Willard’s comes under new ownership
RONAN – After three and a half decades, 9,017 free six packs, and building a fortress for family, friends, and community to gather, Julie and Willard Moore handed over the keys of their business to new ownership at the end of November.
When the bright-eyed young couple decided to move to Ronan 35 years ago from Missoula, they had no idea they would stay so long. Willard was a card dealer at the time and Julie, his then-girlfriend, was working at a local store when he bought the bar.
The 19-year-old gave her two weeks notice and started working with Willard not long after the initial purchase. The pair got married soon after and the rest is history.
“This is who we are,” Julie said. “This has really defined us. Our idea was that we were going to buy it and flip it, so we are the world’s slowest flippers. We just kind of fell in love with everybody here and never left.”
The Moores are proud that they’ve spent most of their time making the bar a family-friendly place.
“It’s been kind of a family place the whole time,” Willard said.
The pair have tried a lot of different business approaches over the years. The bar has expanded and undergone remodeling. Years of poker games, live music, and other marketing strategies made the rounds through the bar, but commitment to community and family was a resounding theme as fads came and went.
The couple would bring their two children to the bar in a carrier, set it on the counter, and set to work each day when they were young. Birthday parties and afterschool pool games abounded in the bar during the years the Moore’s children were growing up. Now, those grown children come back to visit during college breaks.
Support of Pioneer Days, softball teams, a Starving Artist Art Show, and other events were also things the Moores did to make the bar a family — instead of a place to just buy and sell booze.
“If you are only here for the alcohol then it’s a lot cheaper to buy it at home and drink it,” Willard said. “It’s the social part of the bar that makes the bar. That’s what we will miss. It’s so much of our social life.”
Julie said she knows the names of her customers’ children, grandchildren and pets. She’s watched farmers do business from the countertops, and drop things off for the free-table, where people can lay out items they don’t want anymore and take from the pile.
“You can’t believe the transactions that have taken place here,” Julie said.
The Moores call their customers “the bar family,” and just as Willard and Julie have found happiness in being a part of their customers’ lives, the bar family has also borne witness to major life events for the Moores. When their son graduated from college it was a must that the bar family attend the celebration. When their daughter got married, the bar family had an invite.
Not all the shared events have been celebrations. There have been a few sad funerals within the bar community.
“I laid some photo albums out on the table,” Julie said in the week leading up to the bar’s ownership transfer. “You see who is still with us and who isn’t. We’ve been through a lot.”
Members of the bar family have reacted in different ways to the sale of the bar.
“This town is just great,” Julie said. “The people are the best thing. We’ve had such reactions … We’ve had a couple cry here because they met here. We’ve had people who are happy for us because they know we can never leave. We’ve had people who are upset with us. It’s going to be okay.”
Julie is going to help the new owner, Mike Bartel, adjust to working in the bar, but for the first time in 35 years the couple will have some free time off to spend together.
“I said I want to be a regular person and have two days off,” Julie said. “This weekend will be my last Saturday. Two days off will be a huge luxury for me.”
Julie and Willard haven’t had the same hours off in years, they said. Spending more than one day a week together is something they are looking forward to.
“Mike’s a great kid, a local kid,” Willard said. “We’re real happy that it is somebody local that’s taking over.”
The pair plan to visit their daughter in Oklahoma, but keep Ronan as their base camp.
“We never have gotten to go anywhere together,” Julie said. “We aren’t going anywhere though. This is home. It’s been a good run and we’re going to miss a lot of people.”