By Ben Olson
There’s just something about Eichardt’s. Whether you’re a fan of the food, the cozy atmosphere or the social discourse over pints and plates that occurs every day, it’s just one of those places that helps make Sandpoint what it is. I honestly can’t imagine this town without it.
“It’s ‘Cheers,’” sums up longtime regular and holder of mug #1 Kirk Miller. “It’s home to me.”
On April 29, Eichardt’s will celebrate 25 years of good times in Sandpoint. Owner Jeff Nizzoli said they will host Neighbor John Kelly on April 27 to celebrate the milestone.
“Neighbor is coming up from Arizona to play,” Nizzoli said. “Also, on Monday the 29th, Truck Mills will do his regular Monday Night Blues Jam and get some of the older musicians to come out that have played here for years.”
In order to celebrate the present, it’s often necessary to delve into the past, so let’s take a look at how Eichardt’s Pub and Coffee House came to be.
The Original Eichardt’s
In the early 1990s, Jeff Nizzoli was traveling around the world. While in New Zealand, he crossed paths with fellow traveler David Marx.
“David and I were traveling opposite ways around the world,” Nizzoli said. “The original Eichardt’s was actually this pub in Queenstown, New Zealand, where we met drinking beer.”
“We were both there for the ski season,” said Marx. “We became friends and started hanging out.”
The original Eichardt was a Prussian who immigrated to New Zealand during the gold rush of the 1800s. He opened a pub on the shores of lake Wakatipu in 1866.
“He went there to get rich in gold and decided a pub would be better,” Nizzoli said. “It was still a pub when we were there in 1990. Unfortunately, now it’s a boutique hotel.”
Marx said the impetus for Eichardt’s Pub in Sandpoint were the conversations that he and Jeff shared while drinking beer.
“We would sit around and talk about, ‘If I owned a bar, this is what I would do,’” Marx said.
Nizzoli said he was drawn to the idea of creating a pub because it was an epicenter of social discourse.
“I traveled a lot to commonwealth countries with pubs,” Nizzoli said. “In smaller towns, pubs were the centerpoint. It wasn’t just the beer. It was the camaraderie. Multiple generations of families would hang out in the pub and check in with one another. But the beer helps too.”
Marx and Nizzoli eventually went their separate ways to continue their own travels. It wasn’t until a couple years later in the winter of 1992-93, when Marx was living in Durango, Colo., that Nizzoli came out to ski and hit him with a crazy idea.
“He said to me, ‘Hey, have you ever thought any more of those conversations of opening a bar?’” Marx said. “That’s when the idea was planted.”
Nizzoli and Marx later embarked on a ski trip of the west, searching for a town that had the perfect combination of lake and ski hill.
“We looked at a lot of other towns,” Nizzoli said. “McCall, Whitefish, Jackson. We settled on Sandpoint because it was mainly just a good feel.”
Marx agreed: “Once we got to Sandpoint, our minds were pretty much made up.”
Marx said he and Nizzoli were crammed in their ‘86 Toyota 4Runner which they had been sleeping in for days, when they first caught sight of Lake Pend Oreille.
“It was about 6 a.m. and we were coming across the Clark Fork Delta on Highway 2,” Marx said. “All of a sudden the alpine glow was coming across. It was just stunning. We rolled into town, parked right in front of where Di Luna’s is now and walked around town checking out real estate. When we came back to the truck and looked across the street we saw a building and said, ‘Hey, that building would be perfect for what we want to do.’”
That building was 212 Cedar St., which was then a bar called the Donkey Jaw.
Marx and Nizzoli had an idea to create an establishment that was a hybrid pub and coffee house. Nizzoli would spearhead the pub, and Marx would handle the late night coffee shop.
“We walked in on a Monday night, and Truck Mills was playing here at the Donkey Jaw,” Nizzoli said. “The first thing we did after buying it and opening it up was ask Truck to play a Monday Night Blues Jam.”
“Later that same day, we walked into a real estate office,” Marx said. “We looked and smelled like we’d been drinking and skiing for days. The agent, Ken Earle, we walked into his office and said, ‘We want to buy a bar,’ and he just looked at us and shook his head. The very first listing he showed us was the old Donkey Jaw building. It was serendipity, meant to be.”
Nizzoli and Marx made an offer on the building and bought it, opening for the first time on April 29, 1994. Sandpoint would never be the same again.
The Early Days
The original configuration of Eichardt’s was a bit different than today. The coffee shop was originally located upstairs, complete with espresso machine, bakery rack and sandwiches.
“David was the coffee guy,” Nizzoli said. “He had a vision for a bohemian coffee house. It was way ahead of its time.”
Nizzoli said the coffee shop only lasted about six months before they realized it wasn’t going to be a big money maker. In the fall of 1994 they closed the pub to remodel the downstairs.
“That remodel created where the C-Bar is now,” Nizzoli said. “We brought the espresso machine down there, converted upstairs into a game room and it’s been a pub ever since.”
