In July 2009, when General Electric announced it would soon be closing its Consumer and Industrial Kentucky Glass Plant in Lexington, 40-year-old John Dale Warner didn’t mourn for the job that had made him “hillbilly rich.” He didn’t consider the other gigs GE offered in Cincinnati, or the half-pay gigs at another plant in Lexington. He didn’t consider other jobs at all—not at first, anyway. Instead, he pictured wind in his hair. He pictured a distant horizon and an empty highway. He began to squirrel away as much as he could until the day the plant closed, and when it finally did, he collected his severance and, with a few good friends, revved up his Harley and hit the open road.
They traveled for 32 days: north through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, down to Interstate 20 and west, west, west, on through Glacier National Park and Yosemite and Sequoia and Zion and every little nook and cranny in between. Warner absorbed the landscape as they drove—the big skies of Montana, the surf pounding the Oregon coast, the unexpected and overwhelming scent of garlic outside of Gilroy, California, the “Garlic Capital of the World.” He’d taken a few motorcycle trips before, but always with restrictions, with schedules, the end of the trip always nagging from the start. This time, he told himself, he wouldn’t rush for anything. If he wanted to stop in tiny Hiland, Wyoming—well, why not?
An unincorporated community one hour west of Casper, Hiland consisted at the time of a single business, a one-stop catering mostly to bikers like Warner and his friends passing through on Route 26. With the mountains behind them, the land had settled down, and from inside the station, Warner could hear the rumpus of drunks before 10 a.m. Roughnecks from the oilfields, the station attendant explained, ready to drink after an all-night shift. All over the country, especially out West, Warner had been passing through similar towns, many of them too small to find on the map, populations in steady decline. And yet, like Hiland, virtually all of them could support a bar.
“I was just like, ‘Man, I could do this,’ ” Warner says. “Nobody in there is getting rich, but they’re getting by, and they’re not working for anybody else. That kind of set the whole thing in motion.”
Today, Warner—built like a refrigerator and sheathed in tattoos—is the proud owner of Wink’s Bar, a 200-square-foot diner in downtown Richmond, a tin-can rendezvous for townies and transients, gear heads and grad students, artists and accountants alike. He serves cheap beer and smoked chicken tacos, bacon burgers and black bean burgers, and fried bologna sandwiches.
“He’s a one-man show,” says Aaron Proctor, a local screen printer and Warner’s close friend. “By the time you leave Wink’s, you will know a little bit about him. You will know a little bit about Richmond. And you will know a little bit about you. He really goes that extra mile to make people feel comfortable, and in such a small setting, it’s intimate whether you want it to be or not.”
It’s impressive for a man who calls himself a “two-namer” and a “hillbilly” but never a chef or restaurateur; a man who readily admits, “I have no business experience,” and, “I’m horrible with money,” and, “I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get a job at a Waffle House.” But of course, none of it happened overnight. The road to Wink’s Bar was hardly paved in gold; in fact, for a time, it wasn’t paved at all.
Born in Milltown, Ohio, Warner moved to West Virginia at 7 with his mom and older sister when his parents divorced. Three years later, following passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, Warner’s mother took a job as a coal miner and moved the family to eastern Kentucky. She would remain a coal miner for 33 years, eventually serving as president of the United Mine Workers of America local.
“There was a Charlize Theron movie [North Country] out about her dealing with sexism in the mines,” Warner recalls. “Mom was like, ‘Oh, that’s a joke! I wish I had it that good.’ She’s a tough lady.”
With their father gone and their mother working second shift in the mines, Warner and his sister quickly learned how to cook for themselves. “We could make miracles with some macaroni and cheese,” he says. “Macaroni and cheese and tuna, macaroni and cheese and ham …” Today, one of Wink’s top-selling menu items is a simple fried bologna sandwich, something he’s made since his earliest days in Kentucky. “I buy 5 pounds to sell on the weekend, and we’ll sell out every weekend.”
The rest of the time, Warner got his childhood kicks on a motorbike or obsessing over his favorite Christmas present. “My mom gave me a set of Encyclopaedia Britannica, and I just pored over each one,” he says. “I’ve got the weirdest trivia knowledge now of all time. They call me the King of Useless Knowledge.”
After high school, Warner moved 140 miles west to Richmond, where he enrolled at Eastern Kentucky University for a degree in history, thinking someday he might teach. Instead, after finishing his degree and substituting just one day at a local elementary school, he accepted a friend’s offer to work outside for a mine construction company, a world that in many ways felt more familiar than a sixth-grade classroom. With skills he learned both on the job and from a stepdad in his teenage years, he helped build concrete enclosures for external diesel tanks at mining sites, an environmental precaution now required by law. Three years later, around 1995, he could see the writing on the wall. The industry had grown more mechanized and, in turn, required fewer men to run a shift.
“And at that time,” Warner says, “if you could sign your name, you could come to Lexington or Winchester and get a good-paying factory job, working indoors—not outside in the weather like I was—for about the same amount of money.”
