Like all good sagas of sportsmanship, the tale of The Big Ugly Fish is one of determination, instinct, hard work, and a tinge of Hemingway-esque insanity colored by a vision to create something that never existed before.
Located at 1418 State Street at the corner of Mason in the city of Saginaw in the former structure of the Colonial Inn, The Big Ugly Fish is a sporting bar and neighborhood watering hole like none other.
The brainchild of former State Representative and current local UAW President Mike Hanley and his wife Susi, if one filtered the camaraderie of Cheers through a prism born out of the pages of Field & Stream magazine, one can easily forge a clear mental picture of the ambience of what is certainly one of our area's more unique watering holes.
Having gone from working at Delphi, to starting a side-business with a hot dog cart decades ago, to riding the wave in local politics all the way from Mayor pro Tem to almost becoming Speaker of the House in Lansing, what prompted Hanley to open The Big Ugly Fish?
"In citing my resume, you forgot my stint as a championship dog show poodle groomer," interjects Mike. "But seriously, my beloved Aunt Vivian died in 2003 and left me some money. I wanted to use that inheritance as an active investment, so I could get more return on it. The Colonial Inn was for sale, and the idea of owning a bar intrigued me."
"I've spent just a few hours in bars over the years, so figured this was a business I could succeed in. When looking at the Colonial, I asked myself 'if I could make this into my dream bar, what would it be like?' My answer was a little knotty pine place up north with antlers and fish on the walls, sports on TV, a pool table and a really great juke box."
"The Colonial ended up going bankrupt before I bought the business," continues Mike, "and that's a good thing because it gave me time to think while wading through the incredibly frustrating process of dealing with a bankruptcy trustee, and time to gut-rehab the place with about two dozen friends. The end product was the bar I saw in my mind from the beginning, only it's prettier than I had planned."
Considering the magnitude of such a project, compounded by the tremendous amount of work & investment involved with tackling a total rehabilitation of the real estate, I'm compelled to ask Susi how she felt when Mike approached her about this idea.
"Mike is an idiot," comments Susi, "and this is just the latest example of his lunacy. His entire life plan seems to consist of making work for me. If I had my druthers, he's be running on a treadmill generator 24-7 and provide warmth for my heating blanket."
"Seriously though, the build out process for this place was awesome," continues Mike. "It was in unbelievably bad shape when we took it over and was rehabbed with virtually 100% volunteer labor by our friends. We could fill the place with the beer cans & pizza boxes that held what we ate & drank while we worked. The investment wouldn't have made sense if I'd had to pay for labor. At the end, I felt like Jimmy Stewart at the end of It's a Wonderful Life."
In moving from the snake pit of Lansing politics to the leisurely banks of his own watering hole, which environment does Mike prefer?
"SSSSssssssŠ.the snake pit was actually very cozy and I got along very well with my fellow snakes, but I'm very happy to be a full time resident of Saginaw and to have more time with Susi, our kids and my friends. It's a lot of work! But at the end of the day, it is my favorite bar to relax in, and my favorite part of the place is the 'regulars'."
"I'm pretty friendly with most major people in Michigan politics on both sides of the aisle, and I used to be one of them, but I love to hang out with townies. I'm proud that I never lost touch with my roots as a working class guy from the City of Saginaw. I always thought of myself as one of us, not one of them. When the bar is crowded with people from all walks of life having a good time and I've Got Friends in Low Places comes on the jukebox, I'm in my heaven. And I expect over time my old snake friends will be in to visit."
With the hard work of rehabbing The Big Ugly Fish out of the way, what is the biggest challenge in approaching this type of endeavor?
"I've got a sister-in-law who used to work at the library and she said if it wasn't for the books and the people, it would have been a great job," notes Mike. "All the things that have to get done in any retail business are big. A lot of tasks need to be completed on a daily basis. But the bar business is different than most others because although you're selling booze, more than that, you're selling atmosphere & entertainment. Any successful bar has to be a good time for its customers."
"We've been very lucky to have found a great staff right off the bat. Our challenge is to balance what goes on there for people from all walks of life. Every customer can't hear every song they want all at the same time, and some music will just plain send people out of the place. That's why we don't have any hip-hop on our jukebox."
