having done it no favors over the years. But its weathered look fits Walt’s Place like Griffey’s Golden Glove.

The building, after all, is 125 years old. It was built by the Salsich Lumber Company as the supply and convenience store for workers living in the boarding house across the street from Walt’s. 

The Hulls purchased Walt’s Place in 2013 from longtime owner Frank “Spark” Coffel, whose father Walt Coffel inaugurated the tavern in 1961. Coffel, 72, and a partner took over the tavern in 1972 after a potential buyer wasn’t able to consummate the purchase. 

Before Coffel bought the building some 59 years ago, he said the structure housed the McKenna Store, an early version of a typical modern grocery store that sold everything from ice cream to lunch meat.

And legend has it that in the early 1900s the building’s second story — a now cluttered attic complete with a life-sized statue of whiskey barron Jack Daniel — held church services. Mike heard the story from a Tacoma tavern owner whose aunt lived in McKenna at the time.

“His aunt — who lived to be 100 — remembered as a little girl going to church sermons upstairs and could hear the men playing billiards downstairs,” Mike said with a grin. 

By the time Coffel sold the tavern to the Hulls — with whom he’d been friends for years — he was ready to hang it up and just happened to find the perfect buyers.

“It was just time for me to retire at 65 years,” he said. “Mike and Susie are doing a great job with Walt’s, and I’m happy for them.”

The Hulls — both Yelm High School graduates who live in Roy — were looking for a change, too. Their 25-year-old Tacoma-based hardwood flooring business at the time — Michael’s Designs — was in the doldrums. 

“That’s when construction took a dive, and there was no business to be had anywhere,” Mike said. “Builders weren’t building much, and many had gone bankrupt.”

So they took a leap of faith and purchased Walt’s.

And despite being closed because of COVID-19 decrees from mid-March until June 12, boy are they glad they did.

“This is the best job I’ve ever had,” Mike said.

Responded Susie in a separate phone interview: “It’s the best job we’ve ever had.”

So there.

The couple, who have been married 23 years and sweethearts for 43, work well together, Susie said.

“According to Mike, he’s the janitor and I’m the owner, but that’s not true,” she laughed. “I do payroll and ordering, and he does most everything else. He has his skills, and I have mine.”

And between the two of them they keep the 1895 building chugging right along, though it hasn’t been a walk in the park. Since purchasing Walt’s, the Hulls have upgraded the plumbing, brought water lines from the street to under the building, and replaced all the electrical panels in the back of the building.

They also want to replace the tavern’s single-pane windows with thermal versions, add a door to the beer garden and replace three other doors with 1895-era replicas. They’d also like to replace the current oil furnace with ductless heating and air conditioning.

But until all of that happens, Walt’s is doing OK. The establishment’s four bartenders are off unemployment and back slinging beer and drinks — and the tavern’s customers are digging it.

And for Susie that’s the tavern’s particular joy.

“What I enjoy most about this job is probably the customers,” she said. “You meet the nicest people who come in to be served, and sometimes there are a few who are a bit cranky, but for the most part they are good, hard-working people.”

The tavern’s challenges — when they arise — are primarily employee related, she said.

“The hardest part is finding good employees,” she explained. “Sometimes you go through quite a few people who think it’s going to be an easy job — but it’s really tough to be a bartender.”

Ask the Hulls, though, about the challenges of running a business per se, and they shrug in unison, though this is their first foray in the tavern/eatery milieu. 

“Business is business,” Susie said. “I don’t honestly know that there’s anything hard about it at Walt’s. It’s fun — though I don’t like picking up cigarette butts in the parking lot.”

Added Mike: “It’s no different than the hardwood floor business. It’s just a different product. Instead of flooring, it’s booze.”

And pizza — the frozen variety — that the tavern’s two pizza ovens fashion into edible delights. 

“This business is golden if you just keep it simple,” Mike said. “When you get into the big kitchen and more food you need more employees and that’s tough and expensive. This is just a great place to stop and have a cold beer or drink and relax.”

And it was even better in February when COVID-19 was still a little-known contagion and had yet to bludgeon the United States. 

Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start Washington” reopening plan, Walt’s must adhere to Pierce County’s Phase 2 guidelines, which require patrons to wear face masks unless they are eating or not seated, avoid sitting at the bar, sit with no more than four other related people at a table and be at least 6 feet apart from other patrons.

“Before March, business was good,” Mike said. “Now our revenue’s down 50 percent for 2020. It doesn’t worry me a lot as long as they don’t shut us down completely. If they close down all the bars, everyone will be back on unemployment, and I don’t think the state can afford that.”

And Mike, himself, can’t afford to dwell on COVID-19’s potential personal ramifications.

“I’m just too old to worry about COVID,” he said. “It is what it is, and we have to deal with it. It doesn’t do any good to get upset.”

So, instead of dwelling on the worrisome what ifs, the Hulls concentrate on keeping their customers comfortable and satisfied. The tavern attracts a varied clientele — from motorcycle riders to oldies-but-goodies and everyone in between.

“We have our usuals like anyone else,” Mike said. “In the afternoons it’s mostly an older crowd — retirees.”

It could just be, though, that the bikers most intrigue the Hulls. Avid motorcycle riders, themselves, the couple have been known to make an occasional off-the-cuff decision about the two-wheeled machines.

Here’s one: Back in 2003, they happened to find themselves browsing bikes at the Harley-Davidson dealership in Olympia. Before long, Mike was admiring an H-D “Fat Boy,” and to his recollection Susie said, “If you want it, get it.”

So he did.

They got the fatty back home, and Susie immediately wanted to take it for a spin. So she cranked it up and circled the block with Mike behind her in the car for insurance. When they got back home, Susie said, “you better go get another one, because I’m keeping this one.”

So he did — matching silver-and-black beauties they kept until 2007. They’ve since switched models over the years and now ride tandem.

“Yeah, we’re always together,” Mike concluded.

And that’s no bull.

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