James “Macky” Moberly was born in Burlington, Vt., but the West Side of Buffalo is in his blood.
As owner of Macky’s Essex Street Pub, Moberly, 41, has invested much of his life in the tavern on Rhode Island Street. He started working there at age 14 as a dishwasher learning the business from former owner Peter Goretti.
Moberly’s pub, located in an 1883 building, originally housed a Gerhard Lang saloon. Inside, his craftsmanship can be seen in the pub’s rich black walnut sandwich counter, welded metal detail and a giant meat smoker he calls Count Smoke-U-La.
This weekend, Moberly marks two years of ownership with a celebration he called the Mactillion. His new food motto? “Eat barbecue so you don’t have to.”
Married 11 years, Moberly and his wife, Liz, a tattoo artist, reside on the West Side with their son Aiden, who is 9.
People Talk: You’re such a hard worker.
James “Macky” Moberly: I pretty much had at least one job since I was 10, whether it was one or two paper routes or a Pennysaver route or working here since I was 14. I started out washing dishes and cleaning the bar on weekends and being a porter doing the bottles. I learned a lot about saving money from my boss. When I was 18, I worked the door for a couple years. When I was 20, everybody got too drunk at a Bills game and I started tending bar. When my boss opened Showplace Theater in ’95, I started being the manager here. I never finished college because of the late hours.
PT: How do you unwind?
JM: Chill with my family. Sundays we do whatever we want to do – sit around the pool, ride bikes. I’m a real hands-on father. I go to all his practices, and spend as much time in school as they’ll let me. Kindergarten you could go every day, but every year it’s less and less. The past few years I’ve been the room mom, which makes me and my wife room parents. One of us is always available for the field trip.
PT: Do you want your son to take over the business some day?
JM: I’ve thought about it, and I would like it but I’m too worried that he might get caught up in the other things like drinking. It’s not that I don’t drink but I definitely like to keep the hangovers to a minimum. It’s a fine line. Things seem to go pretty smooth with my wife as long as there’s not too many late nights.
PT: Buffalo has this drinking reputation.
JM: We’re a drinking town with a football problem. That’s an old expression from the ’70s. I’m reading “Nickel City Drafts: A Drinking History of Buffalo.” It’s pretty much the first book I read since “The Red Badge of Courage” in high school.
PT: Describe your clientele.
JM: The atmosphere is very eclectic. We get all kinds of people. You know what we have a lot of here? I hate to say this, but we get the hipsters. A lot of people don’t understand that there are different levels of hipsterism. There’s the hipsters who don’t wash ever and ride rusty bikes. There’s the hipsters who work at Record Theater or LocalEdge. Each level has like a nicer bike. The hipsters have been here since 1986.
PT: What’s the West Side all about?
JM: There is definitely a sense of community, and there might be a little self-entitlement type of thing. Our block club is the Essex Corners Neighborhood Association. I’m the president. On top of keeping the bar safe for my customers, we don’t let anything happen on the block, either. Ask anybody what the block looked like five years ago. I pretty much put a year’s profit into this building.
PT: When did you buy the bar?
JM: Me and Pete had this understanding that even if he got his dream and built a log cabin out in the woods that he would always sell me the bar no matter what. The day before he died he was having lunch with his daughter and she asked him, and he told her that. It took like three years after he passed away before they did the right thing and sold me the bar.
PT: Is there a log cabin in your future?
JM: One time me and my wife visited family in Barefoot Bay, Florida. We got stuck on this intercoastal where there were all these five- and six-room motels right on the water. I think I’d like to own something like that, fix up a vacation destination for people from here or anywhere.
PT: You are a skilled handyman.
JM: I’m constantly fixing things, and when I’m done with a project I say it’s Mackt Out. One summer I installed replacement windows on people’s homes just to make some extra money. One time I paid someone to build a gate in my driveway, and they didn’t, so I learned how to weld. I started a metal business and called it Mackt Out Metals.
PT: Is the pub your social life, too?
JM: Pretty much. I’m not here all the time, but I am here more early in the morning. Even when I’m not here I’m here because there’s somebody with eyes for me.
PT: Do you cook?
JM: I don’t cook now for the restaurant, but the whole menu I’ve worked on over the past five years. The kitchen was in such disrepair you couldn’t do too much cooking but because I had my own metal fabricating business, I had built a smoker. It’s a double-barrel wood stove built out of 55-gallon drums. To try and drum up some business here I put it out front on Sundays, filled it with meat. People would ask me, “How much?” I told them just to bring beer money. So the $80 overhead was just another way to ring up a bunch at the bar.
PT: Does marketing come naturally to you?
JM: I think I sneak it in. Look at the menu. There’s Macky’s Grand Champion Chili, the Mac-Attack Burger, the Macky Joe.
PT: How did you get the name Macky?
JM: Macky came from my grandfather James McBurney. He was Mack. I was Macky. He pretty much lost his family to fishing. Nobody would fish with him. First he got divorced, then he would yell at his kids because they wouldn’t go fishing. I didn’t see him for half my life, until I was old enough to drive over to see him on my own.
PT: When did people start calling you Macky?
JM: My first day in kindergarten they asked me my name. I said Macky Doodle James Foley Moberly. My dad had me convinced that was my real name.