Most Knox students have probably seen Burl Varner when they walk into Fat Fish; a quiet man with his calm demeanor and attentive ear. A native of Oneida, Ill., Varner did not have to travel far away from home before he found his passion in life. At the age 55, Varner has accomplished his version of the American Dream: owning his own bar.
Varner is the owner of “Fat Fish,” pub located snugly between a floral shop and a tattoo parlor off the town square in Galesburg. Fat Fish was born Jan. 8, 2009.
Varner began his journey into bartending in 1986 with a position at Howard Johnson, a former bar in Galesburg. Two more bartending stints followed, one at the Holiday Inn and another at the Seminary Street Pub, before Varner opened his own establishment.
Varner spent a decade at each bar, always offering a listening ear to tales of break-ups, make-ups and everything in between.
“Everybody has the same stories,” Varner said. “I liked them all. They were all fun.”
Years of bartending experience pushed Varner to fulfill his dream of owning his own bar, then making his dream a reality after purchasing the old Midwest Photo building on Broad Street. He decided to demolish the building and to literally build his business up from the help of family, friends and his current girlfriend of six years, Sue, who does artwork for the bar.
The pub also serves as a local venue, and Varner mainly focuses on showcasing a wide variety of blues bands, anywhere from the unfamiliar to those who are already well-received.
“I like turning people onto music they’ve never heard before,” Varner said.
Before bartending, Varner worked on the golf course at Oak Run right after high school. After three years, he was promoted to head groundskeeper where he remained for another seven to support his family. Varner has two children: a son, Christopher, 32, and a daughter, Amber, 29.
It was not until after his first divorce that he found his calling.
“The hours worked out,” he said. “I wanted a job to meet people.”
Canada, Minneapolis, Germany, Russia — Varner has met people from all over the world without having to travel across the globe.
“When I worked at the hotel, I met three guys from Russia,” he said. “They stayed there for three days, and by the time they left, we were best friends.”
When it comes to Fat Fish, however, it is Varner’s son, Chris, who really runs the show.
“Everybody loves Chris,” Varner said. “All the artists know him, and if they don’t know Chris when they walk in, they will when they leave.”
Growing up, Chris was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and spinal meningitis, leaving him permanently handicapped, but Varner has been by his side from the get-go.
“It was pretty easy,” he said. “He is always happy.”
Chris often accompanies Varner to Fat Fish and happily greets customers as they walk in.
“They are best buddies,” Sue said.
Since Chris lives with Varner, it allows them to spend quality time together.
“I play guitar, and Chris sings,” Varner said.
Varner claims to not favor any particular artist when he plays guitar.
Chris tells me what to play,” he said. “He’s a music freak.”
Owning Fat Fish is only one of many things Varner enjoys. When he is not running the pub, he is busy traveling to blues shows to look for upcoming bands. One of the many perks of seeking out artists is going backstage.
“I like to get away from the crowd,” Varner said. “It gives me the chance to talk to artists. We are treated like family by the majority of bands.”
As far as the direction of Fat Fish goes, Varner hopes to make a few alterations for its future. One of these innovations includes adding a menu.
“We want pub grub that pairs well with beer,” he said. “But we want to do things different from others.”
For now, Varner plans to keep on enjoying the time he spends with his family and meeting new people.