"We've been lucky with that balance," continues Mike, "because we've got a great mix of people who get along very well. They don't see the Fish as our bar, they see it as theirs, and we're two of them. There's just a great chemistry. We're kinda like the President & Vice-President of their club."
So what distinguishes the Fish from other taverns and drinking establishments in the area?
"Well, we have flush toilets," comments Susi. "Plus color television. And we serve liquids that have this substance called alcohol in them that make you feel all tingly, happy, popular, and make the opposite sex look more attractive. Oh, and we give customers ice for free when they buy mixed drinks."
"Actually, there's no place else in the city or the surrounding townships that's got antlers, deer mounts, and fish on the walls," responds Mike. "The clientele fits the atmosphere, too. It's a mix of younger, middle aged and older people who are pretty laid back. It's not a place where you'd go to see or be seen, and although we get some pretty attractive customers, it's really not a pick up joint. We don't have live music. We're just a really cool little neighborhood tavern that's petty and has a great 'kick back and have a good time with friends' atmosphere."
"The character of a bar is really determined by its customers, and they end up being whatever people like the place and can come to a bar and have fun responsibly. We get a lot of comments from customers that one thing they like is that it's full of cool and friendly people. You meet the nicest people at the Fish."
In terms of entertainment, the depth and variety of material featured on the Fish jukebox is continually a work in progress. How does Mike view the interactive components of it evolving, in terms of building up song selections?
"We bought the jukebox with the liquor license out of bankruptcy and there was already a lot of really greats Blues, Jazz, Rock, R&B, Soul, and Country music on it," explains Mike. "I added some of my favorite music and it's a work in progress. One little element I focused on was Classic Michigan music. We've got 96 Tears, Saginaw, Michigan, and even a song by The Monkees titled If I Ever Get to Saginaw Again."
"I've got some really great early obscure Rockabilly and even some Zydeco. We have some current local acts as well. If customers request an artist or some song and I don't' think it'll drive customers screaming into the streets, I try to give them what they want. Susi had this great idea of making a 'jukebox menu', which we have printed up so you can sit at your table and check out the song list."
With his new duties as UAW local union president, coupled with the cultivation of the Big Ugly Fish, compounded with family responsibilities, how does Mike find time to keep on top of everything?
"I gave up sleep in April and frankly don't miss it. I also save time by not wearing underwear. I shave and dress myself in the shower, and I floss only twice daily, down from 12 times in the past. I still compulsively wash my hands every five minutes. I talk on my cell phone and eat take out food while driving. I try not to touch my face during conversations, with only limited success."
Another great attribute of the Fish is their many nightly specials and theme nights. But I can't help wondering, why does Ron Lopez deserve a night all his own?
"We run the usual promotions that most bars do, targeting large audiences - special prices of people born in Iceland or American Samoa, GLTB albino left handed dwarfs, imaginary friend discounts, lip-sync-while-seated-with-your-hand-covering-your-mouth contests with no winners or prizes. Just your average run-of-the-mill stuff," relates Mike.
"Early on we had a 1/10 off drinks for 22-year old girls from Millington offer and this 22-year old girl from Millington came in. Once she found out about it, we had to give her like ninety cents back. It nearly broke us!"
"And Ron Lopez gets his own night when he's the only guy who gets specials because he's a great jazz guitarist, we like him, and porque el es muy macho. And his mom likes me better than him, so it helps to ease his pain. By the way, your night will be discontinued next week, Ron. Get over it."
Recent additions at the Fish include an arrangement with Katie's Side Café, which handles take-out orders for lunch and runs them over to customers free of charge, and Mike & Susi would like to do some catered events in the future featuring shellfish like oysters, clams, crawfish, and other items that are hard to find around town.
With a bobcat, an 8-point deer shoulder mount, pheasant & raccoon pelts, a Jackalope, and a Turfishalope (Dioximus Maximus) waiting to greet you in its resplendent décor, and middle-of-the-road pricing, The Big Ugly Fish is easily one of the most unique little watering holes in the tri-city.
And it sure beats a three-hour drive 'up north'.
16th November, 2023
7th November, 2023