This item appeared in the January 2004 issue of Encore magazine, Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Walking into South Street Cigar & Spirits for the first time I was taken aback by its two aisles of fine wines and exotic liquor, its selection of distinctly different imported beer, its humidor chockfull of aromatic cigars, and its display of cigar lighters and cutters, and the young boy that still resides inside me recalled the special pleasure associated with walking into a candy store, mouth watering as my eyes, big as saucers, hungrily roamed over the sweet morsels in the display case. My palate has grown much more sophisticated over the years since then, but the feeling was the same. And South Street, unlike the candy store in my youth, as I was about to learn, offers more than just product.
On this particular Saturday morning, damp and drizzling, Dan Woltersom, otherwise known to the Kalamazoo community as Chicken Dan and the owner of South Street Cigar & Spirits where his patrons affectionately refer to him as the unofficial Mayor of Kalamazoo, has agreed to meet with me to discuss his business, cigars, and his philosophy on life. I’m greeted at the door by the scent of fresh coffee and cigar smoke. A big, burly, bespectacled man with salt and pepper hair and matching beard, and whose ritual job is to bring donuts, offers me his hand and, through the cigar clenched between his teeth, introduces himself to me: “Hi, I’m Angel.”
“You got a problem with that?” he barks with mock menace. Obviously I’d placed too much emphasis on the first syllable of his moniker.
“Not at all,” I reply, feeling right at home. “I imagine it’s a well-deserved name.” Doug Angel is a recovering alcoholic who long ago worked as a bouncer at various questionable joints around town, owns a Harley Davidson and attended Evel Knievel’s attempt to jump Snake River Canyon, was shot three times in Viet Nam, and now runs a desktop publishing business two doors down the street from South Street Cigar.
Already seated at the tiny coffee table behind the front window, adorned with neon lights buzzing comfortingly, are two other gentlemen enjoying coffee and smokes — Kim Mihalik, a security guard at Bronson Methodist Hospital, and Michael Small, a technician at Palisades Nuclear Plant. Kim has found cigars to his liking reasonably priced, and a friendly atmosphere at South Street. “I’ve found a real brotherhood of cigar smokers here,” Kim says. “The conversation is good, but sometimes we just relax and watch people try to parallel park. It’s amazing how bad people are at parallel parking.”
Michael has known Dan for about 10 years and finds South Street reminiscent of the small town barbershops of yesteryear. Says Michael, “I can picture my grandfather in a place like this, sitting around talking and smoking with friends.”
Dan arrives with my coffee and joins the chat as the five of us watch South Street come to life.
Dan was born in 1957 to Al and Anne Woltersom, and recalls growing up in Kalamazoo, playing high school football and wrestling. “I was fourth in the city my senior year at Christian High and was a member of the Pin Club.”
Dan’s dad worked for Upjohn, “in Research and Development raising bugs in Petri dishes,” he says; but unlike Dad, Dan always wanted to own his own business. “Professional traveler would’ve been good, too,” he adds with a grin, “but now I travel down to South Street.”
At age 14, Dan was working at Chicken Coop, owned and operated by Jim Van Der Horst, and where he and Angel first met. “I ended up buying into the business in 1976,” he says, “and I managed the Center Street store for a time.”
Dan learned a lot from Van Der Horst but decided to strike out on his own in 1980, building his first restaurant, Chicken Port, with help from Scott Keyser. Incidentally, 1980 was the year Dan got married.
“Debra’s mother and sister worked for me when I was managing Chicken Coop, and she thought I was the most obnoxious person in the world.”
“And she still does,” pipes in Angel.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“It might’ve had something to do with my calling her on a Wednesday to go to a wedding with me on Saturday,” Dan explains with a guffaw. “‘How long have you known about this?’ she yelled at me through the phone. “I just said, ‘You want to go out or not?’”
Despite such an inauspicious start, Dan and Debra have been married 23 years and are the parents of Jared.
“Jared just turned 15 on October 21,” Dan says.
“Really? That’s my birthday,” I say. “And Carrie Fisher, Princess Leia from Star Wars, although I think I’ve aged far better than she has, and Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz trumpeter, were also born on the 21st.”
“Oh, I liked him,” says Angel, referring to Dizzy. “I’ve never seen anybody that looked like him when he was blowing — like somebody stuffed walnuts into his cheeks. You know how his trumpet got bent?”
I shake my head. “I always thought he just had it designed that way.”
“No,” says Angel. “Somebody fell on it at a party and bent it. He found the 45 degree angle of the bell made playing the trumpet while sight reading easier.”
I was beginning to learn that Angel, now busy reigniting the cigar he was negligent to keep lit, was a walking encyclopedia, a plethora of knowledge and trivia.
“So what’s it like for young Jared growing up the son of Chicken Dan?”
Dan chuckles. “His name is Jared, not Chicken Jared, not Chicken’s Leg, not Drumstick, but overall, he likes it. The last three girls he’s gone out with, it’s like, ‘Your dad’s Chicken Dan?’ so he can’t get away with anything.”
By 1992 Dan had four restaurants — Chicken Docks — one on Riverview, another in Fort Custer, one on Sprinkle Road, and the fourth on Portage Road, but decided it was time for a kinder, simpler life.
