The Common Thread: Fred’s Tavern Introduced Its Ubiquitous T-Shirt 50 Years Ago
By Dave Bontempo
From left: Jim Hand, Aubree Bianco (holding Keira Bianco), Stacey Hand, Kelsey Hand, Lindsey Hand, JP Hand, Jake Bianco (standing in front)
That’s how Jim Hand describes five magical decades of his Fred’s Tavern T-shirt business, launched from the imagination of a 14-year-old boy.
Who knew 50 years ago that the Stone Harbor establishment founded by his grandfather Fred Menzel in the 1930s and later run by his own mother, Anne Hand, and his father, Arden Hand, a Stone Harbor mayor, would develop a cult following for a shirt? Or that Hand, who had to convince his dad to distribute a few of them, now has orders coming in from all over the world?
He could hardly have imagined the product line spreading to visors, long-sleeve shirts, sweatshirts, trucker hats, bucket hats, tote bags, line bags, etc. Or that they would be worn by infants and the elderly, showcased throughout the world and become a coveted tourist souvenir. It was hard to forecast the stories and Fred’s Tavern sightings that lent mystique to the establishment.
Which makes the end result sweeter. Fifty years is longevity, in any business.
“It really has been great,” Hand says between shifts at his packed establishment on 96th Street, in the heart of Stone Harbor. “It’s wonderful that so many people take the time to talk about our shirts or about Fred’s Tavern. Somebody once told me we should have numbered the shirts every year, that we would really have quite a collection now. But how could you have known that back then?”
Long before the Internet brought exposure via the likes of Facebook and Instagram, Hand saw the classic approach of driving brand recognition through merchandise.
“I would see bands come in here with different club names on their shirt,” Jim says about the origins of the T-shirt line. “There were a couple popular bars and they were known for some big specials. We didn’t have any specials, we just decided to do a shirt. Unbeknownst to me when I first did this was that there weren’t many shirts that had the name Stone Harbor on it.”
Sales of the shirts grew. Other stores became involved. So would Ampro, the Delaware County, Pa., company now touted as the largest independent screen printer on the East Coast. The company says it has printed more than 300 million T-shirts for various businesses since its 1973 inception. Hand didn’t merely hit a milestone with the T-shirts. He hit one out of the park.
The Fred’s Tavern odyssey spans not only the growth of Stone Harbor, but nine U.S. presidents, several Philadelphia college and professional team championships, and the birth of the Internet. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which rocketed above 27,000 this summer, was 800 back then. The multibillion-dollar Atlantic City casino industry hadn’t been born.
And Hand was in grammar school. His vision, in retrospect, was priceless.
The shirts became conversation starters, bonding mechanisms, and an advertisement for the bar and the city. Stories multiplied about where they had been spotted.
Former local Tom Williams at his brewery in Florida.
Jim discovered its grand-scale magnitude in 1985, at the high-profile Live Aid concert in Philadelphia and London. More than 100,000 people were on hand at JFK Stadium, millions watched on television, and one person was conspicuous.
“I was working in the liquor store and suddenly the whole bar erupted,” Hand remembers. “People are cheering and screaming, saying, ‘Hurry up, you have to see this!’ I look, and here is the sound man for Live Aid, with [network commentator] Peter Jennings. And the sound man had a Fred’s Tavern shirt on. It was awesome.”
Jim chuckles at the second half of that story. He’d received a video recorder for Christmas and attempted to preserve Live Aid for posterity. He hit the record button but something went wrong. The concert was not saved.
Those who did not see the concert have taken the account by faith – as Jim had to, regarding another occurrence.
“We had this real busy weekend in July,” he recalls, setting up the story like a bartender addressing his patrons. “The line is around the corner and somebody comes up and says, ‘I’ve got to see the owner.’
“ ‘There’s a line,’ I tell him. ‘You have to go through that line and then you can speak to the owner.’ But the guy insisted it had to be now, so I ask him what was so important and then he winds up telling the whole place.
“He’s a priest stationed in Africa. He was with a group of people going to a particular village. They told him that whatever he did, not to get out of the jeep because the people there did not like his group and they would kill anyone who got out.
“He comes up to the village and suddenly gets out of the jeep. They are telling him ‘No,’ but he had seen this little boy on the side of the road. The boy had a Fred’s Tavern shirt on. And so did he, underneath his main shirt. He ran over to this little boy and showed him. He wanted to get a picture of both of them with the Fred’s Tavern shirt.”
The priest, essentially, risked his life, and, as the saying goes, lived to tell about it. Divine intervention, perhaps.
“They were cheering him in the liquor store,” Jim laughs.
Hand thinks customers relate to the blue-collar aspect of the shirt’s character. The Fred dude is walking happily on 96th Street, Stone Harbor’s main thoroughfare, presumably having just left the tavern. The man has a beverage in his hand and is believed to resemble the British comic-strip character Andy Capp, a working-class chap who loved his watering holes. Among other images, the shirt conveys a sense of belonging for blue-collar customers.
“We are a blue-collar establishment,” Jim asserts. “There are no ifs about it. We have regulars. We want the hard-working individual who does not want to pay the summertime prices. We have a constant following and count on people coming in every day. I have had other bar owners tell me we are way too cheap. I say that I am trying to draw people in, all year.
“This is a great place, especially now. Weekend business in the winter is strong, there are restaurants you can go to any day of the week now.”
Now, 50 years later, it’s still a family affair. Jim’s wife JP and daughters Stacey, Aubree, Lindsey and Kelsey head the support unit. Stacey also works full-time in the liquor store with her dad. Aubree helped to design the current logo and JP handles the ordering, which extends beyond traditional sales. Through social media, Fred’s Tavern shirts have been spotted in Lake Como, Italy, in front of the Taj Mahal in India, throughout Caribbean countries, Australia and Iceland. They’ve shown up in airports, and stadiums, often on groups of people.
“Whenever someone spots someone else, there is an immediate friendship,” JP says. “It’s, ‘Oh my God, you go there, too! ’ We take pride in that.
“The shirts not only advertise Stone Harbor, but make us an important part of this area. When you come here, you have to experience Uncle Bill’s Pancake House and Fred’s Tavern.”
And get a shirt.
JP unfurled a new patriotic version with a flag for July 4 and is working on a commemorative idea for the special birthday.
It’s an appropriate tribute for an item that was designed to tell a story and wound up being one.
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