New owner setting the bar high at Carey’s

The Carey brothers opened Carey's Bar back in 1954 and ever since, it's been one of the most popular taverns in Vermillion.

Now for only the fifth time in the bar's history, Carey's has a new owner.

On Thursday, Mat Zeman became Carey's new proprietor after buying the bar from former 12-year owner Michelle Maloney.

Zeman has worked at Carey's for the last 10 years, and Maloney said selling the bar to Zeman was like selling it to a family member.

"No offense to Applebee's, but I knew he wasn't going to turn it into that," said Maloney, who bought the bar from Chris Karantinos. "He is certainly going to put his own mark on it, but the alumni will still be able to recognize it, and it will still be Carey's."

Zeman, a Chamberlain native, was hired at Carey's when he turned 21 in 1999.

Zeman has an undergraduate degree in education and a master's degree in health and physical education and recreation, both from the University of South Dakota.

Zeman said he never thought he would actually be the owner of Carey's.

"I know I hoped I would own it, but I never thought it would be realistic," said Zeman with a laugh. "I have dozens of Carey's T-shirts and I can go about anywhere, even in Washington, and people say they know Carey's. It's so well known and it hasn't really sunk in yet that I now get to maintain it."

Because of his time at Carey's, Zeman knows the mystique Carey's has and plans to keep the bar the way it is.

"I plan to change very little with the actual bar because it definitely serves its purpose," he said. "I am going to be at Carey's a lot more. It's definitely a career move."

Zeman was a compliance officer for USD in the registrar's office, and he monitored athletes' academic progress for the NCAA. But Zeman stepped down from that position effective April 1 in preparation to become Carey's new owner.

Carey's was never publicly for sale.

Maloney said Zeman approached her one day about a year ago and said if she ever wanted to sell Carey's, he would be interested in purchasing the well-known establishment.

Maloney talked it over with her husband and they have been working out the details with Zeman ever since.

"Mat was the only person I talked to about selling it to," she said. "If Mat didn't want to buy it, I would've kept running it for another five years and probably put it up for public sale then."

Maloney still has plenty of things keeping her busy – even without having to worry about the day-to-day details of owning and operating the popular Main Street tavern.

In Vermillion alone, Maloney works for Premier Real Estate, started up a new ice cream shop about a year ago – Scoops, and she is working with Jerad Higman on opening Red's Steakhouse, a new establishment located in the heart of downtown Vermillion.

But after being in the bar business for 19 years, Maloney said there's speculation around town about why she is selling the bar.
The reason she is selling the bar is because she loves the bar.

"My joke is no one wants to see a 50-year-old serving beer in a college town; it's been a good ride, but it's not a business you can be in for a long time," Maloney said. "I want to see Carey's be successful and thrive, and to do that, it needs to be run by a young person. Mat's the person do it."

Maloney's love for Carey's runs deep, beginning when she turned old enough to enjoy a relaxing time at the bar.

"This has always been my favorite place," Maloney said. "I've been drinking here since I was 21, and it's always been my friends' favorite place as well."

Maloney has so many memories from working at Carey's and loves hearing stories from the alumni.

"The other night, a girl was playing pool, and she told me her parents met at Carey's and they named her after the bar," she said. "That's how much this place means to people. I told Mat it will take a couple years for that to sink in because people will tell him how lucky he is to own this bar."

Many of the memories also come on one of the busiest weekends each year for Carey's – Dakota Days.

"It's the only business you'll ever own that people will spend $100 on D-Days, and then shake my hand and thank me," Maloney said. "What other businesses can you own where that happens? Just incredible!"

Zeman said he, too, already has experienced many unique moments at Carey's in the 10-year period he has worked there.

"There's a good story once a week down here," said Zeman chuckling. "Dakota Days is always a riot."

Both Maloney and Zeman said the bar has a unique quality that comes not from them, or the way the business is operated. The special characteristics of the business come from the special characters who frequent it.

"The people are what makes this bar unique. We have the best people here, and the best local crowd," Maloney said. "These college kids have been my kids. It's been fun watching law students and med students and regular students start off and then come back as lawyer or doctors."

Zeman said Maloney is teaching him how to run the bar and that advice has been invaluable to him.

"She is such a savvy business woman; I am using what she is teaching me as a base, and I will develop my own flavor as well," he said. "I think she made this a wonderful business and I will maintain the same payroll and rules. It's good to go into this with all her knowledge."

The biggest attribute Maloney has contributed is her upkeep of the bar for the past 12 years.

"I can't stress enough how much she did for this place, and did an amazing job with renovations," Zeman said. "It was a great name and had a great tradition, and she made it look like that."

Maloney has done quite a bit of construction to Carey's. She did a lot of work to the west building of Carey's, put in a beer garden, put in new carpet, replaced the tap systems, redid the roof, remodeled the apartments above the bar, worked to improve its infrastructure, took the tin off the front of the west building, did maintenance on tavern's bricks, refinished the cabinets behind the bar and remodeled the bathrooms.

Maloney did all of this while maintaining Carey's historical look.

"Everything I have done, I have done carefully, because I wanted to keep the feel of Carey's – clean but old," she said. "You would never notice the changes, except for the bathrooms, because they were gross and smelled like a zoo."

Maloney does know one change Zeman will make, but besides that, she doesn't want to know what he will do.

"I purposely didn't ask him because I wanted him to be comfortable forging his own path," Maloney said. "I will be there to answer any questions and I will be there to support him."

The one change Zeman will make to the bar is to give it more of an online presence.

Zeman is planning on starting a Web site for the bar, along with a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

"I want to get that stuff for the alumni to keep track of Carey's," Zeman said. "I recognize the level of Web-savvy people today, and to operate a business, you have to do that now. It's something to provide for the people."

Maloney joked that during the era of Facebook and Twitter, she doesn't have the energy for those, and doesn't know how to run those, and Zeman does.

Zeman will face numerous challenges, Maloney said, ranging from changing liquor laws to the potential of a smoking ban. And there are other important, demanding requirements a tavern owner must meet day after day to remain successful, Maloney said.

 "You always have to give people more of a reason to come here; you have to be diligent because if you don't keep improving, you get stale and lose customers," she said. "You can't ride on tradition. You think you can, but you can't. It's a daily effort."

Zeman knows a immediate challenge he will face will be taking over operation of the bar during it's slowest time of the year – the summer when most of the students are gone.

"That's a big hill right away," Zeman said.

Maloney said she enjoyed owning Carey's more than anyone will ever know.

"It was the best experience of my life," she said. "No offense to (USD President) Jim Abbott, but this an education you can't get anywhere else. It's been incredible. I will be here as a customer and bring in as much business as I can for Mat."

Zeman said he is extremely excited to take over a piece of Vermillion's history.

"The opportunity to maintain such a historic landmark in the town is amazing," he said. "I love Coyote red and I have a good working relationship with the university."

Maloney said it's been an honor to be a part of the bar's storied history.

"I just want to thank everyone who has ever been a customer over the years and it's been a great ride," she said. "I hope everyone comes out and supports Mat like they have supported me. He bleeds Coyote red and is a Vermillion supporter through and through."

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