This bee's for you

When Louie's Bar and Grill owner Melissa Jensen found herself the sole proprietor of the downtown restaurant three years ago, she decided to change its focus from catering to tourists to providing a family-friendly watering hole for locals.

By offering food specials such as the Recession Burger for under $5 and holding game nights such as the Wednesday spelling bee, her business is doing better than ever, holding steady even during the slow winter months.

"My menu is built on customer request, so are my evenings. I don't eat meat, I don't drink, I don't watch sports, and don't own a TV," Jensen says. "I strictly listen and respond. It's far from being everything for everybody. I think the spelling bee is just a perfect example of that, people came and said, 'You ought to do this.' We have a real interest in having something that absolutely meets the needs of the locals."

On Wednesday night, Louie's celebrated the two-year anniversary of the popular spelling bee, led by Ben Benjamin. Every Wednesday, Benjamin appears with a cordless microphone and a list of difficult words and travels to each table, where people can play solo or as a team. With each word correctly spelled, Benjamin blows on his duck whistle. Players are allowed up to two or three misses, depending on how many people are playing.

"I heard about it on NPR (National Public Radio) — a spelling bee in a bar — and I thought it might fly in Ashland," Benjamin said. "I asked Melissa and she thought the idea was worth going for."

"One part of me thought he was out of his mind, and the other part of me thought I better jump on it," said Jensen.

The spelling bee has spawned two offspring: Tuesday trivia and Monday bingo. Every Tuesday, Tom DuBois, owner of neighboring business Grilla Bites, hosts a trivia night at Louie's. The theme for trivia night is always different, with prizes for Louie's food and drinks to be given to the winners. Bingo was on Mondays but will be moving to Thursdays for football season.

Jensen says when she and her husband bought Louie's a decade ago, the conventional wisdom from other business owners in the Plaza was to ride the wave of tourism spending throughout the season and hope you can make it through the winter.

When Jensen and her husband separated, she took ownership of the business. "I decided to do exactly the opposite, because it didn't seem right the way he was doing it," she said. "So I invented the Recession Burgers for the locals, then I lowered my prices all the way through because the locals just can't spend like the tourists spend."

For the anniversary of the spelling bee, Jensen gave away smoothies and appetizers to spellers at the end of each round through drawings. A couple who had been playing were about to leave after their meal when they drew a free lava cake dessert and decided to stay for a few more rounds.

"You don't ride on the backs of the tourists, you take care of the locals," Jensen says. "I operate on a razor-thin margin. You can't get a burger and fries (elsewhere) in Ashland for $4.99."

Both Jensen and Benjamin want to make sure families know they are welcome to bring the kids down to the spelling bee. Minors can stay until 10 p.m. The spelling bee starts at 7 p.m. but is usually over by 9 p.m.

Benjamin says it's his love of words and wife Sally Jones' willingness to share in the fun that makes it possible for them to conduct the spelling bee each week. They even have substitutes who can run the bee if Benjamin and his wife have to be away.

"It's a really fun thing for us to participate in, and then to see the joy of the winners really makes it worthwhile — especially the youngsters," he says. "We've had two or three children and teenagers win. I try to tone it down for children with words they can spell. You have to sort of be flexible and be conscious of abilities."

The winning speller gets a gift certificate from Louie's for the dollar amount equal to the number of participants in the bee. The runner-up gets half that amount.

"I hope this lasts 10 years," Benjamin says. "I love it, I'm passionate about words and fun.

"There's no reason why we won't have our fourth and fifth anniversary, no reason to stop it unless people stop spelling."

Mandy Valencia is a reporter for the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 541-776-4486 or by email at avalencia@mailtribune.com.

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