Beehive's buzz of 40 years well-remembered
ALBANY – It wasn’t fortune-telling, but Ali Esfandiary did have a vision.
“I told my brother, ‘We're not gonna get rich, but we're gonna have a good life.’”
Forty years later, as premonitions go, this one seemed to work out.
On Jan. 28, Ali, his wife, Patty, his brother Nariman and guests from far and wide, closed for good the town’s world-famous steakhouse, the Fort Griffin General Merchandise and Beehive Saloon.
“We bought it from a guy, who bought it for his son-in-law and daughter. They didn't last, he was making a bank payment on the empty building,” Ali recalled. “When I came around, I said I'd like to buy your restaurant.”
He put his hands to his forehead, mimicking the man’s relief.
“He's like, ‘Oh my God. Here's a key, go look!’”
Patty remembered that first moment.
“When we walked in, we fell in love with it,” she said. “The very first time we saw it, we wanted it.”
It had been shut down for a couple of years, Nariman remembered. Cobwebs and “dirty stuff” covered the tables, as if the previous occupants had just walked out one night and never looked back.
Ali conferred with Nariman.
“I told my brother, ‘It is small enough. Me and my kids run the kitchen, and you and my wife run the front, we can make it.’”
Albany cash register
And make it they did.
When people talk about Albany, Texas, it usually centers on one of three pillars.
The Fort Griffin Fandangle, the annual outdoor musical theater chronicling the community’s frontier history.
The Old Jail Art Center with its world-class exhibits.
Nariman chuckled at the memory of a local late bank president.
“God bless his soul, he told us, ‘You're the best cash register this town has ever seen,’” he said.
The restaurant’s name isn’t merely an homage to the town’s frontier heritage, it really was the general store to Fort Griffin. Famous cowboys such as Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp likely bought their socks and ammunition within its roughhewn walls 140 years ago.
Famous cowboys still visit the Beehive, though the most well-known rode their horses on celluloid.
“Oh, yeah, I had a lot them; Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall,” Ali said. “They were making a movie here, they ate with me every night.”
Pictures attesting to the stars’ patronage are scattered through the restaurant and around the bar.
Her best joy
But the story of the restaurant isn’t simply about the famous people who passed through here. Rather, the real depth of it echoes in the difference it made in so many lives over the course of four decades.
“I only have two natural-born children, but I have a plethora of kids that call me mom, and I love that,” Patty said. “That is my best joy of my whole life. I've raised kids the way I think they should be raised, with respect.
“You know, what you give into life, you're gonna get it back.”
For Tiffany Waggoner, the Esfandiarys may as well be her parents.
“I can't put it in words. They're my family. My mom and my dad, my sister and my brother,” she said. “They've always believed in me and been there for me when no one really had to be.”
Waggoner now lives in Wichita Falls, employed as a registered nurse. She came for the Beehive’s final weekend to join Jessica and Stepon, Patty and Ali’s grown children, and a few others who came to work the restaurant one final time.
Kathleen Evans hasn’t worked the Beehive for two years. Her husband, Brant, originally was hired to cook and Kathleen “just kind of tagged along.”
“It's where I got my work ethic, where I learned what it was like to actually work hard and be part of a team,” she said.
Dad’s last laugh, served over dinner at the Beehive
That extended to when she was expecting their son Oren-Arie.
“I didn't miss a beat, to be honest. I still bartended, I still bused tables, I still took orders, got food out,” Kathleen said. “I worked the entire time up until the day before I had him, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.”
When lunch ended she went home, and the next morning that baby was a-coming.
“I didn't get my turkey that Thanksgiving, but I still got my butterball,” she said, laughing.
Within this hive, we're all alive
Jeremy Maurer also answered the call, driving north from Wimberley to work one last time. His day job is in sales at an Austin tech startup.
“With every job interview I've had they ask, ‘What's something not on your resume that's had a big impact in your life?’” he said. His answer has always been people skills. The ability to read people and talk to them in whatever mood they might be in.
A sign over an outside door reads, “Within this hive we're all alive, good whiskey makes us funny!” Spirits aside, perhaps that is what’s made the Beehive such an enduring Texas institution.
“The food's great, of course that gets you here. But so many people come for the people more than anything,” Maurer said. “They come for the personalities.”