“What is now the C-Bar used to be a bar in the middle of the room,” Marx explained. “It ran parallel to the bar and turned to the brick wall. That back corner of the bar actually used to be an office before we tore that room out and made the C-Bar.”
The espresso machine lasted about five years at the C-Bar before it was removed and replaced by pint-guzzling regulars.
What Marx and Nizzoli both didn’t realize at the time was that it would eventually be the restaurant that became the driving force behind Eichardt’s.
“We were admittedly behind when it came to getting the kitchen ready for opening,” Marx said. “Our first chef was Jeff’s soon-to-be first wife’s sister Tracy. She volunteered because she was between jobs, so she opened up our kitchen for us. She put out a standard that just floored not only us, but everyone in town. Our original vision was the typical pub burger and basket of fries.”
Tracy Thurlow helped establish many of the menu items that are still available today, including the famous garlic fries.
“I used to say the garlic fries paid our electric bill each month,” Marx said. “I’ve never been a big french fry fan, so the idea of garlic fries wasn’t exciting, but even I became addicted to them. I remember people going completely bonkers for them. They’d come in and have garlic fries for dinner. Just a basket of garlic fries and beer.”
Thurlow was also integral for creating other popular menu items still available today, including the blackened salmon and chicken, the cajun burgers, the chicken marsala, ahi and the zucchini wrap.
Because they were ski bums in their late ‘20s, Nizzoli and Marx utilized what they could from the old Donkey Jaw, including furniture.
“We didn’t have any money to buy anything new, and we did the remodeling all by ourselves. Actually, when we first opened, we had no barstools on purpose,” Nizzoli said. “Pubs I’d gone to didn’t have barstools. You just stood at the bar. That didn’t go over very well, so Misty Mountain made us 10 stools really fast because everyone just made fun of me with no barstools.”
The burly wooden chairs at the tables were originally made by Chris Hecht in the 1970s.
“The direction he was given in the 1970s was ‘Make furniture that is hard to throw,’” Nizzoli said.
Also part of the Eichardt’s mystique is the plethora of curios pasted on every inch of the walls. There’s a little bit of everything, including a couple hundred Pez dispensers.
“That Pez collection started with one Pez dispenser I found in the bar and put it up on the back bar,” Nizzoli said. “One became two, then someone brought us a third one. I’ve never purchased a Pez in my life. Now look at it.”
Nizzoli said most of the items on the walls were added haphazardly through the years, usually after an event or party.
Looking up, it’s hard to miss the hundreds of vintage beer cans or tap handles hanging from the ceiling.
“We’ve used every single one of those tap handles,” Nizzoli said. “It’s more function than fashion. We used to put them in milk crates and had a hell of a time finding them when we needed them, so we decided to put them on the ceiling. Now there are 700-800 up there, but we can still find them quickly.”
Along with beer and food, the third leg of the Eichardt’s tricycle is live music.
“Live music was part of our original plan,” said Marx. “Truck Mills was there from day one. Our very first performer was Monty Thompson, Mike Thompson’s brother. Monty knew musicians in town, so for the first year he booked music for us so we knew who to book and who to avoid.”
Marx said they never charged a cover in those days, but began offering Sunday shows for traveling bands that often had trouble booking Sunday shows and needed a “gas stop” for the next route.
“We’d get these amazing bands rolling through and wouldn’t have to pay them a lot because it was on a Sunday, so we’d do these shows for a $5 cover,” Marx said.
Wild Halloween parties are also a tradition that started in the beginning.
“A lot of the decorations in the pub come from those parties, usually when people leave stuff behind,” Nizzoli said. “There have been a lot of crazy nights around here.”
A Family of Sorts
In 1998, Marx and Nizzoli came to an agreement that Nizzoli was the guy to take the pub forward.
“Jeff offered to buy me out, and it seemed the best thing for both of us,” Marx said. “It was completely amicable, and we are still friends to this day. The reality is, Jeff is the one who wanted a bar, and I was the one who wanted a coffee house. I realized I was done scrubbing toilets at 2 a.m. To this day, I think it couldn’t be a better place. Now I get to hang out in a bar that is my dream creation.”
In 25 years of operation, one thing that has remained the same about Eichardt’s is that their employees are treated like family. Several employees have worked there more than 20 years, and many regulars have drank their daily pints there since day one.
“This is a great place to make a living wage,” said longtime employee Natalie Miller. “I consider Eichardt’s my family. It’s a dysfunctional family, but we’re a family.”
Natalie said one of her favorite parts of working at the pub is watching customers come and go over the years.
“I love watching how people have grown and changed over time,” she said.
Natalie’s husband, Kirk, said he first met his wife-to-be at the pub.
“We met the morning of Eichardt’s first anniversary, actually,” Kirk said. “We met again that night and talked all night, then we talked in the car for three hours. And we’ve pretty much been together every since.”
A pint at Eichardt’s has been part of his daily routine for years, Kirk explained.
“I’ve got a million stories, I’m in there every day,” he said. “I go take a picture every morning, then go to Eichardt’s in the afternoon. That’s my life. I’m retired.”
