by Len Lear
I once wrote that sports metaphors dance off the tongue of John Paul (his friends call him “J.P.”) Boles, 54, who graduated from Harriton High School (lower Main Line) in 1982, where he played varsity lacrosse. He also played on the football team for three years at St. Francis College in Loretto (Division 3), near Pittsburgh.
“The decision to go there was easy,” said Boles. “It was the only college that accepted me.”
Boles may have earned a dubious place in the college football record books. In his entire three-year career, this wide receiver caught a grand total of one pass in actual game combat for a total of two yards – though to be fair, it was a touchdown pass. Boles was also an NCAA men’s lacrosse official for 15 years until 2010.
But for the past 18 years, Boles has been one of the most colorful restaurant owners in the Philly area. In April of 2001 he opened The Ugly Moose at 443 Shurs Lane in Manayunk, and in January of 2004 he opened The Garage right next door. Both were noisy, funky bars that could loosely be called “gastropubs” in current parlance.
“Every time I made $10 at The Ugly Moose,” he pointed out at the time, “I bought a sack of nails so I could build The Garage also.”
Referring to the risk involved in The Garage since he had no financial backers, as most high-profile new restaurants do, Boles said, “I stacked up the chips in the middle of the table and said, ‘Let’s get it on.’ This new restaurant is like putting $350,000 on 36, black, in Las Vegas. I’m not robbing Peter to pay Paul. I shot Peter, killed him, and now I can feel the lawmen breathing down my neck.”
The Ugly Moose lasted 15 years; The Garage became Deke’s BBQ around 2008 and closed in the Spring of 2017. One or both might still be open except for the fact that the properties were sold, and the new owner demolished them and built 15 townhouses.
“The hardest thing I ever did in my life,” said Boles last week, “was build The Ugly Moose literally from the ground up. I used all my available capital, credit cards and an SBA loan. And I actually paid them all off!
“Life is not a superhighway. I feel like I’m on a detour with three flat tires. There is always a roadblock in business, especially in Philadelphia, but I’m determined to be there at the finish line when they wave the checkered flag.”
Boles has gone from the frying pan into the fire. Since 2005, he was essentially a silent partner at Baggataway Tavern, formerly Billy Cunningham’s Court, at 31 N. Front St. in Conshohocken. The tavern is named after a form of lacrosse played originally by the Ojibwa Indians, first recorded in 1800. It seats 65 inside and 36 more on an outside deck. (From 1987 to 2005, the pub was owned by Philadelphia 76ers legend, Billy Cunningham, who did not spend a whole lot of time shmoozing with customers.)
“After I sold The Ugly Moose,” said Boles, “I sat on my ass and did nothing until I took over all operations at Baggataway Tavern. Since 2006 I really was not involved with the daily operation until October, 2018. One of several partners is my brother, Tom. Another partner, Stew Keener, is an owner at Bar Hygee in Fairmount.
“We are different from many of the other restaurants in the Conshohocken area because we have a ‘scratch kitchen.’ (The chef is Marcos Contreras.) Everything we serve is prepared in house.”
Boles insists that the best advice he ever received was from the late Jack McMahon, one of Billy Cunningham’s partners.
“He said to never worry about what the other guy is doing; worry about yourself. This can apply to anything in life. He also used an old one-liner from the great John Wooden, of UCLA hoops fame. He said 80% of people don’t care about your problems, and the other 20% are glad you have them.”
When asked what historical person he would most like to meet, Boles did not hesitate.
“George Washington,” he said. “He accomplished more before he was 25 years old than 100 people I know combined. His reputation was above reproach. He took on the role of leading America towards independence against a super power with a seemingly endless campaign, using local state militias made up of farmers and blacksmiths, etc.
“He lacked money, ammunition, uniforms and lost far more battles than he won. Desertion was a huge problem, but somehow he kept the continental army together and ultimately defeated a far superior military force. And was in the thick of every battle he led. He was absolutely bulletproof, determined and brave.”
For more information, call 610-8348085 or visit BaggatawayTavern.com. Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org