Soon enough, he was what is called a “hiker” on the line at the GE plant in Lexington, preparing flat cardboard boxes to be filled with the bulk glass used to make incandescent light bulbs. He commuted from his home in Richmond and, along with 125 other hourly workers, he worked a grueling seven-day swing shift. Nevertheless, the pay was great, he liked his co-workers, and it was a union gig, which pleased his mother. He stayed for nearly 14 years, until new, energy-efficient technology rendered the incandescent bulb obsolete.
“They decided they were going to make all the swirly bulbs in China or Mexico, so they gave us a year’s notice,” he says, “and it was weird because people were like, ‘It’s over! It’s over! What are we going to do?’ ”
At 40, Warner had never really found his calling, never quite figured out in what direction he was supposed to be moving—not that’d he thought too much about it. But he knew he loved motorcycles, and with his savings and his severance pay, he could afford to spend the next two years traveling before he figured out the next step. Two years turned into four.
He traveled America, and a bit of Ireland, too. And when his savings began to dry up, he took note of a burgeoning food truck scene in Lexington. He’d always liked to cook, liked to drink, liked the laid-back vibe of a backyard barbecue. At the time, he drove an ’85 six-door Cadillac limo. Why not pull a smoker behind the limo and take the barbecue on the road?
“I’d just pull up and cook food for people, and my backseat would be like my little dining area,” Warner says. “That was the idea I was shooting for.”
Before he could move forward with the plan, however, his friend, Chuck Fields, co-owner of Richmond’s Paddy Wagon Irish Pub, caught word of it and offered him one better: a building of his own. The old silver diner downtown on Water Street, opened in the late 1940s or early ’50s as Cain’s Diner and abandoned the past year, had come under Fields’ lease. Would he be interested, Fields wanted to know? If rent was a problem, Fields said he could be flexible at the start. Warner hardly pounced on the offer, but he agreed to keep an open mind, to look it over before saying anything more. He knew the spot exactly.
“About 10 years ago, me and some buddies of mine stopped down here and were looking in the windows,” he says. “It was abandoned at that point again, and we were like, ‘Man, how neat would it be if you could just sit in there and drink a cold beer?’ ”
When Warner and Fields arrived for a second look in May 2014, they found a retro diner crying for help: water pipes busted from a long winter, residue and rot from previous flooding, and so many layers of paint that Warner wondered “if that might be the only thing holding it together.” But still—how neat would it be? By June, “we got serious,” he says. With the help of his friends, he scrubbed down the building, cleaned every inch, coated and re-coated the roof. They pieced the diner back together as cheaply as they could. The front window? An old Plexiglas T-Mobile sign. The white interior paneling? “Flat roofing material, like barns are made out of,” he says. “Before they roll it through the dies, you can buy that at like 30 cents a foot. Comes in a 4-foot-wide sheet.”
One friend, an artist from eastern Kentucky, hand painted the logo on the window. Another friend, his tattooist, custom built the light-up fiberglass arrow now attached to the roof. And the name?
“I didn’t want anything associated with my name in case it tanked. And we wanted something quick, a one-syllable nickname that would roll off the tongue,” he says. “A lot of drunk people think it’s ‘Wings.’ ‘Why you call your bar Wings when you ain’t got no wings in here?’ ”
By the fall, Warner had passed all of the state inspections, carried a liquor license, and was ready for the grand opening, save for one small hitch: the bar wasn’t stocked, and he’d run out of money. No turning back now. He immediately sold his ’68 Chevy to a high school kid on Craigslist. He borrowed $500 from his dad. And on the night of Oct. 9, 2014, sleepless and sweaty, his friends running to the store for last-minute supplies, Warner welcomed Kentucky to Wink’s Bar.
“I think everybody I’ve ever known in Madison County showed up and bought a sandwich and a drink,” he says.
Now two years running, Wink’s Bar “pays for itself and keeps a roof over my head,” Warner says. To be sure, there have been lean times—nights when the crowds just didn’t show, or the new menu items didn’t sell. Almost immediately after Wink’s opened, the city shut down and tore up the whole street out front to install a new storm drain. A chain-link fence shielded the bar from view, and though customers could reach Wink’s, they’d have to walk through a gravelly construction zone to reach the front door. Business slowed, though it never flatlined, and even then, what choice did he have but to keep going?
On the other hand, there have been genuine surprises, shows of support seemingly straight out of left field. Warner remembers one Thursday night in particular. He had made chili, an easy dinner for what he assumed would be a fairly slow night, given the poor weather. There were no special events happening in town, no EKU football games or craft fairs or concerts. But one after another, customers kept walking through the door. He ran out of chili. He ran out of burgers. He ran out of everything but bread and cheese, and then he sold out of grilled cheese. He sold more that night than he did on opening day.
“Wink’s is one of the best things to happen in this town in a long time,” Proctor says. “This is a college town. Most startups don’t last long here, but he actually did break through.”
Like the proprietors of the small-town bars he visited out West, Warner doesn’t expect fame and fortune, just a few customers at the bar and a place to call his own.
“The post office is right there across the street. When I’m getting done, I don’t care how bad a night I’ve had. I usually get out of here at 3 or 3:30, and, man, those guys are pulling in over there going to work for the post office. I’m just like, yes! Yes! I don’t care what I’m walking out of here with in my pocket—I’m not punching a clock anymore. It’s nice.”