Just read the sign. The sign says it all.

Franz’s Tavern & Restaurant
Cold beer… Pretty good food

Frances Gerhart, or Frannie, is a former owner and the place’s namesake. The second part is a catch phrase that became a mission, one that has come to represent the business’ fare perfectly.

But the most important word is ‘tavern’. Franz’s is a tavern. A friendly place where neighbors can gather, the news of the day can be discussed and the kids are more than welcome.

A place where everyone knows your name.

Todd Kenee, and his wife Belinda, are the current owners and proprietors of Franz’s Tavern.

Todd and Belinda Kenee acquired the tavern in 1998.

“I believe there’s a fair place in America for a neighborhood tavern,” said Todd Kenee. “It’s always been a place for people to gather and sound off. It’s kind of a patriotic thing. We allow anyone – within reason – to put any political sign in our parking lot.

“Different people find different reasons to come here,” continued Kenee. “It is in the country. It’s easy to get in and out of. We do lunch. We do an early dinner at the bar, and we do a sit-down dinner. But we also leave the fryer on till 12:30 (a.m.). Nobody else really does that around here. We’ve always tried to be a full-service neighborhood bar.”

Franz’s Travern, which is located at 1400 South Fifth Avenue – Route 897 – in South Lebanon, isn’t a fancy place, but it is a lively place. That fact reflects the goal of the owners to keep it true to the nature of the traditional tavern.

But Franz’s Tavern has gained a certain reputation in South Lebanon, and beyond, for its ‘pretty good food.’ That is a tribute to Todd Kenee’s Johnson and Wales University culinary education, 30 years of honing his cooking skills and his creativity.

“I like the molding of different ingredients into a final product,” said Kenee, of his passion for cooking. “I started at a young age. I’m old-fashioned. I’ve been making cheese steaks since I was eight- or nine-years-old. I went to culinary school right out of high school, and I balanced a culinary arts degree with a hotel and restaurant management degree.

“It (the phrase ‘pretty good food’) was a joke when we first got started,” added Kenee. “We’re a tavern. We want to remain a tavern. It’s sort of a running joke that became our motto. We’re sort of downplaying our expertise.”

Taverns were historically crucial to American civic life, serving as not only places to get food and drink, but also information, housing, mail, goods, and countless other services relied upon by community members. Frances Gearhart is seen here in front of a mail dropbox she managed to connect Lebanon Countians with GI’s overseas.

In some ways, Franz’s Tavern is a dying breed, one of a dwindling number of locally-owned and operated restaurants in Lebanon County. Its menu offers something for everyone – customers who know what they like and know what they’re looking for, and adventurous diners who want something out of the ordinary.

“I think the key to our success is the consistency of the food product,” said Kenee. “People want to feel at home. They don’t like change. They want to see a crab cake, a big hamburger or a big cheese steak, things they’re accustomed to, on the menu. It’s a good tight-rope walk of consistency and variety. We’re all Pennsylvania Dutch here, and we’ve all grown up with Lebanon bologna and potpie. And we’re close enough to the Jersey shore to want clam chowder or a crab cake, now and then.

Franz’s Tavern is always experimenting with dishes and ingredients, but with an underlying consistency of crowd favorites that keeps people coming back time and again.

“We keep our print menu rather simple with local favorites,” Kenee continued. “Our short feature list, which we print every day, has different items on it, thinks like fresh fish or duck or rabbit. It’s fall, and people like game. It changes faster than the seasons. It changes at the whims of the purveyors, and what I feel like cooking.”

Recently, Franz’s Tavern incorporated some upgrades to its centuries-old building, and the Kenees spent $25,000 on a new ceiling, new floors, new bathrooms and a fresh coat of paint. They came at a time when Franz’s Tavern had shut down its operations in response to the COVID-19 crisis, but for some of the remodeling, it was just time.

The interior of Franz’s Tavern is looking better than ever following a renovation during the shutdown this spring.

“We started in March, when the coronavirus first hit,” said Kenee. “The renovations were simply to spruce up the place. It was time. We were doing fine with the old décor, but I felt like we had to do something. Our employees helped a lot. We took everything out of the bar and started from scratch.

“I hope to be here for a long time,” Kenee added. “But something like COVID could pop up and ruin the best of anything. It took six months of revenue away, but it didn’t change things like the money you pay for insurance. COVID has been the hardest thing for restaurants. I’ve lost all my bar business because everybody has to be out by 11 (p.m.), and with the bar business went the late-night food revenue.”

Kenee purchased Franz’s Tavern in 1998, years after Frances Gerhart had owned and operated the business. The tavern is said to have operated since 1884 and was known as the Hi Ho in the 1930’s. In many ways, Franz’s Tavern has evolved as South Lebanon Township has grown around it.

“The clientele has changed,” said Kenee, a 56-year-old native of Lebanon. “When I bought it, it was a karaoke bar, and I wanted to change it to a bar-restaurant. The developments and the growth of the population in South Lebanon have been quick. Since I bought it, the developments have been the newest things. It’s more families, and I’ve made it into a more friendly atmosphere.

“The Lebanon community has been very, very kind to me,” continued Kenee. “It’s been a very positive experience. I’ve been working at it for about half my life.”

Another key to Franz’s Tavern’s success has been the Kenees ability to understand their customers and give them what they want. The Kenees are very much aware that if they provide their clientele with an overall pleasant dining experience, it will keep them coming back for more.

“We’re a stop-off for a lot of people going through,” said Kenee. “We’re close to the (Lebanon) VA. Other than that, we advertise in Lebanon and Myerstown. That’s all local business. For the most part, I’d say 70 percent of our business is local. As the years go by, there are less and less family-owned restaurants.

“The old saying ‘location, location, location’ is not a joke,” added Kenee. “Franz’s Tavern has been here almost 200 years. Almost everybody who lives in Lebanon County has at least driven by here. I also think it’s a generational thing. People just keep coming back.”

An undated aerial photo of the tavern. (Provided photo)

While Todd Kenee’s the star of Franz’s Tavern’s kitchen, Belinda Kenee’s charged with handling the bar and many of the behind-the-scenes, day-to-day aspects of the business’ operation. Their functioning relationship will assure Franz’s Tavern’s success well into the future.

“It truly is a partnership,” said Kenee. “Marriage is like any other partnership. We make all the decisions together. We decide on the menu together. My passion is cooking. But sometimes I need a voice of reason in the background to settle me down a little bit.”

Simply another part of the charm and character of Franz’s Tavern.

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Jeff Falk is a seasoned journalist based in Lebanon, PA. He's a graduate of Cedar Crest High School, Penn State University, and a lifelong resident of Lebanon, born and raised. Currently, he is a feature writer for Engle Publishing in Lancaster, the editor of LebCoSports.com, sports director at WLBR...


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