Local Legends: Mac Lenhardt
If there is one thing Mac Lenhardt, owner of Mac’s Downtown in Alton, believes in, it is community.
That sense of working together with others has kept him in business in downtown Alton for 35 years. It has helped him survive devastating floods and encouraged his business expansions.
“We all take care of each other here,” Lenhardt said of his adopted city. “There are a lot of good people in Alton and a lot of characters.”
A self-described “simple guy” who operates a “joint that has good food”, Mac Lenhardt is committed to the growth and success of Alton as a community.
Lenhardt grew up at Scott Air Force Base, moved to Alton as an adult, and started his business in 1983 while working full time as a machinist in Granite City. He opened Mac’s Tavern in a depressed section of downtown Alton on Belle Street. At the time, there were a handful of bars in the area and he realized the city could use “a little more action.”
From one property, Lenhardt grew his business to include seven properties, all operating under one name. He now owns an entire block on Belle Street just off Third Street and it has evolved into Mac’s Downtown featuring food, drinks and off-track betting.
“I really liked downtown,” Lenhardt said of his decision to open the business. “At the time (the area) was depressed and property was cheap. I worked on the property day and night so I could open.”
He operated as a small neighborhood tavern with three employees for several years, expanding as property became available next to his original building. He made sure to retain the architecture and brick work of each new building as he expanded into new building purchases. Fifteen years ago he began offering off track betting. Five years after that he added food sales. Now he employs more than 45 people.
“I started with BBQ sandwiches and pizza,” he said of his foray into the restaurant business. “It grew into a full menu and I was surprised at the success.”
“We all take care of each other. There are a lot of good people in this town,” he noted
Mac’s Downtown remains an iconic fixture in downtown in spite of the ups and downs of the economy because of all the support he has received from other long time Alton business owners.
“Bud Schwegel of Schwegel’s Market and Ed Scholar of Fast Eddie’s taught me a lot over the years,” Lenhardt said. “And the community has helped keep me in business.”
It hasn’t always been easy. He has seen dozens of businesses come and go on Third and Belle Streets. And he has weathered the impact of massive floods in Alton, including the flood of 1993 and again in 1995.
“Those floods were probably the most difficult times for me in my life,” he said. “I had to close for two months in 1993. I cleaned the place up and the customers didn’t come back. They found someplace else. It was tough.”
He survived because the Alton community and business owners banded together to help him, he pointed out.
Because people helped him out, Lenhardt quietly assists other small business owners when they need advice or support. He also has created several community-oriented events that bring hundreds if not thousands of people to the streets of downtown Alton.
Four years ago he began celebrating the Kentucky Derby with Derby Day events featuring free live music from national musicians including Molly Hatchett, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Badfinger and others. Women dress up in their Derby finest and there are hat contests accompanied by the iconic mint juleps.
He has recently started hosting fireworks entertainment on Belle Street outside his doors to help boost attendance at Alton’s annual fireworks festivities. Last year he brought in the Gin Blossoms to play after the fireworks.Thousands of people thronged the streets to hear the band.
“We probably had 5,000 people in the street and I didn’t make a dime on it,” he said, smiling at the memory. “It was good for the community. That’s how I approach it.”
Bringing people into Alton is a goal of Lenhardt’s and having a strong tourism economy is good for everyone in the area he said. “If it weren’t for eagle tourism in the winter, a whole lot of businesses would struggle,” he pointed out.
“Having the River Road in Alton is definitely an asset for us. It is a connection that is good for Alton. We have a lot to offer people.”