Appearing in Ashland’s Fourth of July parade Tuesday was something unexpected — a float with the present and future owners of Black Sheep Pub & Restaurant, announcing the popular Plaza public house will not be closing at the end of the month as previously announced.
The Black Sheep has been sold to Clarinda and Jon Merripen, new arrivals in Ashland and refugees from the stress and bustle of Silicon Valley. They pledge to keep Black Sheep a British pub, with the same chef and staff, the same slogan (“Where you belong”), and mostly the same menu and decor — perhaps with an added taste of the British Invasion vibe of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, they say.
Jon was a network engineer, working with startups for 25 years, while Clarinda was a video game consultant, helping companies with legal and financial challenges and deciding future moves. She’s the one with the restaurant chops, having grown up in New England with her father running a restaurant at ski resort and her mother operating a combo movie theater, bar and restaurant.
“We were looking for a place to land, searching from San Diego to Seattle,” she says. “When we found Ashland, we absolutely fell in love with it. It fit who we are. This was perfect. There is such a sense of community already and we felt welcomed. It’s a little wild and wacky, with wonderful people.”
The couple read the May 12 Tidings article on the expected closure of the Black Sheep, decided to check it out with a dinner and, says Clarinda, had a “this is it” moment.
“It felt amazing,” she notes. “It was the first business opportunity in a long time that feels like us. Silicon Valley sucks a lot of life out of you. We were eager to be back in the heart of things.”
Jon adds, “It’s a relief to have a shot at saving a business. It’s nice to have that chance.”
Owner Susan Chester, who started the esteemed restaurant on the Plaza 25 years ago, says old customers have been delirious and crying since they heard it won’t perish.
Chester loved it, but in May said it was time to get out, relax, travel and look for another type of work. It had been on the market for $79,900 for many months, with no buyers, so she set the end of July as closing date. She also said the restaurant's lease on its space was nearing its end, and a new lease would come with a substantial increase in the rent.
The restaurant, situated in the 1879 Odd Fellows building, will switch hands July 25. Chester will stick around a few months to help with the transition and make sure that everything people loved about it will keep thriving, she says.
“It’s hard to get excited until it closes,” says Chester. “The contract is signed and I’m trying to let it sink in. For a quarter century, everything has been Black Sheep. It’s like when your children grow up. You have to stand back and let it go. It is weird when it occurs to me that I’m not going to be a boss. I get to come in and be a customer. I hope I don’t want to jump up and bus tables!”
The Merripens will keep the Celtic music jam from 2 to 5 p.m. Sundays and, of course, the legendary darts and fish and chips.
After the Fourth of July parade, Chester for the rest of the day was introducing the new owners to the community.
With the change in plans also comes hiring of staff. The Black Sheep Facebook page says line cooks and dishwashers are needed.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.