By REBECCA ISENHART
SCHENECTADY — Last December, Fred Fritzen found out his father had suffered a stroke.
Suddenly, The Horses Lounge, the family bar where he’d played and worked since he was 8 years old, was his responsibility. There was one problem: the bar was in Schenectady, and Fritzen had made a life for himself in south Florida, where he had been living for 20 years.
“I knew one day that this would happen, but I didn’t expect it this soon,” he said.
His father, Fred Sr., knew how happy Fritzen was in Florida. He didn’t pressure his son to move home to Schenectady. Instead, he told him to sell the bar. Fritzen couldn’t do it.
“It’s a legacy,” he said. “I remember running around the pool table here.”
A close friend gave him the final bit of advice he needed to put his belongings into storage and take a plane back to his hometown. The friend insisted it was a no-brainer: “Florida will always be here. Your dad won’t,” she told him. His 13-year-old Weimaraner, Bella, keeps him company here.
Taking over The Horses Lounge was a complicated process. When Fritzen’s father suffered his stroke, the family owned a second lounge in North Carolina that was failing and had to be closed. Circumstances in the original Schenectady bar weren’t to the younger Fritzen’s liking, either. He needed to hire new management, develop fresh drink and food menus, and plan interior renovations at 912 McClellan St. But he felt confident he was up to the challenge.
“My life experiences have prepared me for this,” he said.
Fritzen had gotten into the restaurant business not at The Horses Lounge but at a Chi-Chi’s restaurant, where he waited tables. He found he loved customer service, and even worked at Disney for five years, where he learned strategies for making people feel valued. In the course of a short phone call, he would have to learn a person’s name, mention it several times during the conversation, and help manage their problems and complaints. Fritzen said he made it a personal goal to try to brighten the person’s day, even though he would probably never meet his caller face-to-face.
Back in Schenectady, he keeps his love for cheering up people at the top of his priorities, although he says it’s tougher here. People don’t always greet each other on the street or stop to chat, cultural aspects he said Southerners are more likely to embrace. As inspiration, he created a tag line for the bar: “Good eats, good people, good times.”
“Change begins with you,” Fritzen said. “I hope that I can give to this community up here, some happiness.”
An attitude change for the establishment is just the beginning of Fritzen’s plans. Each morning, after downing a protein shake with wheat grass and kale, he works to develop Horses’ new menu, featuring what he refers to as “healthy comfort food,” although the typical fried fare expected by the regulars will still be available.
“You can be creative even with vegetables or fruits,” he said. Panko and Parmesan-encrusted cod sticks will provide a healthful alternative to chicken fingers or mozzarella sticks, and tiny dessert bites in shot glasses are in the works, too. Lighthearted takes on traditional dishes, like a martini glass full of tater tots, will make their debut soon. For the hardcore fried-food aficionados, he’s working on perfecting a recipe for fried mac and cheese balls. Fritzen expects the new menu to become a reality within a few weeks.
Drinks have already become trendier and more creative, and more are on the way. For the final hot days of summer, Fritzen recommends a refreshing huckleberry lemonade cocktail or an Empire Brewing Company White Aphro, a local Belgian-style wheat beer with unique ginger and lavender flavors.
Someday, Fritzen hopes to travel back and forth between Schenectady and Florida, maybe even opening up a second location in his warmer, second home. For now, his dad is happy, and so is Fritzen.
Though the father and son communicate in their own way, Fred Sr.’s right-brain stroke affected his language ability. It often causes him to search, frustrated, for the proper words to match his thoughts.
“He sits at the end of the bar every day, same spot, where I swear he’s happiest,” he said.