Kurt Hernon grew up with Old Overholt. His family, who had gone from working in the coal mines to the steel mills of western Pennsylvania, favored the old rye whiskey brand. The brand was firmly fixed in his mind growing up. It was always on the back bar of his uncle and grandfather. So, when he started making cocktails himself, Old Overholt was his natural go-to whiskey. To Hernon, it meant quality. He knew that, when he and his wife, Page, eventually owned a bar, Overholt would be his well rye. And so it was when the Hernons opened Speak of the Devil, a long, narrow cocktail bar on a side street off the main drag in Lorain, Ohio, just before Christmas 2017. “It’s probably really just from my bloodlines,” says Hernon of his rye preference.
Speak of the Devil—which is the only cocktail bar in Lorain, a city of 65,000 about a half hour west of Cleveland along the coast of Lake Erie—goes through three bottles of Old Overholt a night.
Speak of the Devil—which is the only cocktail bar in Lorain, a city of 65,000 about a half hour west of Cleveland along the coast of Lake Erie—goes through three bottles of Old Overholt a night. They open a case a week—and the bar is only open four nights a week. According to Hernon, the bar is the leading seller of Overholt in northern Ohio.
By November 2020, they had hit Overholt bottle number 1,000. (The landmark would have happened earlier if not for COVID-19.) That number caught the attention of Beam Suntory, which owns Old Overholt. Bradford Lawrence, a global small-batch whiskey specialist at Beam, seized upon the occasion to check out the obscure hole-in-the-wall.
“Yes, I was surprised,” says Lawrence. “At the time, I’d never heard of Lorain, Ohio. It was awesome to see a team so passionate about what they do, and that they were able to cultivate it in this small town of Lorain. Their level of hospitality, welcoming spirit, and dedication to tending a bar definitely puts their program up against any bar in the nation.”
Lawrence’s reaction was not unique.
“People thought we were kind of nuts when we told them what we were going to be doing,” says Kurt Hernon, who, some might say, looks like a lifelong bar owner, though he’s only been one for five years. “Particularly in Lorain. That was always the question. ‘In Lorain? Are you kidding me?’” Where the bar opened, there was very little happening on Broadway, the town’s main drag. “A few mom-and-pop places, diner joints, but the downtown was in a slow, simmering death through the aughts.”
“For so long, this city had such an inferiority complex …. I think it took somebody to jump off that cliff and say, ‘Look, we deserve nice things here.’” —Page Hernon
“For so long, this city had such an inferiority complex,” says Page Hernon. “I think it took fresh eyes. My dad would visit us and say, ‘Page, you live in a resort town and nobody knows it.’ I think it took somebody to jump off that cliff and say, ‘Look, we deserve nice things here.’”
Kurt and Page Hernon are not from Lorain. This makes their seemingly bottomless devotion to the down-on-its-luck, post-industrial town all the more remarkable. Kurt grew up in Warren, Ohio, Page in the small town of Arcadia. They met at a party at Kent State, married in 1991, and moved to Lorain a year later. Kurt spent 20 years as an air traffic controller at the Cleveland Air Route Traffic Control Center in Oberlin before retiring in 2013 at the age of 46, while Page raised their two kids and did community volunteer work. “There’s a lot of need here,” she says.
Kurt’s hobby of home brewing eventually led to an interest in spirits and cocktails. In the mid-1990s, the only real craft cocktail game in the area was the Velvet Tango Room in Cleveland. Whenever the Hernons went, however, they noticed something strange.
“Invariably we’d run into people from Lorain, paying $13 for a vodka cranberry,” recalls Page. That got the Hernons thinking. “Okay, we’re all out of town!” says Kurt. “Wouldn’t we stay home if we had a place to stay?” (The neon sign above Speak of the Devil’s door is an homage to similar neon seen in the window of Velvet Tango Room.)
The Hernons wanted to bring craft cocktails to Lorain, but first they had to find out if Lorainites even wanted them.
