LINDSBORG — There are still a few customers who remember the day 40 years ago when Mark Lysell came into the Ol Stuga intending to buy a pontoon boat from the owner.
"I came in, started talking to him about buying the pontoon boat, had a couple of beers, and made the comment, 'you know, I'll give you this much for the pontoon boat if you throw in the beer joint,'" Lysell recalled. "Two weeks later, I owned a beer joint, but didn't get the pontoon boat."
Lysell was 27-years- old and quickly learned that running the Ol Stuga — which is Swedish for "ale cottage" — was going to take a lot of work.
"When you buy your own business, you don't think about how many hours it's going to be and how it ties you down," Lysell said. "You think, 'oh, I'll hire people to do it and I'll just make money hand over fist.'"
After owning the Ol Stuga for 7 years, Lysell remembers talking with a Coors distributors and being shocked to learn some people had owned bars for 20 years — something he could not imagine at the time.
"The turnover in bars is pretty fast because people — just like me, when I was 27 — think, 'oh, this is going to be fun. I'm just going to make money, spend time with my friends and I won't have to work,'" Lysell said. "I almost lost the place right off the bat because I wasn't a good businessman."
What was the most important lesson he had to learn?
"Don't let people run tabs," Lysell said with a wry smile.
Lysell decided to focus on bringing in customers from nearby Bethany College.
"We were just a 3.2 beer joint and you could sell 3.2 beer to 18-year- olds — in a college town, that was a gold mine," Lysell said.
When Kansas raised the drinking age to 21, liquor was added to the Ol Stuga's offerings.
"I've never gotten into the craft beers," Lysell said. "When I bought this place, we had one brand of beer on tap."
Forty years ago, most Kansas bars served either Coors or Budweiser. The Ol Stuga now has six beers on tap.
"It just amazes me. It seems like so many for such a little beer joint," Lysell said.
The furnishings of the bar are much like what was there 40 years ago — from the tabletops covered with pictures of customers and their families to the mirror frame behind the bar that came out of Lindsborg’s historic Brunswick hotel.
That suits Lysell, who has lived in the same house for 45 years, and run chains for Bethany College football games for 43 years.
"I go to church virtually every Sunday and sit in the same pew," Lysell said.
The Ol Stuga's menu has not seen much change over the decades — with the notable exception of one special sandwich.
When regular customer Brent Nelson could not decide what to eat, Lysell made him a Polish sausage sandwich. Nelson liked it so much that he ordered it for four days in a row and told other people about the creation.
"We made them for three or four years before we put them on the menu. Now, they're probably 20 percent of the sandwiches we make," Lysell said.
The sandwich's popularity was boosted when the Ol Stuga was featured on "Good Morning America" as one of four classic college hangouts.
"Some of the Bethany kids must have written some eloquent letters," Lysell chuckled. "That blew up our food business."
After the story was aired, Lysell had a hard time keeping up with the demand for what is now known as the "Brent Nelson."
"I've never made so many," Lysell said. "I just told Brent Nelson the other day, 'if you would have kept your mouth shut, I probably wouldn't have a cabin in Colorado.'"
An avid Denver Broncos fan, Lysell remembers when the team won their first Super Bowl.
"We were open for that and it was pretty exciting," Lysell said.
Lysell estimates 75 percent of his customers are from Lindsborg or nearby towns, but he has also had some international visitors.
"Gorbachev came in here and drank vodka one night," Lysell said.
Lysell estimates he has hired around 200 employees over the past 40 years.
"I usually hire college kids. They work a year or two and move on, so there's a constant change that I always felt was good," Lysell said. "For the regular customers, it's the one thing that's going to be different."
Lysell raises money for a cookout for Bethany College seniors by encouraging customers to stick dollar bills to the Ol Stuga's ceiling.
"They put a thumbtack through a dollar bill, wrap it around a billfold and then throw the billfold up. That pushes the tack in and the billfold comes back down," Lysell said. "Sometimes it takes a few tries and sometimes people get it on the first try."
Lysell opens and closes the bar six days a week.
"A lot of times, I'm not necessarily working, I'm just drinking beer with my friends but if all of a sudden it gets busy, I go start cooking," Lysell said.
Talking with people is one of the best parts of owning a bar, Lysell said.
"I've certainly made a lot of friends," Lysell said. "It's been a lot of good times."
Looking back on 40 years, Lysell said he plans to put in several more before retiring.
"A place like this, it can be your job and your hobby, because I enjoy being in here, visiting with people," Lysell said. "It's work, but there are definitely good things about it — and you can't beat the beer at cost."
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at email@example.com or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.