Three Miracles

Three Miracles

Three Miracles

The Tavern has been closed before. From 2005 to 2008, the fate of the New Wilmington landmark was unknown. Susan and Joe Hougelman gave it all they had and needed a bit more to open the doors in 2009. Susan sat down with us and shared their remarkable story and kindly to put it into writing below.

Every business owner has a story to tell.  Maggie and Matt are in the beginning chapters of their Tavern story.  I was privileged to meet Matt and Maggie at the Tavern and hear their plans and dreams.  They were so gracious and made me feel like an honored guest in their dream.  My heart swelled at hearing their vision and it wasn’t long before I knew that this family is going to breathe life into this old building and they are going to create something incredible here in New Wilmington! 

Maggie asked me to share my story of the Tavern with her. It’s a story full of miracles. It’s a story of God’s amazing love!  

One day in the summer of 2008 while visiting my sister in Maryland, I came upon a real estate listing in New Wilmington for a historical building built in 1849 that once housed the famous Tavern on the Square Restaurant. The Tavern on the Square restaurant opened in 1933 and served the New Wilmington Community until it’s closing in 2006. It was a restaurant famous for their homemade sticky buns and family styled dinners that drew people from all over Pennsylvania. The Tavern was an upscale restaurant and although I lived in New Wilmington, nearly my entire life, I had never eaten there. My family owned the “other” restaurant in town.  I did apply for a job at the Tavern when I was 15 and was heartbroken when I was turned down. (Little did I know then that I would someday own the place) Now the Tavern stood empty and although I passed it nearly every day, I never paid much attention to it.  

While viewing the real estate listing for the former Tavern, I felt a nudge from God to go and look at the building. Do you ever get those nudges? You don’t really hear God’s audible voice, but you know He is talking to you. That’s what happened to me. Joe and I weren’t looking for another restaurant to own. As I said before, although the Tavern had been closed for three years, I had never even thought about it and besides Joe was content at the Neshannock Creek Inn, but God was telling us to make an appointment to look at the Tavern building, and we weren't going to disobey God.  Two days later Joe and I met the realtor and the moment we walked through the doors we felt the Holy Spirit come alive and Joe and I both knew that God wanted us to open this restaurant. 

Built in 1849, The was once the home of a man named Seth Poppino. Seth was a doctor and founder of the local Methodist church in town. Seth and his wife Mary were also abolitionists. The Tavern was once part of the underground railroad and there was a tunnel underneath the building where slaves made their way to freedom. When Joe and I were cleaning and restoring the restaurant we would often pause at the hidden staircase above this tunnel and think about the slaves that were once hidden there. How absolutely terrified they must have been. The Poppinos also must have been equally as frightened. They were risking their lives to help these precious men and women escape slavery. We knew that Seth and Mary must have been people of God, and this house was used to God’s work. That’s exactly what Joe and I promised to do too if God helped us buy this building. Our restaurant would always give glory and honor to God Our tag line was, “Feed your souls as well as your bellies.” We wanted to people to encounter God while at our restaurant.   

When Joe and I told others of our plan their response was not what we expected.  “Impossible!” they said.  “Nothing is impossible with God, " we answered “Don’t do it. It’s a money trap. It hasn’t been a successful restaurant in a long time. It’s an old building. You won’t make it,” said our family and friends and just about everyone else we talked to about buying the Tavern. But I heard God’s voice, and I knew that He would make a way where there was no way. That’s the kind of God we serve.  

There are several steps that had to happen for us to be able to buy the Tavern and truly they all did seem nearly impossible. We felt as though we would need of several miracles.  First, we had to sell the Neshannock Creek Inn and along came miracle number one. Crystal was a beloved employee that had cooked for our restaurant for 10 years. She was a single woman who was a hard worker and a great cook.  Joe thought she would make a perfect restaurant owner.  My husband sat down with Crystal and asked her if she ever thought of owning her own restaurant. After answering affirmatively, Joe and Crystal worked out a deal and soon our beloved cook became the new owner of her very own restaurant. 15 years later, Crystal can still be found in the kitchen of the Neshannock Creek Inn serving up scrumptious food for her loyal patrons. If you’re ever in the area, and you like a good fish sandwich, The Neshannock Creek Inn is the place to go!   

