Meet Your Neighbor: Tabor marks 35 years of making beer cheese

The Engine House just keeps living. Originally built in the 1880s, it served as the City of Winchester’s fire station when volunteers and call boxes were spread throughout the town.

Bob Tabor still lives above the Engine House Deli, the city’s former fire station and the restaurant he ran for 15 years and owned for much longer.

He still makes about 100 pounds of his River Rat beer cheese a week — enough for his customers and enough to keep him busy — from a commercial kitchen in Bourbon County.

After growing up on a dairy farm and having to milk cows as a child, the Clark County native claims he never eats cheese himself — aside from trying pizza after a girl implored him to — but he’s been making his famous beer cheese for 35 years.   

Though he hasn’t owned the deli building for a couple years, he still lives there as new owners prepare to take over the restaurant.

Through the decades, it served a number of uses but has primarily been a restaurant.

“It’s just an amazing building,” he said. “I love it. It was always the place people came to find out what was going on.”

Winchester Sun: Why did you buy the building in the first place?

Bob Tabor: “I’ve always had an interest in equipment, pumps, trucks, fire trucks.

I did a renovation on the building next door.

This had been a high school hangout in the 1950s. City High had their hangout up on Boone Avenue, Flynn’s. Clark County had their hangout up here, which was Quisenberry’s.

It wasn’t safe to go in each others’ (hang out). You could get a flat tire or a flat nose.

This was St. Agatha’s hangout. You could come in here and not get hurt.

The arch had been bricked up. The round windows had been bricked up. At that time, it had a porch like the building down here. That was taken off in the 1970s, I guess.

I was doing the renovation next door for Wagers and Keeton and they had a picture of their old building but it showed the fire department next door. I didn’t know that, so I walked out and looked and could see where the arch was.

I came to find out a friend of mine owned it. He wouldn’t lease it to someone who wanted to open a restaurant. He’d sell it, but he wouldn’t lease it.

I ended up buying it. I bought it in 1983 and opened it March 17, 1984.”

WS: How did you get started making beer cheese?

BT: “I had worked at Allman’s restaurant at the river. That’s where the beer cheese craze started in this area … mainly because of Allman’s.

I bartended for Johnny (Allman) in the 1970s and always stayed on good terms with the kitchen because they fed you.

I observed how they made beer cheese, how they did it. I don’t do anything like they did it then because I do it in a bigger bulk.

They actually set the cheese out (to warm up) because they did it in a bus pan. It was too cold to work.

They’d open a beer the day before, let it go stale, pour it in with the spices and work it up.

I might have made my first couple batches that way with a mixer, but I soon found out you didn’t know what the end result’s consistency would be until it had been chilled. A lot of time it was rock hard.

I started making it cold, taking the cheese out of the cooler, open the beer out of the cooler, mix it in and then you knew what the consistency would be. You would know if you needed to add a little more beer.

The beer cheese is about 25 percent beer and 75 percent cheese.

The beer of choice at that time was Ye Old Tavern.

Kaukauna cheese is the standard for cold pack cheese. They first called it snappy cheese.

I understand they got the recipe from a restaurant in Tarpon Springs, Florida, called Pappas’. It was a Greek restaurant.”

WS: When did it become River Rat?

BT: “Johnny used to come in here because he loved my chili. I said, ‘Johnny, do you mind if I start marketing your beer cheese?’ He said, ‘I’m not going to do anything with it.’

I just started making it in house. I never really took it outside until about 1999.

Robert Alan Johnson ran Washington Street Liquors up here. Robert Alan had someone making beer cheese for him and they moved away.

He said, ‘I need beer cheese.’ I said, ‘OK.’

I didn’t have a name for it — it was just beer cheese. I thought I’ll call it Just Like Johnny’s. Then the subtitle was River Rat Beer Cheese.

Robert Alan was my first customer and Millard Gaunce was my second. His was a different style. He used hot sauce. I used cayenne pepper. Millard’s sons liked mine better.

People kept going in and saying, ‘Give me some of that River Rat Beer Cheese.’ I thought maybe that’s what I need to call it.”

WS: What effect has the Beer Cheese Festival had on your business?

BT: “In the first 10 years, I was growing 10 percent every year. It got to the point it was more than I could do.

I started this as something I could do in retirement and it turned into a job.

I still do about 1,000 pounds a month, which is perfect for what I want to do. It’s about 30 to 40 hours a month.

It keeps me out of trouble. I want to keep doing it. I love doing it. I’ve got nothing else.

I’ve got a daughter who has three daughters who are about midway through school. In about five years, she will be available to pick up the mixer bowl and go forward.

That first year (of the festival), I think there were three commercial (vendors). Last year, there were 20.

My 10-percent growth flattened out, which suited me fine. This is my 20th year dong commercial and 35th making beer cheese.

I’ve been really fortunate I was able to stumble on this and maintain it and hopefully get it going until my daughter is ready to step in. ”

WS: What is happening with the deli?

BT: “Steve Atkins worked for me back when he was in high school, went off and got his chef school degree … Then Steve got the deli and ran it a year with the regular menu and then he changed it to pizza.

Then he went up on South Main and bit off more than he could chew. There’s a new guy. His name is Steve Williams. He’s from Morehead.

He’s a pharmacist by trade and I think he has a couple pharmacies in different communities.

He’s got a couple restaurants in Morehead. He has the wherewithal.

He’s bought most of the equipment. He’s got good ideas.

He’s going to keep the pizza and be open just in the evenings until he gets things lined up.

Then he’ll open up for lunch later on and bring some of the deli items back.

Williams will run this as of Friday.”