The 'good stuff'
Ali wanders into the room and he and Maurer engage in some playful razzing.
Then, a customer pokes his head in and tells Ali he’s got to come and have a last shot with them.
“He used to have a bottle right here filled with water. So, when people would ask like that guy, he'd take a shot of water,” Maurer said, muttering out the side of his mouth. “That's a trade secret though, I don't know if anyone knows that.”
Ali admits it straight out when asked, however.
“That is right. The people always want me to have a shot; man, I can’t have shots all night long,” he said. “So, I usually have my own bottle with this shot in it, and I take it and they're all going, ‘Oh that's good!’”
Saturday night also happened to be the winter formal dance for Albany High School. As such, younger staffers who were out drop by wearing their best, posing for pictures with the owners, their children and each other.
Still in her black mini and heels, Gabby Lopez went right back to work, draping a cloth over a cleared table, then putting the flatware and napkins in place.
What about the winter formal?
“It was boring,” she deadpanned. A few minutes later, she reappeared in work clothes.
Making it special
As the evening went on and the restaurant emptied, the inevitability the Beehive’s final night started to settle in. A growing sentimentality colored the mood of those left and champagne was opened to mark the moment.
John Caldwell, a longtime friend who played on the restaurant’s patio that evening with the band, spoke from his heart.
“I've had a lot of tears today. I know it's not the last time I'll see you,” he said. “But it's been so special. You guys worked so hard, and you made it so different. You did it right.”
“It only happens in this country,” Ali responded. “We came from nowhere to this town 40 years ago and we built a restaurant. The country gave us a chance.”
“They gave you a chance, but you did the right thing, Ali,” Caldwell answered. “You were always talking to people at this table or that table. I mean, you made it special.”
Elder statesman storyteller
Though the Fort Griffin General Merchandise and Beehive Saloon is closing, it’s not the end.
Within the next week, the downtown Abilene Beehive, which Nariman runs, will celebrate its 16th anniversary.
“My brother is tired and the drive is really wearing him out,” Nariman said. Ali commutes each day from Potosi.
But it was the recent sudden death of one of his staff that really got Ali thinking. Callen Benavides was training to be a cook when he took ill. Within a week, he was gone.
“That woke me up and I go, ‘You know what? I am a cook, too, it could be me tonight when I go home, I die,” Ali said. “Maybe God was trying to tell me, ‘Man, hey; enough is enough.’”
At 72, he can’t say he and Patty haven’t ever had a real vacation where a worry about the Beehive wasn’t in the back of their minds. Now, he’s promised her road trips across the country – and perhaps even Europe – before returning home.
“You're not really going to retire, you'll be the elder statesman storyteller, showing up at the Abilene restaurant,” Maurer teased.
He’s not wrong.
“He's gonna semi retire,” Nariman said. “He's gonna come to the restaurant and just visit with folks, tell them stories and do what he does best.
“You know who Paul Harvey was? He’s got nothing on my brother.”
Dreams and wishes to live on
There are some things Patty and Ali will take with them. The beat-up cowboy hat he’d wear when catering (“I’d put boots on, too. An Iranian cowboy? Crazy!” he said, laughing.)
They will sell the Beehive, but not just to anybody.
“The best thing that I'm hoping for right now is that some cute little couple - I was 24 when we bought it, he was 31 – gets the same feeling we had the first time we walked through that door,” Patty said. “Because this place is amazing. It fills up with warmth and love.”
And the hundreds of dollar bills lining the barroom and hallway? Most are covered with every kind of message.
Nearly 50 are in Ali’s office, glued in a column on the wall, each bill featuring the missive of an ex-bartender pining for a waitress. It was expensive stationary to be sure, but apparently it worked. Ali said the couple has been married for years.
No, those dollar bills are staying.
“I'll leave them here because they belong here,” Patty said. In her opinion, the monetary worth of these notes was long ago surpassed by their true value.
“The people who put those dollar bills up, they put them there when they got married, when their kids were born,” Patty said. “When they celebrated a new job or met someone special. We can’t take them down.
“That's their dreams and wishes.”
This article originally appeared on Abilene Reporter-News: Beehive's buzz of 40 years well-remembered