The second miracle came when we applied for a business loan. We sat down with our local bank manager and told him of our plans. This is just one of the many things I love about living in a small town. The bank manager knew us personally. He knew that Joe and I were hard workers, and he knew we had made our first business successful. Remember this was in 2008 when the housing bubble burst and we were in a recession. Banks didn’t want to lend money, and Joe and I had very little savings or assets.  I am not sure any other bank would have loaned us the money, but because we dealt with our hometown bank, and they knew our reputation, they approved our loan.  

The third miracle happened when we ran out of money to open the restaurant. As I mentioned previously, we had very little savings, and we knew it would take every bit of money that we did have to bring The Tavern back to life. (I’d like to take moment here to tell you, although the restaurant was called the Tavern on the Square, it was not a real Tavern. We didn’t serve alcohol, but we did serve some amazing sticky buns!) After spending months restoring the restaurant and buying new equipment, furniture, dishes etc. We were down to our last $1000.00 dollars. Joe said, “We have to open now.” The very last item to check off our list was to have the building and restaurant inspected by the Health Department. After the inspection the inspector sat us down and told us that our fire suppression system was bad. We would need to install a new one before we could open. 

That was devastating news to Joe. He knew that we were out of money and a fire suppression system would cost about $7000.00 He didn’t know what we were going to do, but I did. God had brought us this far in our journey, and He wasn’t about to let us down now. My Faith was so strong, and I had already seen God work miracles in my life. I prayed. I prayed and I wrote a story. You see I had been blogging about our adventures in opening a restaurant. I didn’t know if I had any readers, but writing has always been a way for me to let out my emotions, so I would write daily stories on my blog about each day's accomplishments and what God was doing in our lives through this restaurant. I wrote a blog post about the inspection and the fire suppression system and at the end of my story I asked if someone knew where to get one used and if they could also help us install it. 

The next day a man ( an angel sent by God) showed up at the back door of the Tavern. He introduced himself as Dick Whittaker and he handed me an envelope. He said, “This is for your fire suppression system. You don’t have to pay it back and the only thanks I need is an invitation to dinner once you open.” He then walked away. I was shaking as I ran through the empty restaurant to find Joe. We opened the envelope together and inside was a check for 7000 dollars!  I have read stories like this where people have needed money and God miraculously provided that money, but I’m not sure I really believed them. They just seemed too crazy to be real, but that is exactly what happened to Joe and I.  After opening the envelope, with my mouth agape I ran to the hidden staircase where I had spent many nights praying and worshipping the Lord. I fell to my knees and my tears poured and sobs wrecked my body. I cried tears of gratefulness and of unworthiness. “How could you love me so much Lord?” (Dick also sent me a dozen roses on opening day. A few weeks later we invited him to dinner and from then on Dick became a good friend and wonderful mentor to me until he passed away at the age of ninety in 2019.) 

We bought our fire suppression system, got-reinspected and this time the restaurant passed. After several months of hard work, and many days of trusting on God to provide (I compared buying this restaurant to being out in the middle of the great big ocean in just a little rowboat. You can’t see the other side, but you just keep paddling and trusting God to get you to where you need to be!) we were able to open.  

In January of 2009, The Tavern on the Square was launched and became an immediate success. Our old-fashioned home-style cooking along with those famous sticky buns brought people from all over the United States to our restaurant located in the heart of the little town of New Wilmington Pennsylvania.  

For several years Joe cooked, and I was the hostess of the Tavern.  I’m a people person (Joe not so much) and I loved greeting and welcoming our guests as they came through the door. Joe loved to cook, and he was good with the financial part of owning a business. We made a great team!  

In 2017, Joe was diagnosed with bladder cancer. The cancer, along with the stress of owning a busy restaurant wiped out his body and he felt he could no longer run the restaurant.  After much prayer, we knew that it was time to sell.  Once again, God provided a miracle and we were able to sell our restaurant and today Joe is cancer free! 

Four years later, Matt and Maggie come along and God has led them to fulfill their calling. They are both chefs, and oh my goodness the plans and ideas they have for the Tavern are greater than I ever imagined.  It’s not going to be the old’s going to be better! Please show them love and grace.  Embrace and support them, because they want to make this restaurant thrive in our community.  They are going to be working hard and risking much to launch their dream. It’s a great dream! 

With God all things are possible. 

Thank you, Maggie and Matt, for allowing me to share my story of the Tavern. I can't wait to see YOUR story unfold!  I pray blessings over you and around your family.  Let God lead you and you will be successful beyond your wildest dreams! 

Your friend,

Susan Hougelman  

Susan is the author of "Inside the Simple Life: Finding Inspiration among the Amish."

She can be reached on her facebook page, Simple Life in New Wilmington, Pa

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