On St. Patrick’s Day, the number of Irish people living in Wichita goes from very few to thousands and thousands, Patrick Audley noted with a laugh.
But the number of Irish bars in Wichita stays the same.
One of them — Audley’s The Artichoke — is starting its 30th year in business just as its biggest day of the year arrives. The restaurant/bar at 811 N. Broadway — owned by an Irishman and his Irish wife — is known for sandwiches, acoustic music, annual fish fries and St. Patrick’s Day parties so big, they fill the bar and its parking lot with revelers sipping green beer and Guinness.
“This place has been the luck of the Irish for us,” said Audley, who opened the bar along with a couple of partners on Feb. 24, 1984. “I remember I once asked my father, ‘What is the luck of the Irish?’ He said, ‘It’s nothing more than preparation meets opportunity.’ ”
The preparation for Audley, 61, started during his childhood. His father — a first-generation Irish immigrant — lived in Kansas City and traveled to Iola with the intention of buying a prefab, aluminum Valentine diner to take back with him. But he and his wife, Helen, liked the little community and decided to stay.
In the early 1950s, they opened Topps, a drive-in/diner that specialized in burgers, shakes and Swiss steaks. Audley worked there for years.
“I was chief carhop and dishwasher,” he said. “I got 25 cents an hour and all the double cheeseburgers I could eat.”
Audley went on to make his career in teaching. In the early 1980s, he was working at Washington Elementary School and was looking for ways to supplement his income. A friend suggested they start a bar in the former Elbow Room, a raucous biker hangout at Murdock and Broadway.
He wasn’t interested — until his friend suggested that they make it a sandwich bar. Audley saw his opportunity.
The Artichoke grew in popularity — and in size — through the years. In 1986, Audley remodeled some back rooms in the tiny building, adding a second kitchen and another dining area.
The original Artichoke served typical bar sandwiches: clubs, Reubens and the like.
Then, Audley hired Nancy Parish as manager.
Parish, who worked with Audley from 1992 to 2000, created several of the sandwiches that still lure big lunch crowds today, including the top-seller, the Famous No. 8, which features turkey, bacon, Swiss, cream cheese, lettuce and tomato grilled on an onion hoagie with Italian dressing and Parmesan cheese. She also is the brains behind the Nancy’s Roast Beef, and her sister, also a former employee, invented the popular Seester and the Twisted Seester. (Parish, with Audley’s blessing, opened Nancy’s Amazing Sandwiches in 2005 at 5125 N. Maize Road in Maize, selling several of the same items she added to the Artichoke menu.)
Audley continued to work as a teacher until he retired two years ago. At his last job, at the Judge Riddel Boys Ranch, he met and fell in love with his wife, Molly — a corrections officer who was 18 years his junior and a redheaded Irish lass herself. The pair married six years ago and now run The Artichoke together.
In early 2009, Audley was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer.
Though the former Marine looks as robust as ever — and still draws admirers and friends into the bar whenever his restored red-and-white 1958 Chevy Impala is parked outside — he’s in a lot of pain, he said.. He’s getting monthly cancer shots, but the disease has spread to his bones.
The Audleys get through by living the moment: hiring the musicians who fill the bar on weekend nights, planning details for Pat’s annual fish fry at the end of September, razzing each other about which one is really more Irish.
“We just cope with it,” Molly said. “As horrible as it is, it teaches you humility. It teaches you that you have to concentrate on today.”
Earlier this week, the Audleys were in the restaurant together, attending to a bustling lunch crowd and accepting deliveries for Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day party, which will include live music, Irish dancers, a limerick contest, a “reddest hair” contest and corned beef and cabbage on the menu.
The all-afternoon party is staged outside under a tent each year because the crowds won’t fit in the bar.
Audley will be there, tending to his customers at his one-day-early St. Patrick’s Day bash.
On the actual March 17, he said, the bar will be closed, as it is every Sunday.
On St. Patrick’s Day, Audley said, he wants someone to be serving him.
“I want this place to be a place where people get treated like you want to be treated, from the employees to the customers,” Audley said. “That’s how we’ve been successful.”