A dream was born. The Hernons’ second careers would be as bar owners. But the idea had to be tested. A decade ago, nobody was opening new businesses in downtown Lorain. Broadway was one dark storefront after another. If you wanted a drink, there was a single sports bar. The Hernons wanted to bring craft cocktails to Lorain, but first they had to find out if Lorainites even wanted them.
A Puerto Rican dance hall named Club Copa was one of the few going concerns on Broadway. The Hernons convinced the owners to let them run a cocktail-bar pop-up on Fridays for a few hours. At the first one, 50 people showed up. More pop-ups followed, one every three months, each with a specific drink theme.
From there, the Hernons shifted their attention to the Palace Theater down the street. Page was on the board of the 1928 theater, which was once the largest single-story movie house in Ohio, but it was struggling to survive. “I knew we couldn’t open a business in downtown Lorain if the theater wasn’t open and thriving,” she reasoned. “It’s such a draw and it brings so many people down here. To have it closed, I thought, it would eliminate a lot of the traffic.”
The couple put in 60 hours of volunteer work each week at the Palace for a year and a half, all the while looking for a space for their cocktail bar. Finally, one presented itself: a former barber shop in a 1904, two-story building on West 5th Street. They made a lowball offer of $52,000 on Thanksgiving Eve 2016.
To their astonishment, it was accepted. The Hernons put their house on the market with the intention of living above the bar, the once-common habit of old-style tavern owners.
After that, every aspect of how Speak of the Devil came to be seemed to have a fairy tale aspect to it. The saloon needed a bar. “We’d had architects who showed us drawings that we did not like at all,” says Kurt. “We were stuck with, ‘How are we going to make this look like it’s been a bar forever?’” Then one day he was looking at Craigslist and saw a tiny picture of an old bar for sale. It came from a Knights of Columbus hall in Akron, Ohio, and was currently in storage in nearby Sandusky. It was an old Claus bar, in three pieces and 22 feet long. Kurt had $900 in his pocket; he offered double that, $1,800, and resolved to scrape up the other half. Sold!
The seller was so anxious to get rid of the bar, he had his men load it into the U-Haul the Hernons had rented. That left a problem of how to unload it. Kurt took to social media as he drove back to Lorain, asking for help. “I pull up,” he remembers. “There are literally 13 people standing behind the building. They’d brought moving straps and dollies. They wanted to see this happen. They wanted to be a part of it.”
The couple moved upstairs and poured all their money into getting the bar operational, putting home improvements on hold. “I learned how long I can live with subfloor,” quips Page. Five years later, many in Lorain credit Speak of the Devil, which regularly hosts live music and comedy shows, with sparking a downtown revival. When people drink there and get hungry, there are now neighboring restaurants the couple can send customers to.
“[The] bar really became this unique community space where it changed all the possibilities of what Lorain’s transformation and revitalization could be.” —Chris Cocco, president of the Main Street Lorain organization
“It’s just really organic with Kurt and Page,” says Chris Cocco, the president of the Main Street Lorain organization. “They’re just such Lorain-centric people even though they’re not originally from Lorain. While they do amazing cocktails, the bar really became this unique community space where it changed all the possibilities of what Lorain’s transformation and revitalization could be.”
The restless Kurt is always looking for ways to improve the bar, which has one of the largest libraries of cocktail books in the country, and now has draft cocktails (the house Manhattan is made with Overholt, natch). “You never feel like you’re fully where you should be,” he says.
Page, meanwhile, has an even longer game plan. “I would like to see it become an employee-owned business,” she says. “That, truly, is my goal. We approached our son with eventually owning, and he didn’t want to do it without the other two employees. If they want to do that, I would love to turn it over to them.
“Our goal in opening was in no way financial,” she continues. “We didn’t need it to be. Which is a great spot to be in. Our goal was to change the conversation about Lorain.”