NORTH LIBERTY– It’s been almost five years since John and Amanda Hruby bought a long-established bar in North Liberty and began working to make it better.
Since then, J&A Tap’s food, beverage selection, live music and volleyball leagues have drawn so many patrons the couple has had to expand their offerings.
On July 23, the North Liberty City Council approved conditional use permit and site plan for J&A Tap, so the crowds of people who come to play volleyball will be able to both serve and be served outdoors.
The establishment received approval for outside eating and drinking from the North Liberty Board of Adjustment on July 17, but site plans for such operations are required by city code. The approval was made with stipulations: first, that outdoor volleyball activity and lighting cease each night by 9 p.m. to keep from disturbing neighboring residents; and second, that the owners submit a parking lot plan that includes installation of borders to keep vehicles off the grass.
The council had no concerns about approving the plan.
“The place is tremendously different since you guys have taken over, and I want to thank you for that,” said North Liberty city councilor Chris Hoffman. “I look forward to giving you encouragement for you to keep doing what you’re doing.”
City council member Coleen Chipman asked if the city had received any noise complaints about the bar’s outdoor activity, and City Planner Dean Wheatley said he was not aware of any, other than one letter the city received through the notification process to neighbors about the site plan request.
Chipman said her only issue was the rough condition of the parking lot.
“It has some really huge pot holes, and the city is not requiring the owners to upgrade to a hard surface at this point, but I do think it’s important to keep it so it’s safe for the public,” Chipman said. “If it’s going to be gravel, it needs to be maintained.”
However, Wheatley said in conversations about the current parking lot, he learned the Hrubys also want to maintain safety for their customers, but the potholes serve as natural inverted speed bumps when vehicles use the lot as a shortcut from Dubuque Street to Front Street.
“I’ll be working with the Hrubys to develop a parking lot plan,” Wheatley said.
The considerations are a necessary part of growth, as J&A’s sand volleyball leagues– played in the fenced area outside the bar/restaurant at 440 N. Dubuque St.,– have become increasingly popular in recent years.
“We started the volleyball leagues four years ago,” said Amanda. “That first year, we offered it two nights a week and we had trouble filling the schedule. Now, we run eight teams a night for four nights every week and there are still not enough spots.”
Part of the venue’s popularity for volleyball is the way the courts are maintained, she added.
“People know that at J&A Tap, John keeps the courts immaculate. He keeps it beautiful so people can play volleyball in a healthy, safe and fun area. No glass is allowed outside,” Amanda said.
Once their sand volleyball began gaining popularity, John had to install temporary lights so games could be played a little later in the evening. However, the owner of Ace Electric was so impressed with the Hrubys’ efforts in improving the bar that he donated permanent stadium lights and the labor to install them. Now night games are no problem.
The council’s approval of the outdoor permit will allow J&A staff to serve food and beverages outside near the courts, though, so the Hrubys added picnic tables and cocktail tables and chairs, as well as other outdoor games like bags and ladder golf, so players will be equally comfortable dining and drinking as they are diving for balls in the sand. J&A Tap is proud to cater to the volleyball crowds in the summer, John said.
“It’s amazing how people come from all over the place to play here,” John said. “We have people from Cedar Rapids, West Branch, Tiffin and Oxford… really, from all over the area. And the teams are made up of everyone from doctors and lawyers to police officers to babysitters.”
J&A Tap currently offers blind draw tournaments for all the league teams every eight weeks.
“We want to expand to having tournaments every month,” Amanda said. “It’s just a lot of fun for everyone.”
It’s also just one more way the Hruby’s hope to accommodate what patrons want more of, and Amanda is all about serving their patrons what they want.
She does all the cooking, which she describes as casual dining for friends and family, with everyday food prepared like mom would have made it; things like Applewood bacon BLTs, tenderloins and spicy southwest turkey cubs, flounder, wings, Texas BBQ burgers and the blue ribbon Reuben. Quick daily lunch specials cater to the working crowd, and dinner specials include items like sizzling sirloin steaks from the local Fareway grocery store. For the ultimate test of culinary fortitude, the Hrubys created the Big John challenge, pitting the human appetite against a four-pound burger/hot tots combo that more than 150 people have tried to devour in under 30 minutes, with only two victors.
For the more moderately hungry, the newest item on the menu is J&A’s fresh, handmade pizzas.
“They are really good, and made to order,” said Amanda. “If you can create it, we can cook it.”
J&A serves breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, and if the doors are open, the kitchen is open, too.
“That doesn’t always happen at other places,” said John. “But if you come in here at one o’clock in the morning and you’re hungry, we’re cooking.”
Returning this fall: Hawkeye game day specials.
“Because we’re Hawkeye fans,” Amanda said.
They are NASCAR fans as well, and race lovers will find plenty to cheer about at J&A Tap during the spring racing season. Throughout the fall and winter, billiard players can enjoy J&A’s Wednesday night pool leagues beginning in September. Year round, Thursdays and Saturdays are karaoke nights, and every Friday a live band appears on the bar’s remodeled stage. Happy hour is from 3 until 7 p.m. Monday through Friday.
“We just always try to keep adding new things for people,” John said. “It’s always a work in progress. We have to keep up with the economy, and we’ve noticed that the more we do, the better we do.”
At J&A Tap, more has turned out to be better, inside and out.