The luck of the Irish is upon Kennedy’s Irish Pub, a Waterford Township mainstay along Huron Street that stakes its reputation on its hospitality akin to the Emerald Isle’s. Add in that touch of authentic Irish cuisine, spirited conversation and a one-of-its-kind ambiance, it’s no wonder why the pub is celebrating its 40th anniversary.
“We have a lot of regulars and many come from out of state, too, because we’re an Irish pub and people think it’s friendly,” said Erin Meilak, the daughter of owners Bill and Cheryl Kennedy and the one who runs and manages the daily operations. “We have a friendly camaraderie here, just like in Ireland. We don’t just serve you a drink; we want to talk to you.”
In appreciation to its customers, Kennedy’s will be holding an anniversary bash Saturday, July 21 from 4 p.m. to close. There will be giveaways and appetizers, along with raffle prizes, and sing-along entertainment by The Gaels, an Irish band that debuted at Kennedy’s 40 years ago.
A Jesuit brother for over 56 years, Danny McCullough was part of The Gaels original band as a guitar and banjo player. He still comes into Kennedy’s every Friday and orders a fish dinner.
” I still remember that night,” he said. “We were singing ballads, Irish rebels songs — all authentic Irish. The crowd was wild and receptive. Everyone joined in like a family party.”
The anniversary bash promises a beer pong tournament and a dunk tank. Proceeds will benefit the Waterford Fire Department Benevolent Fund. Commemorative t-shirts and shot glasses will also be for sale.
“It’s a thank you party that we’re still here through the good and tough times,” Meilak said.
The pub has a deep history and with that comes scores of stories, long lasting friendships, and fond memories.
“There was a lady on her way to the hospital to have her baby, but never made it and had the baby here,” Meilak said. “She named her Kennedy.”
Meilak keeps a memory book with lists of names and notations behind the bar as a memento of the patrons.
“My family went to Ireland and I saw they kept a guestbook in front, so I started one for the purpose of when I get older and glance through it I hope it brings memories to me of all the people I came to know,” Meilak said.
Kennedy’s opened its doors in June 1972 after Bill and Cheryl Kennedy sold their lakefront home, pontoon boat and Bill’s motorcycle to buy the pub.
“Bill gave up his retirement and everything we had to buy this place and I was scared to death, but it all worked out,” Cheryl said.
Meilak can still recall her earliest memories when her parents opened the pub.
“I was 8-years-old attending St. Benedict’s when mom was tending bar and I would come over to make a burger at lunch and then run back to school,” she said. “Then my son went to (what is now) Marist Academy and I was tending bar. History repeats itself.”
Four generations of Kennedy family members have been employed there throughout the years, including Meilak’s siblings, Tom and Autumn Kennedy, and grandchildren: Meghan Matson, Ryan Matson, and Michael Meilak.
“It started with my mom and dad, then my sister and I, and now my sister’s kids work here and my son comes in and sorts bottles,” Meilak said. “My grandma Alice used to come in and wash dishes until she was 92.”
A chair in Alice’s honor hangs on the wall to this day, along with a variety of eclectic memorabilia, most of which has a story to tell.
“A ton of this decor on the walls has been given to us over the years,” Meilak said.
There’s a framed American flag, sent from a regular who flew his F-16 over the skies of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom; an Orchard Lake St. Mary’s hockey jersey; numerous photos of sports teams Kennedy’s has sponsored over the years; and a bevy of other tchotchkes and pictures.
However, the wooden dining tables — which came from The Pub on Telegraph Road and were made in the 1930s — speak volumes to the legacy of Kennedy’s.
“We let people carve their initials in them and some come back 15 years later just to see if they’re still there,” Meilak said. “It’s a big deal to them.”
One of those carvers was a member of a U.S. Army Airborne Rangers. He etched a parachute into one of the tables that even today remains “his” table. He died in the line of duty.
There are photos filled with the beaming faces of patrons.
There is also the “marriage pole,” complete with photos of newlyweds who had their pictures snapped under the Kennedy’s placard.
“There are many people who met here, had their first date here and follow tradition of coming here on St. Patrick’s Day,” Meilak said.
Then there’s the yearly bus trip to downtown Detroit, where the staff and patrons would go to Honest Johns “Moon Drop” to raise money for Children’s Hospital of Michigan.
Cheryl Kennedy attributes the success of the business to her loyal patrons.
“In 1976, they were putting in M-59 and we almost didn’t survive, but because of our regulars, we made it,” she said. “I still remember people who came in when we put food on paper plates and cooked the food on a pancake griddle, or the times when our regulars used to call our parking lot ‘Kennedy’s on the Lake’ because it was all dirt and held water.”
Kennedy’s rapport with its patrons can be seen in the napkin racks that exhibit personal photos or the occasional freebie to special guests like Richard Schachern.
“He passed away, but he trained paramedics and they would come in for lunch,” Meilak said. “Mom would give them what she called Waterford Water,” a shot of peppermint schnapps.
Some regulars sit perched on their personal bar stools. Meilak sets down the drink knowing the order before a word is uttered.
Over the years, the pub was expanded and the menu was tweaked. Kennedy’s is renowned for the fish and chips and corned beef, but the menu isn’t limited to those dishes.
“The key is to keep new people coming back, so we’re doing more food and we take pride in it,” Meilak said.
Kennedy’s also purchased the vacant building next door that is currently used for training exercises conducted by the Waterford Fire Department.
“It used to be a halfway house and now the Fire Department uses it for safety training, but as soon as they’re done we will demolish it and maybe add on,” Meilak said.
After 40 years, the neighborhood pub is still a hot spot that draws all generations.
“I just like people and have enjoyed it over the years, but it’s the people you come to know that makes us stay,” Cheryl Kennedy said.