Where everybody knows your name

Four decades ago a 20-year-old Randy Buser opened Grand Avenue Saloon and created a Port institution known for its friendly vibe and commitment to being open every day of the year

FOR 40 YEARS, Randy Buser has been behind the bar at Grand Avenue Saloon, a mainstay of Port Washington’s bar scene. In all those years, Buser said, he has remained open every day — with the exception of the pandemic shutdown — except for one week after a truck hit the building and took out a support post. Photos by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

Randy Buser likes to compare Grand Avenue Saloon in Port Washington to the watering hole found on the classic television show “Cheers.”

“We’re like ‘Cheers,’” he said. “I like the local concept. I like it being small and staying the same.

“You can always pick out the Cliff Clavins, the Norms,” he added, referring to the iconic characters on the show. “We have regulars who come in every day and have the same thing to drink. We’re part of their routine.

“We have good local customers. They get married, they have kids and they’re gone until the kids are 8, 9 years old. Then they start coming back. And when their kids get to be 21, the kids come in here too.”

And for these customers, even if they’ve moved and been gone for years, no visit  home is complete without a stop at Grand Avenue.

The tavern is so popular with its customers that many bring in dinner on Thanksgiving so they can share a meal with one another, Buser said.

“It’s amazing how many people don’t have family around,” he said.

And while the customers haven’t changed much through the years, neither has the staff.

“No one ever quits,” Buser said. “Our new guy’s been here 10 years.”

Longtime bartender Mark “Red” Mueller said Buser is one of the big reasons people keep coming back.

“It’s a very friendly bar,” he said. “Randy’s down to earth and just a great business owner. He and Linda (Buser’s wife) are very generous, very caring.

“This is a beer and a shot, happy go lucky place. I don’t consider it work — it’s just fun, and the patrons catch on to that and they keep coming back.”

Buser is also the longest tenured bar owner in Port, having opened Grand Avenue for 40 years.

He was just 20 years old when he and his brother Rick, then 21, bought the tavern, which was known as the Zodiac then.

Buser was a business student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was driving a truck for Mr. Z’s, a business specializing in providing pizzas for fundraisers, at the time.

“We thought, we can make this work,” Buser said. “I think every young person thinks owning a bar would be great.”

After a year, the brothers parted ways, with Rick buying Maxwell’s in Cedarburg and Randy retaining Grand Avenue.

“It (Grand Avenue) was all 18, 19, 20-year-olds,” Buser said. “It turned into a young person’s bar because we were young.

“It wasn’t for him. Maxwell’s was more food-oriented.”

The customers, Buser said, aged with the bar, but he also attracts some of those younger people as well — especially those whose parents also frequent the tavern.

“The customers we had on the first day are still coming in,” he said.

“We had kids, and with kids, you get to see the next generation — sometimes you get to see the kids more often.”

They feel like family, Buser said, something that can be seen in the friendly banter and the support offered by those who frequent the place.

“We spend the good and the bad times together,” he said, adding the worst times prove to everyone that they’re all family.

Some of the toughest times have been when longtime customers have died. Buser has reminders of many of those people — for example, a flag from the late Jon Krainz’s favorite Arizona golf course and license plates from their favorite cars.

“I get goosebumps thinking about it,” Buser said. “It makes you think of them, You talk about them when their families come in.”

There have been changes at the bar. Where Buser once sponsored softball, basketball and volleyball leagues, today he’s more likely to be sponsoring a golf league.

The jukebox that spun vinyl 45s is now a streaming service, and the two 19-inch televisions with cable he had when he opened — suffice it to say that the bar has much larger screens but customers still argue rt times about what’s showing.

Through the years the drinking age has changed, from 18 when Buser started to 19 — “I thought that was good to get it out of the schools,” Buser said —to 21 today.

And the smoke-filled atmosphere of yesterday’s bar has changed, too. When the state outlawed smoking in bars, Buser built a patio so his customers had somewhere to go and enjoy a smoke.

“I spent almost as much building that as I did when I bought the building,” he said. 

Grand Avenue has gained notoriety through the years, primarily for two things, Buser said. It’s the bar where Dustin Diamond, a childhood television star better known as Screech — his character’s name on “Saved by the Bell” — stabbed a man on Christmas 2014.

“That’s probably what we’re infamous for,” Buser said. “That was one that I think got blown out of proportion because of who he was.”

The bar was also listed in Southern Comfort’s newsletter because of a bartender’s tip Buser offered — if you make a drink using Tabasco sauce, wash your hands before going to the bathroom. 

Grand Avenue has become a mainstay in Port, open virtually every day until bar time. Buser said that’s a conscious choice.

“I never want to close. I don’t want my customers to go somewhere else,” he said. “What if they don’t come back?”

He recalled one night when his daughter had emergency surgery and he couldn’t come in for his shift. He called Mueller and told him he could close early, but Mueller refused.

“I’m not going to be the first one to close the bar early,” Mueller insisted.

In his 40 years, Buser said, he has only been closed once — other than the state mandated Covid closure early in the pandemic.

That was in 1983, when the brakes failed on a semi parked west of the tavern while its driver was making deliveries. The truck rolled down the hill and crashed into the tavern, taking out a support post.

The bar, which Buser had only owned for about a week, was closed for seven days.

Buser said he thought that when his children got older he would spend less time at the bar, but that hasn’t been the case.

He still works the closing shift five days a week, he said, adding he often opens the bar as well.

So what’s the secret to Grand Avenue’s success and longevity?

“Every day we sit here and laugh like we’re 12-year-olds,” Buser said. “Sometimes, we’re still doing the same things. We get older, but I don’t think we necessarily grew up.

“That’s the best part — there’s not a day we don’t laugh uncontrollably.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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