“Life was too hectic,” he explains. “I was living to work and not working to live. So Tom Berry, who used to own the Munchie Marts here in town, he and I went skiing out west and we came across a place called Antler’s in Fresno where they sold liquor and cigars, and we thought we’d like to open up something like that here in Kalamazoo. So we opened Portage City Wine and Cigars over on Westnedge. About five years ago, when things started happening downtown, I decided I wanted to open up a business and be a part of the resurgence. I wanted to open the kind of place like the old style barbershops, where you could come if you were having a bad day, have a smoke, and leave feeling better about your day.”
“Morning! Couple cigars for the weekend.” Almost as if on cue — a customer.
Dan departs to help this elderly customer with the smile of a kid in a candy store, while Angel takes up the conversation.
“You might say Dan and I were estranged for about 10 years. I worked for Gibson, and when they left Kalamazoo I moved from near West Main and didn’t stop at his chicken place anymore.”
Angel worked for Gibson Guitar from 1972 to 1979, bending rims and working what he called the steam box. After Gibson left Kalamazoo, Angel found himself unemployed, and so he returned to college. “I got a certificate for board drafting and became a rental pencil. I spent eight years working in Grand Rapids and always liked electronics. I had a Commodore computer, so when the company I was working for decided to upgrade to a computer and found out I was keyboard literate, they taught me AutoCAD.”
Angel became so proficient he bought himself an IBM system for his home and did some freelancing, recreating on Zip disks drawings that long ago had been done by hand. As a member of a Commodore user’s group, he did a monthly newsletter and so, “I was doing desktop publishing long before it became fashionable.”
Dan returns with more coffee. “Speaking of guitars,” he says. “When I worked at my first chicken place, I used to spend a lot of my spare time at Pete Moreno’s Guitar Clinic in Oshtemo, which is still there. I’d get through lunch, clean up the restaurant, and walk over to Pete’s to help work on guitars and do anything he wanted me to do just to be around guitars.” Since then Dan has amassed a collection of maybe 15 Gibsons, one or two that Angel likes to think he made.
Although Dan plays guitar, he had no desire to make a career in music. “I had a couple buddies who did that, but the thought of playing in bars until 2 o’clock in the morning just never appealed to me.”
“Especially the ones with the chicken wire in front of the stage,” Angel adds.
“But I’ve played in church, and the Gospel Mission downtown. At least there they have to listen to you if they want to eat.”
Angel and Dan were reintroduced six or seven years ago. “I had no idea Dan owned a cigar shop,” Angel explains, “but a mutual acquaintance of ours mentioned to me Chicken Dan, and it didn’t really click at the time, and then I showed up here one day and I looked at Dan and said, ‘I know you,’ and he said, ‘I know you, too, but we were smaller then,’ and I said, ‘Yes, we were.’ So ever since I’ve been coming down here twice, sometimes three times a week.”
Part of Angel’s ritual is to bring chocolate glazed donut holes on Wednesday mornings. “And now the cops all show up,” he says. The ritual started two years ago when Angel was laid off. “I’d come by with donut holes, smoke a cigar and visit with Dan.”
“Why chocolate?” I ask.
“Actually,” Dan says, “it started out powdered sugar, but I got mad at him for leaving a mess on my carpet every Wednesday so he switched to chocolate.”
Last March Angel moved his home business into a suite two doors down from South Street Cigar. “I was collecting my ‘unenjoyment’ money when my wife suggested I find a place in town. I’d been working out of my house near Paw Paw but most of my clients were in Kalamazoo. So one day I ran into a guy here at South Street Cigar — an American Express financial advisor who worked two doors down in the Park Building — and he told me they had a suite open, so that’s when I started working down the street. I make about enough money to keep them from turning off my lights.”
“Now whenever I’m running late or have an appointment,” says Dan, “I just call Angel to open up shop for me.”
“I leave a sign on my door,” Angel adds, “that says, ‘I’m at South Street Cigar two doors down.’”
It’s Officer Hancock, one of the men in blue to whom Angel alluded earlier, here to enjoy a cup of java. I offer him a donut. “No thanks,” he says. “I’ve already had breakfast.”
I ask Dan if he intends to put South Street Cigar & Spirits on the Internet.
“Dan on the Internet?” Angel snorts. “For years his e-mail address was Idon’t.com.”
“Maybe if I had a million dollars, like Chris here,” says Dan, referring to Officer Hancock.
“Ee-yeah,” says Chris. “That’s why I’m working overtime.”
After the laughter subsides, Dan explains. “No, not with my clientele. It doesn’t make sense. You can’t sell liquor out of state, and with J&R and Thompson Cigar, I’m not about to compete with the likes of them. I’m content with the guy who buys two or three cigars a week.”
“Hi, guys.” It’s Cassandra. She works across the street at Kalamazoo Advantage Academy.
“What are you up to today?” Angel asks.
“Not much,” she says. “I’ve got to baby sit later on.”
“For who, your husband and his brothers?”
“No,” she answers, “although that’d be a lot easier... I’d just take them over to the bar and turn them loose.”
And so it goes, another Saturday morning at South Street Cigar & Spirits. For Dan, business and pleasure; for Angel, Kim, Michael, Cassandra, Officer Hancock, and the many other patrons whom I’ve yet to meet, camaraderie. Dan will leave shortly to catch the tail end of a tailgate party prior to a Broncos game — Dan loves the Broncos. Angel invited me to come back and share a smoke with them again anytime, and I know I will because I know Angel isn’t the kind of guy to offer up that type of hospitality if he didn’t really mean it.
Oh, and Dan’s philosophy on life? “The more people you meet, the better life is.” You know what? After sharing a coffee, a cigar and conversation with Dan and everyone else I met on a damp and dreary Saturday morning, I think he’s right.