Kirk is the holder of mug #1 – a fact that he’s proud of, even if he had to wait several years to obtain it.
“The first year the mugs came out, Natalie was working there,” Kirk said. “David said the mugs wouldn’t go on sale until 9 a.m. so I stood at the front door at 9 a.m. but Shawn Taylor came up at five ‘til and slipped in the side door and bought mug #1. It took me five years to get that mug back when Shawn showed up late to mug sales day.”
Kirk said he also held a “drinking title” after a challenge came his way.
“Dave challenged me that I couldn’t outdrink everyone,” Kirk said. “This was back before a bar owner got thrown in jail for over-serving. I must’ve drank 20 pints. But I won. That’s my claim to fame. My wife took me home and put me in the bathtub. I should’ve been dead.”
Other familiar faces have been ingrained in Eichardt’s for so long, it seems the pub wouldn’t be the same without them, including Doug Clark, chef Reese Warren and Sarah McTavish, among others.
“Honestly, I can’t imagine my life without (Eichardt’s),” said McTavish. “I moved to Sandpoint in ‘95 and have been at the pub since ‘97, so more or less, I have grown up there. It is my family, my living room, my place to help people enjoy themselves.”
McTavish said she has been especially touched by the way Nizzoli has always treated his employees with respect like they were his own family.
“Jeff has always supported us,” she said. “We, in turn, support him and the pub. It has carved a deep place as part of Sandpoint’s community. It is such an honor to serve first-timers at the pub when people are constantly amazed by this little quirky brick hole in the wall. … It’s never hard to go to work there. I love my pub. I work hard for my pub. Call me a lifer.”
Darla Wilhelmsen also said the Eichardt’s crew is more family than anything else: “All who work there are family to me. I love them and want to thank them for loving me back.”
Customer Eric Salonti said, “Eichardt’s is important to me because it symbolizes human interaction in a computer/digital advanced society.”
Pub frequenter Jesse Jennings said it is the “true definition of a public house. Hearts broken and repaired, fortunes lost and found, love made and beer.”
When Mel Davis first visited on a college break from Moscow she instantly fell in love with the pub.
“I had come up during my final year of college from Moscow,” she said. “I said (to my friends) that if I ever moved to Sandpoint I wanted to work here. I just fell in love with it.”
When she moved here shortly after, Davis walked in and asked if they were hiring.
“I filled out an application on a legal pad and they hired me on the spot,” she said. “It’s family. Jeff and Dave at the time, they would do anything for you.”
Davis said when her husband went through chemotherapy last year, she went to renew her mug and was told, “Nope, we got it.”
“They paid for my dinner and my mug,” she said. “Those are the things Jeff does for you. He’s always giving back to the community.”
Whether it’s the K-9 Keg Pull or feeding the Sandpoint High School Lacrosse team free of charge, or spearheading the many fundraisers and outreaches for members of the community who need help, Nizzoli has proven himself a pillar of the community, time and time again. Like a true community leader, he usually operates behind the scenes and rarely stands to receive his recognition.
When a half-dozen businesses were lost to a fire downtown this winter, Nizzoli quickly established a GoFundMe page to raise money for those affected by the fire. To date, the page has raised about $4,300 of its $10,000 goal.
While some business owners would view other establishments in town as competition, Nizzoli considers them friends.
“You’d rather see the people across the street survive and thrive,” he said. “After the fires on First, it just shows that everyone cares about everyone as a whole. This is still a small town and most of us don’t think of each other as competitors.”
Nizzoli (who has four kids: Nick, Julian, Lucia and Mirabella), and his wife, Sandi Nicholson, still enjoy the aspect of small town life in many humorous ways.
“I have two kids in high school and two boys grown and moved on. The joke is, careful what you do in Sandpoint because I’ll know about it before you do,” Nizzoli said. “I’ll say, ‘Why were you going 40 mph down Division?’ and they’ll say, ‘How do you know about that, that was like five minutes ago?’ When your dad runs a pub you find out fast.”
Marx said Eichardt’s is one of the main reasons he feels the tight-knit community vibe in Sandpoint.
“I’m not a real outgoing individual,” he said. “I have a hard time making close friends. When I lived in Durango, I had a couple of decent friends and had a coffee house in town, but I never felt like I had a connection to the community. Thanks to Eichardt’s, I became intertwined into so many aspects of our community — the arts, business, music — that would’ve never happened without the pub.
“I couldn’t be more proud that Jeff has taken it to the places where he’s taken it,” Marx continued. “I couldn’t be more happy with the people he’s surrounded himself with to continue this legacy. You walk in here, you’re treated like family, whether you’re a newcomer or have lived here all your life. It’s a special place full of special people. Thanks to Jeff to have not forgotten what we started from our original vision.”
Here’s to 25 more years.
To celebrate 25 years, Eichardt’s will have Neighbor John Kelly playing on Saturday, April 27, and a special Monday Night Blues Jam with Truck Mills on Monday, April 29.
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