Horseshoe Grille Owner Pat Lee Jr. Reflects on Lessons Learned From His Hardworking Parents.
From the time he was a young boy, Pat Lee Jr. had a job to do at his family’s business.
Every Sunday, his North Reading family would attend Mass at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church and then head back to The Horseshoe on Main Street for an afternoon of chores. Lee and his siblings helped — washing down shelves, sweeping and cleaning under the booths.
While his parents, Pat Lee Sr. and Veronica, couldn’t have foreseen that Lee Jr. would continue the family business one day, it was expected that the children would pitch in and help when needed.
While Lee was a high school senior, the legal drinking age in Massachusetts dropped to 18 years old. The first day the law went into effect, a Sunday, instead of heading out with his friends, Lee went to work. He took his first shift as a bartender at the Horseshoe. It was a day he’ll never forget, he says with a laugh, as the regulars threw drink names at him and kept him guessing with their orders.
“They were busting my chops,” Lee says.
His father stood down at the other end of the bar, enjoying the show, he adds.
“He was teaching me a little bit of a lesson,” Lee says. “He humbled me pretty quickly with throwing me to the wolves.”
It’s one of the countless lessons Lee learned from watching his father run the Horseshoe, which he took over about 36 years ago.
“He was revered,” Lee says of his late father. “He related well to the working man because he was one of them.”
Although his son later transformed the old ’Shoe into a popular “polished casual” establishment known for American fare and barbeque, the elder Lee had no interest in frills. His pub sold one menu item, a ham and Swiss sandwich on rye bread, which sold for 95 cents and came with a pickle.
“It was monstrous,” Lee says. “You could hardly get your hands around it, never mind your mouth. There had to be close to a pound of meat on it.”
The native of Ireland came from a hardworking background and led a simple life, Lee says. “He treated everybody with a very high degree of respect and cared for them.” Lee recalls the night a local business burned down. The firefighters were still on the scene extinguishing the blaze when Pat Lee Sr. showed up and handed over a roll of cash to the fire victims to help them get back on their feet.
At times when he was growing up, Lee recalls, he didn’t see his father as much as he would have liked as the elder Lee was always at the restaurant. “When I started working at the Horseshoe,” Lee says, “that’s when I got to know him the best. We were working side-by-side, it was great.”
After Lee took over the Horseshoe from his parents, his father remained a welcome figure.
“I called him Bartender Emeritus,” Lee says, “There was always a place behind the bar whenever he showed up.”
Before the pandemic hit, his mother, Veronica, 93, visited the restaurant weekly, dining with friends and family.
“She keeps her finger on the pulse of things,” Lee says.
The Horseshoe began in 1926 as an apple cider stand. After Prohibition ended, the Horseshoe became a social club. In the 1930s, owner D. P. Murphy’s nephew John Twomey took over The Horseshoe. In 1955 his niece and nephew, Pat Lee Sr. and his wife, Veronica, purchased it. In 1960, Lee Sr. tore down the building and replaced it with the “old” Horseshoe Lounge familiar to a previous generation.
When Pat Sr. and Veronica were ready to retire, Pat Jr. was looking for a career change after spending a decade in corporate sales. He and Kathi, his wife, also a North Reading native, moved back to their hometown in 1985 and became the next generation to run the Horseshoe. The business celebrates its 95th anniversary this year, and while it’s still too early to know if Lee’s children, Jaclyn and Brian, will take the reins, the business is well positioned for the future, Lee says. The family isn’t afraid to change with the times.
“We can’t get stagnant,” Lee says.
North Reading, Mass.