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Amsterdam legend going strong at 87
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By Carol McIntire
Naoko Shepherd marked the 50th anniversary of owning the Belmont Café in Amsterdam July 1, but she has no plans to close the doors and retire.
The spry 87-year-old still makes the trip with her daughter Nancy Shepherd (as chauffeur) to the Main St., Amsterdam, bar four days a week.
“It’s all she knows. She wants to be here,” Nancy said the day of the celebration, recalling a conversation she had with her mother recently. “I asked her since we were having the 50th anniversary celebration, if she was going to retire. She looked straight at me and said, ‘Why, are you getting tired?’’’
Naoko, or “mom” as she is affectionately known to many of the patrons who have frequented the establishment over the years, is a staple in the community and earned the reputation as a hard worker and someone who ran a tight ship. Some even call her a legend.
“There was no swearing in here,” said Brian Wright, a longtime patron who lived in an apartment above the bar. “You didn’t mess with mom. She was known to have swept large men out the door with a broom who didn’t obey her rules.”
Another of Naoko’s rules: no one under the age of 18 played pool.
“That was just the rule,” said her grandson, Chuck Knox as he and family members prepared food for the celebration. “People just knew not to break the rules.”
Until recently there were no TVs in the bar. “She believed people should sit, have a drink and some food with friends and enjoy the conversation, not watch TV.
When cell phones came along, she didn’t have to worry about patrons sitting in her bar staring at their phones as, at best, cell phone service is spotty in Amsterdam.
“I like people to talk,” she said, sitting in a booth near the bar’s only form of entertainement, a juke box.
The food she served up was almost as legendary as Naoko.
“She had some of best food around,” Knox said. “People coming through town stopped in and then, there were the regulars who worked at DeNoon’s and the coal mine. There’s also those who came exclusively for her food. She has her own recipe for a hot sausage sandwich that is very popular.”
According to Nick Hoaja, who traveled from Akron for the golden anniversary celebration, there was one thing missing from Naoko’s menu – tomatoes.
“She didn’t have tomatoes,” he said leaning on the bar. If you ordered a hamburg, you could get ketchup, mustard, mayo, pickles or lettuce, but not tomato.”
Naoko made a nasty face as Hoaja was telling the story, which promoted him to lean over the bar and whisper, “I have a present for her today…. I brought her a tomato!”
He’s been visiting the bar for 40 years, dating back to when he was hunting with relatives in the area. “They suggested we get something to eat at the bar. As they say, the rest is history.
Naoko’s story dates back to 1955 when she arrived in the United States as the 17-year-old bride of Alva Shepherd, aka “Meatball,” an American soldier who served in the Korean War.
The 87-year-old blushed when family related she met Meatball on a beach in Japan, adding “you were a hottie, huh?”
English was a foreign language when she stepped foot on American soil.
Asked how she learned to communicate, she replied, “I listen to people talk and watch John Wayne westerns.”
It didn’t take her long to learn to communicate with her keen memory. In fact, family members say she has such a good memory, she could check the driver’s license of a customer for a birthdate before serving alcohol and years, later still remember the date.
A family member related the story of how Naoko could remember the favorite drinks of customers and have it sitting on the bar when they made their way to a barstool.
“There was this one man who came into the bar frequently and she always had his beer ready. He didn’t come in for several years and then, one day he walked in. She sat what she knew was his favorite beer in front of him. He told her he didn’t drink that kind anymore, but because she remembered, he would drink one!”
After the couple settled in the Kilgore area, Meatball landed a job in the bustling coal mines in the Amsterdam area. He and Naoko frequently visited The Belmont in Amsterdam. At that time, it was owned by the Eckenrode family.
Nancy recalled that evening in 1973, Meatball and Naoko went out for dinner and visited the bar.
“When they got home, mom told dad she wanted to buy the bar. He said ‘okay’, but since he was working, she would have to do it on her own,” Nancy related. “She bought it, and the rest is history. She cooked, clean and did it all. She worked six days a week for nearly 50 years.
In 2020, she had a heart valve replaced, which slowed her down a bit and, in spite of having to give up her driver’s license, the determined mother of four grown children wasn’t about to give up her beloved bar.
“I told her I’d drive her to the bar so she could keep it open,” Nancy said. The pair make the drive from Kilgore to Amsterdam Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday for afternoon and evening hours. The kitchen is open Friday and Saturday with Nancy manning the friers.
After taking the month of July off for Nancy to recuperate from knee replacement surgery, the pair will be back at it in August.
As the time was nearing for the party to kick off and guests began to arrive, Naoko offered up some words of advice for youngsters getting started in business.
“There is no secret to success,” she said. “Just work hard and save money.”
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