Three days before Christmas in 1997, Joe DelVecchio opened the doors at Local Joe’s Tap & Grill on Steele Street in downtown Sanford for the first time.

20 years later, Steele Street and the surrounding blocks could be accurately described as nearly unrecognizable in many ways. Restaurants, bars, and shops dot the streets where previously stood empty buildings, storefront churches, and sleepy thrift stores which spoke to a community that, at the time, had a concentration of commercial activity in other parts of town.

While much of the most recent change has been the result of various revitalization efforts and an improving economy, Local Joe’s was definitely an early pioneer in bringing people back downtown.

Friday, the establishment celebrates 20 years with a party from 5 p.m. until closing that will feature beer and drink specials, giveaways, a recognition of customers and friendships from over the years, and more. The Rant spoke with DelVecchio about the party, his experience with Local Joe’s, and his feelings about the past, present and future of downtown Sanford.

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Tell us what people visiting Joe’s for the 20th anniversary celebration can expect:

There was just an idea that we could do an anniversary party at first, but then as more people got involved in the planning, it’s gotten a little out of hand. We’re going to do a “Roaring Twenties” theme, and everyone here will be dressed up like it’s the 1920s. All of our beers will be on special, and we’ll have some special mixed beverages – it’s been a little hard to come up with the right drinks to fit the theme because people don’t really drink gin and grapefruit juice anymore, that’s just not a thing. And we’ll serve the beer cold. There’ll be some giveaways, t-shirts, glassware and other memorabilia, and we’ve been findings photos from over the years that we’ll have on a display wall. Basically, it’s just a grand celebration of 20 years of Local Joe’s.

You opened up for the first time three days before Christmas. Had that been the plan all along?

No. It was out of necessity. I’d been down here for 9 months, working on the building and getting it ready, and I had just gotten to a point where I didn’t have any more money and I needed to get open. I was originally supposed to open on December 1 of that year, but there was a situation with the liquor license, and if I didn’t open by the end of the year, I would have had to wait until January 15 of 1998. So we drove up to Morrisville that day to get our beer and we opened up.

You own the building that houses Joe’s and the Steele Pig today, but you didn’t when you opened. What was the situation with the building at the time you decided to open up a bar and grill in downtown Sanford?

A friend of mine had had a card shop, a little memorabilia shop in here, and when he closed up I looked at it and thought “I can do something with this.” You know, years before, this had been a jewelry shop, Wagner’s Jewelers. And in those first few months of getting ready, Mr. Wagner stopped by to see what we were doing and he understood that we were trying to save the building, and he kind of gave us his blessing. I had the chance to buy the building later, and I did, and I just sort of fell in love with her, the history and the feeling it has.

What was it like being a bar and grill in downtown Sanford in the late 1990s? It must have been completely different than it is today, when people have multiple options for dining and entertainment in this block alone.

I used to be able park my car sideways in front of the building. But the thing is, when we had some quick success in those early years, some people were surprised that we could make it down here, but there were more people here who had a thirst for that kind of thing. I’ve always liked downtown areas, and this one is so small, but it’s usable and in a strategic area. The city’s done a great job (with revitalization efforts) and I think it’s going to take off, it’s taking off already.

There’s obviously more competition downtown today than there was 20 years ago, and there’s more on the way. What advice would you give to anybody wanting to open a business in downtown Sanford?

I’m the first person to say “come on down here, the more the merrier.” I don’t see it as competition because what’s good for the other places is good for all of us, and we all have great relationships. But I would say that owning a small business is not easy, but you get out what you put into it. And that’s not just for restaurants, but also for shops and other kinds of things – there’s a lot of opportunity to be viable down here. I’ve been lucky to develop relationships with people and businesses and make new friends, and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world. And I think that’s what makes you reach these marks. We never celebrated five years, 10 years, 15 years because really every day that you’re still open is a celebration. 

What do you feel like Local Joe’s is known for?

We’re obviously proud of our food. But also we try to have great people working here, and we try to be a part of the community. I hope we’re known for having stuck it out in downtown through its ups and downs. We have great customers, of course, and I wouldn’t be around if not for them. It’s something I’m very proud of, and I hope the people downtown and in Sanford in general are proud to have us down here.