Mike Spring has fielded thousands of 911 calls while scaling the career ladder.
First as a volunteer firefighter in La Grande, Ore., then through the National Fire Academy and eventually in the late 1990s, as fire chief in College Place and finally West Richland.
After retiring from public service in 2016, Chief Spring lit up his own hot spot — if you call working 60 to 70 hours a week retirement.
Mike and his wife of 38 years, Ann, moved to Dayton to remodel and polish a sit-down and take-out beer, burgers and pizza place. Chief Spring’s Fire & Irons Brew Pub and Pizzeria, at 134 E. Main St., represents their work’s metamorphosis.
Fire engine-red exteriors open into the establishment. The pub features genuine firefighting helmets and related memorabilia.
“People enjoy the ambiance, it’s our strongest seller,” Spring says. Business normally averages 500 to 600 customers a week — “not much different than being a fire chief,” he added.
Ann works, too, as bookkeeper and bartender.
But not even a career in emergency management prepared him for the COVID-19 pandemic.
The statewide lockdown to slow the infectious disease scorched many a business, big and small.
“We didn’t have any idea,” Spring says with a sigh.
The state’s virus transmission avoidance includes physical distancing rules — the Springs’ establishment is no exception. During the most restrictive time for nonessential businesses, their homemade comestibles and growlers were only sold via takeout and curbside delivery “at 6 feet away,” he said.
Spring nevertheless supports data-driven initiatives to dampen the virus wildfire. He has been concerned that “wishful thinking” would ease up the state’s distancing measures too soon, causing a virus resurgence.
As their popular pub returns to its multigenerational, watering hole status while juggling new state health precautions, Spring maintains his get-up-and-go outlook.
“I’ve always been a person with my glass half full,” he quips. “We make it work.”
Lifestyles: What does ‘Fire and Irons’ mean in the name of your business?
Mike Spring: Fire and irons refer to a titanium crowbar — a hooligan bar — firefighters should carry when heading out on an engine. The bar can open any door and pull down a roof to keep it from indiscriminately falling on you. You should have your tools with you. But the pub has a firehouse camaraderie, calm, like family. This pub is practically a museum. Customers enjoy the ambiance, it’s our strongest seller. And I get to tell stories all the time.
LS: What do your careers have in common?
MS: The business calls for the leadership learned. The pub means remembering who we really work for — it’s training a young staff to respond to orders, phone calls and the public for hours on end. It all started for me as a home-brew club, then I worked with the pub’s former brewer for two months.
LS: How did you cope under the virus prevention measures having to shutter the normal walk-in guests ordering burgers, brew and hand-thrown pizzas?
MS: We lost 50 to 80 percent of our income and the bills haven’t disappeared — mortgages, health insurance. Having to furlough 14 people just made me cry. It was a huge blow. We tried to take care of them, giving free meals away, even toilet paper. We maintained two full-time staff members.
But we’re so grateful to the local community. They come in and order saying, ‘We don’t want you to close.’ That’s really uplifting. Dayton is open-armed, very welcoming, not cliquish.
LS: What typically pulls in travelers and locals?
MS: We’re a real pub, even kids can be here. And for the adults we have nine different varieties of beer brewed on site, normally one type a week, a rotation on a three-and-a-half-barrel system. We have our beer on tap at the ski resort, too. We’ve got some original menu items, even a Reuben calzone!
LS: What’s in your character that helped you through this year’s tight conditions?
MS: Growing up as a firefighter starting at age 18, watching people losing homes and losing loved ones, I don’t lose sight of what’s important and what’s not.