Tuesday, February 4, 2003

Covington restaurant changes hands

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FORT MITCHELL - During 35 years in the restaurant business, Tommy Behle has worked at, managed and even partially owned some of the best-known eateries and night spots in Greater Cincinnati.Among them: The Lookout House, Victoria Station, The Conservatory, The Carousel Motor Inn, Mike Fink's, Beverly Hills, The Glass Menagerie, The Drawbridge Inn.

But through all the years, starting back when as a teenager he worked for his father, Tom Sr., a top bartender at the old Lookout House in Fort Wright, Behle wanted to own his own restaurant.

The dream came true in March of 1994, when he opened Behle Street on the ground floor on the RiverCenter office and hotel development on Covington's riverfront.

"It was an immediate hit," Behle said. "We were down there when really nobody else was putting restaurants in downtown Covington. Now, everybody is down there. But it wasn't that way when Behle Street opened."

Looking to branch out, Behle opened Behle Street To Go on Grandview Drive in Fort Mitchell a year ago. It too was popular as a place for mainly takeout food.

But handling two restaurants proved to be too much even for a hard worker such as Behle, who routinely puts in 16 -hour days.

So last month, he sold Behle Street in Covington to Sean Thomas, who once worked for Behle at the Conservatory and who operated Subway stores in Cincinnati. Part of the deal was keeping the name of the Covington spot as Behle Street, so the name of Behle's Fort Mitchell restaurant is now Tommy's To Go.

Behle sold because of the offer he received - he would not reveal terms - and because as a hands-on owner he felt stretched too thin overseeing both operations.

"Bigger isn't always better," Behle said. "I like to be in the kitchen, watching everything that goes out into the dining room. I'm here in the morning and I'm here at night. It's important for me to do that but it was difficult with both places.

"And with the economy and with the opportunities here in Fort Mitchell, I felt the time was right," he said.

Covington Mayor Butch Callery, a regular customer at Behle Street who loves the meatloaf, said Behle was a pioneer when it came to bringing restaurants to the city's riverfront.

In 1994, Callery pointed out, RiverCenter and the Embassy Suites had opened. But the second RiverCenter office tower, the Cincinnati Marriott hotel, the Northern Kentucky Convention Center, the new Kenton County justice center and the Madison luxury condo high-rise were nothing more than plans on a drawing board.

"Tommy Behle went down there when a lot of people were still in the talking and planning stages," Callery recalled. "Almost as soon as he opened, the restaurant was a success, and that showed other people that opening a business on the Covington riverfront was a good investment."

The success of Behle Street convinced other restaurant operators in the potential of Covington, and now more than a dozen restaurants along and within two blocks of the river.

Behle is expanding the Fort Mitchell restaurant. He's adding about 20 items to the menu, getting a liquor license and putting in an enclosed dining room that will also serve as a patio during the spring and summer.

Tommy's To Go will feature a more family-oriented menu than Behle Street, Behle said.

"We're more of a neighborhood-type restaurant, and that's what people want in this area," he said. "They don't want to pay to park and they want to bring their families."

Fort Thomas lawyer Jeff Sanders, who has a law office in Covington, was a frequent diner at Behle Street. He said Tommy's To Go will be a success because of its owner.

"You went to Behle Street because of Tommy Behle," said Sanders. "He knew everyone. He made everyone feel special. He always remembered your name, always had a smile for you. The food and the service were great, but Tommy Behle made going there special and I'm sure he'll do the same at his new place."

E-mail pcrowley@enquirer.com

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