Great company, great wing sauce, great chili: Tyrone eatery offers family recipes, service

TYRONE — For Kerry (Supenia) Sickler of Altoona crafting a new sauce or dressing at The Bull Pen Restaurant touches her artist’s heart and satisfies patrons’ appetites.

Creating flavorful recipes is most satisfying when a new special dish delights Bull Pen customers, she says.

After high school, Kerry pursued a fine arts degree then worked in the creative merchandise display area of retail. Creating a flavorful sauce, dressing or recipe is another creative outlet for her.

“I think it started when I was growing up — we didn’t have a lot of money — so we used leftovers and I liked to come up with new ways to use them. I love food. I love throwing things together,” she said. “I rarely stick with a recipe.”

And, Kerry will not share her recipes for the coveted chili, wing sauce or creamy French dressing, so enjoyed by Bull Pen faithful.

“I won’t give my recipes out,” she said. “I use some unusual ingredients. It’s all about finding a balance of sour and sweet. God blessed with me a lot of sweet and sour taste buds on my tongue.”

Her ramoulade is a southern, creamy sauce she describes as being “spicey and a little bit of sweet heat.”

Kerry seeks balance in her dishes. Her broccoli salad and coleslaw use a variation on the restaurant’s homemade vinagrette dressing.

“With the coleslaw, it’s also a balance between being too chunky or too mushy,” she explained about how texture plays a role.

Examine a Bull Pen menu and you’ll likely see some dishes crossed off while the specials — often new twists on favorites — appear on the dry erase board near the bar.

“If a dish’s (sales) are slowing down, then we take it off the menu,” Kerry said.

Tim Sickler, Kerry’s husband, agreed that area residents’ tastes change and it’s important to listen to customers’ feedback — even if it is negative.

“I listen to everyone,” Tim said. “A complaint is a complaint and you have to listen more to those than the praise.”

A restaurant has been in the area just outside the Tyrone Borough line since the 1960s, owner Harry Sickler, 87, said.

He purchased the Jo Mar restaurant from Joe and Margaret Zang. A former Tyrone High School football player, Harry earned a degree in accounting from Notre Dame. He also served in the Marine Corp during the Korean War. A 1948 Tyrone area high school graduate, the elder Sickler played football and developed a love of sports evident through the many sports memorabilia displays throughout the restaurant.

Today, Harry, 87, considers himself “semi-retired” but remains involved in the restaurant evident this day as he and Tim reviewed job applicants.

When Tim returned from serving in the Air Force, it seemed natural for him to become involved, he said. The couple’s two sons, Talon, 28, and Tage, 22, live in New Ogden, Utah, and grew up husking corn, peeling shrimp and bussing tables, and helping out wherever they were needed. While they chose to follow in their father’s footsteps and served in the Air Force, neither entered the food service industry.

“They learned early they didn’t want to do this,” Tim said. He and Kerry had recently returned from a visit to see their children, but their minds were continually on the restaurant.

“When we were out in Utah on vacation, everytime we went to a restaurant Kerry was writing notes and determining what was in different dishes and thinking about what she could bring back and try here,” Tim said.

Kerry’s creative influence comes through in the restaurant’s famous wing sauces. The kitchen serves an average of 200 pounds of wings each week.

“People at the bar often suggest flavors,” Tim said, noting the most popular sauce is the sweet and tangy version.

Father and son expressed divergent opinions on what is the Bull Pen’s most revered meal. Initially, Tim cited its wings served with the homemade sauces. Then, Harry reminded him of the every Friday special of beer-battered Haddock filets served with various sides, such as stewed tomatoes, macaroni and cheese and the very popular fried green beans. Both agreed The Bull Burger, a 6-ounce fresh pattied burger served with lettuce, tomato, mayo and a fried onion ring and their open-faced turkey or beef sandwiches are popular. They are also known for Kerry’s homemade soups, such as French onion and potato soup.

To stay competitive in the restaurant business, Tim said, the Bull Pen balances quality, long-term favorites and changing customer tastes.

“You have to be willing to listen to your customers and to try various dishes,” Tim concluded.

Staff writer Patt Keith can be reached at 949-7030.