August 28, 2023 at 2:28 p.m.
He brought us the blues... and made us happy
It’s safe to say that Anton (“Tony”) Hollinger was predestined to be a restaurateur. In a farming region just outside Linz, Austria, where he was born, his parents owned a tavern and adjacent two-lane bowling alley (why not?). At age 7 he was already helping out, pouring beer for the thirsty patrons, who lavished attention on the cute little tyke dressed up in Lederhosen. They anointed him the International Beer Pouring Champion. “Everyone called me Tony,” he says, “except my mother. When she called me Anton, I knew I was in trouble.” But that wasn’t too often. He was too busy making money. “The customers gave me tips,” he remembers. “I could make as much as $30 on the weekends. That was a lot of money in those days,” especially for a 7-year-old. And Tony learned how to handle money, a skill that would pay off for him in his later years.”
Tony was not a great student in school, because everyone at the tavern and at home spoke the local dialect, whereas elementary and high school classes and tests were in High German. That was like a foreign tongue to him. And that, in turn, limited his options for higher education under the ground rules of Austria’s school system, so Tony chose four years of training in the hotel & restaurant school. It was a wise choice. “They taught me everything, from serving, cooking and proper eating and walking style to all the various positions from clerk to manager, and on top of that, what was involved in opening and operating a hotel or restaurant.”
Tony was 19 years old and well prepared when he finished the coursework, and he then went promptly into … (wait for it) … military service. “In Austria, there’s mandatory military service at age 19, for a minimum of nine months” he points out. For six months he was the cannoneer in a crowded and sweaty tank crew, and for the last three months he was the bar manager at the officer’s club on his base. Did he like it? “No,” he says emphatically. “I wasn’t good at following orders, and I wasn’t making any money.”
Upon his discharge he took a job as a bar manager in a huge bistro in Passau, just over the border in Bavaria, which was curiously named the “Amadeus,” though no Mozart music echoed through its halls. He stayed on for a few years until a friend of his opened a pub and asked him to become a partner. He did so for almost three years, when it was discovered that the “friend” was stealing money from their joint bank account. Says Tony, “I split from there, got a loan, and opened my first pub in 1988 on my own. I learned the hard way and never had a business partner after that.” The tavern, called “Vehikel,” was a brand new but old-style English pub in Enns, one of the oldest towns in Austria, whose city charter dates from the year 1212. That pub thrived, and Tony held onto it for nine years before selling at a comfortable profit in 1997.
He sold simply because he had decided to move to Florida. “I always had a love for the United States,” he avers. “As a kid I watched every western movie I could find. I had taken a couple of trips to Florida and had a friend there who was general manager of the Classics Golf course at Lely in Naples. He helped me get situated.” Tony had done well in the stock market and had the profit from selling Vehikel, so he effectively retired at age 34, a rather remarkable achievement then or now.
But he knew he had to do something besides boating, camping and playing golf – his main preoccupations at the time. He had his eye out for a good business opportunity, and apparently for a good feminine companion as well. On October 22, 2001 he met his match, Merrill, at the Pelican Larry sports bar in Naples, and they were married seven months later at a chapel in Las Vegas, with the music of Elvis Presley in the background.
Tony kept up his hunt for a good business opportunity, but Naples was becoming so crowded with traffic, street construction and population density that one had to plan one’s day on how many left turns one needed to make. Also, prices for housing and commercial property were soaring out of Tony’s comfort range, so when a friend in Englewood told him of a good property available here, Tony and Merrill decided to take it. The year was 2004 and the property was the Emporium Restaurant on Dearborn Street, which he initially renamed the “Coconut Grove.” In 2009 he remodeled it and gave the restaurant its current name: “Englewoods on Dearborn.”
The restaurant did well after the remodeling, but Tony felt something was missing. So he brought in to the restaurant’s courtyard a live attraction: a fig (Ficus) tree, cousin of the popular banyan, replete with gnarled branches and plump leaves. It was soon populated by a family of owls and a woodpecker. Now grown to humongous proportions, it quickly became a hit with nature lovers.
Still, something else was missing, so he brought in another kind of live attraction: good quality music. “In 2011, I brought in the blues,” he recalls, “and from then on our place became very popular.” The first bands were more or less local groups, but before long Tony was bombarded by agents for bands from all over the country – Chicago, New York, Memphis, Mississippi, Texas, California and more. The list of performers who have appeared at Englewoods on Dearborn reads like a Who’s Who of Grammy and Blues award winners: Biscuit Miller, Paul Nelson, Mike Zito, Ghost Town Blues, Jimmy Carpenter, Annika Chambers, Devon Allman, Johnny Rawls, Wayne Baker Brooks, John Primer, Jason Ricci, Eliza Neals and Victor Wainwright, to name a few. Whew!
The bar and restaurant are open from 4:00 p.m. with live entertainment Tuesday through Saturday, and you’ll almost always find one or both of the Hollingers there. Tony handles customer service, deals with the agents and the visiting bands and is the greeter, gladhanding the patrons while wearing his ever-present Panama hat. Merrill handles everything else: the staffing, the service, the bookkeeping, the kitchen, maintenance, whatever needs attention. “She is a workaholic,” he declares. They fit together like hand and glove, and they deliver a good product. Their business is to give patrons pleasure, and Tony emphasizes that “it makes me happy to make other people happy.”
Who among us wouldn’t be at least a little bit happier after an evening watching the owlets frolic, listening to the sounds of award-winning music and being hosted by the International Beer Pouring Champion?
Dean Laux is exploring interesting folks living in our community. If you know of anyone with an interesting background please send an email to: [email protected]. Include the person’s name, contact info and give a brief description of the person's background.