JK O'Donnell's Irish Ale House
is a staple in downtown Fort Wayne's food and drink scene today. But you might not realize the role it played in helping launch the urban core's social scene in the first place.
Business leaders and investors, Scott and Melissa Glaze, took a chance on downtown when they purchased the building at 121 W. Wayne St. and opened the Irish-themed establishment in 2007. While they sold their interest in the business in 2016 to Leah Kenna and Cari Bean, their legacy as trailblazers lives on—and offers a shining example to other investors.
When JK O'Donnell's opened more than 12 years ago, it was one of few establishments downtown open for both lunch
and dinner during the week. (Today, there are more than a dozen, according to the Downtown Improvement District's dining guide
Downtown looked and felt different, too. Parkview Field had yet to be built, so JKs was a game-changer of sorts for the social scene. Prior to that, downtown was a bit of a ghost town after 5 p.m.
So why did the Glazes decide to take a risk and invest in the urban core?
JK O'Donnell's offers outdoor dining.
Having first made their mark on Fort Wayne with their business Fort Wayne Metals
, they were inspired by the rich culture of other locales.
“The starting point was when we traveled internationally,” Melissa explains. "We saw the vitality of the city centers in other parts of the world, and Scott’s vision was to bring that same spirit to downtown Fort Wayne.”
The opportunity presented itself, and the Glazes were able to purchase the building JKs now calls home. At various points in history, it has been a shoe store, a pharmacy, and most recently, a residential space.
According to Melissa, they purchased the space with the intention of restoring it to its full glory. In her words, that meant, “bringing it back to life and giving it a good purpose again.”
However, at that point, the Glazes hadn’t committed to the idea of being restaurateurs themselves, per se.
“Our plan was just to get the building ready for a tenant come in, but at that time, nobody was willing to pursue a restaurant downtown,” Melissa says. “So we stepped in, and we became landlord and tenant.”
Taking matters into their own hands, the Glazes now had another decision to make: What type of business would occupy the building? They had a few non-negotiables in mind, Melissa explains.
“We knew that we needed to create something that was a destination, something that would draw people in, and something that would make it worth just going to that destination just for itself," she says. "We had the resources and the connections in Ireland, and we thought that a true Irish pub—a public house experience—would entice people to come.”
With authenticity front and center, the Glazes had decor shipped over from Ireland. The woodworking and furniture was curated with painstaking attention to detail—special touches that are still evident today.
Melissa oversaw the buildout and the day-to-day operations for some time.
JK O'Donnell's is known for its pretzel appetizer.
Along with the pub atmosphere, she says they were equally concerned with getting the food and drink menu right. Regarding the latter, she says JKs played a part in changing the beer culture in Fort Wayne, too. For example, hard cider imported from Ireland and known as Magners in the United States was a huge hit at the pub, so much so that they couldn't keep it on the shelves.
There was also the fact that they had more than 100 beers, both bottled and drafts, on the menu, exposing locals to a greater variety of beverages. Customers could enjoy them at the pub and then purchase them at local liquor stores, which Melissa refers to as a “trickle-down effect.”
Speaking of effects, Melissa says downtown Fort Wayne is poised to hit next-level status provided it invests in a key facet.
“I think for a vibrant downtown, we need retail,” she says. “That's been my focus for the last three years, and along with that, I think we need the benevolent landlord. We want to have local and regional retail shops or someone with multiple locations in the city center, so I think that's very important. We need that aspect brought to downtown.”