Warsaw's Oak & Alley soldiers on despite Jason Bodley's absence

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By: Tom Westerhof

Tom Westerhof/Bites & Bitters

There’s a sign in Warsaw’s Oak & Alley that says “SOUL.” You can’t miss it — it’s right at the entrance and consists of big white capital letters against a stark black background.

I don’t know why that particular word was chosen or what it represents, but to me it’s a reminder that while Jason Bodley, head barman at Oak & Alley, may be absent for the time being, the soul of the bar remains in the form of Josh Fricke, Sam Albertson and Dean Landis.

They have elevated their service and work ethic to another level to keep this cocktail bar humming along just as smoothly as it has been from the start. They’ve done it all with nary a complaint, and just as their sorely missed coworker will be better once he defeats cancer yet again, Oak & Alley will be better in the long run as well.

I wasn’t sure how Jason’s absence would influence the day-to-day operations of the bar. I knew it wasn’t going anywhere — the drinks and food were too good for that to happen — but Jason has such a big personality that his absence had to have an impact.

“There’s a life that he breathes into this establishment and it really leaves a mark.”

In all actuality, while finding Jason at his normal spot at the corner of the bar is always a welcome sight, Josh has moved into his station admirably, stepping into his longtime friend’s shoes with aplomb. With the owner, Dave Gustafson, and others stepping in and helping out as needed, Sam, who started at Oak & Alley as a bartender but transitioned to the kitchen, has been able to step back into the bar on the weekends while still managing his kitchen duties during the week. With Dean still roaming the floor and keeping the chaos it can become in order, the bar continues to cultivate the cool cocktail atmosphere we’ve all come to expect since its doors opened just over a year ago.

Speaking with the guys on multiple occasions since Jason has been out, they’ve reflected on their first year in business, discussed what it’s been like the last few months and what they’re most looking forward to upon Jason’s return.

To a man, they’re immensely grateful for the faith Jason placed in them. None of the guys had significant experience behind the bar before they were hired — it was only the third bar Dean had ever been to, much less worked at — but under Jason’s tutelage, they’ve all excelled at their craft and honed their mixology skills.

They’re also appreciative of the support the community has shown not only to Jason, but to themselves and the bar as well. Their customers recognize they’re not in the most optimal situation but stay faithful to their favorite watering hole through it all.

Perhaps it was Jason’s longtime friend Josh, the bar manager at Oak & Alley, who summed it up best. When I asked him what it’s been like since Jason’s been out and what he’s most looking forward to upon his return, his response was one that came from a place that can only be created from years of friendship.

“I won’t lie — it’s been hard. When you learn this new skill alongside someone, there’s a level of stability there that’s provided because of their presence. Jason and I have been friends for so long that there are just moments in life when we have bounced off of each other to bring light to situations or to just have balance. And I’ve lost that at the bar for the moment.

”But at the same time, all of his training and preparation in me feels like it has paid off. The bar is still running despite him being gone, and the building hasn’t burned down. It’s just different. He has a presence that people are drawn to and that part of the environment, what he brings to the table, is gone for a moment. It’s just a moment that seems to go on and on as we all wait with anticipation for his return.

“But what a day it will be when he does return! There’s a life that he breathes into this establishment and it really leaves a mark. I think I’m looking forward to that the most upon his return.”

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