As I sit down at the bar I wait just a mere moment for the whirlwind that is Jane Keyes, the owner of this bar, the restaurant above it, and the houses surrounding it, to talk about her life and how she came to be a powerful business owner, passionate environmentalist, and hero to many in her community.
Jane grabs a bar stool next to me, exhausted from another day of running around the restaurant. Traveling from her 25-acre farm in Quakertown, to come deal with payroll for the week, count the drawers from the bar last night, or whatever other tasks need her attention.
Jane gives off the vibe of a weathered goddess; hues of blonde run through her hair, shimmering blue eyes, while rocking a vintage bohemian blouse and supporting the latest sandals she picked up on her latest trip to Italy. Though starting this restaurant on her own 31 years ago, the two kids that she had along the way now help make this restaurant run. Cyle 35, her son, is now the front of the house manager and is destined to take over the operation, when Jane takes a well- deserved step back from Tex Mex. Katy, 32, also growing up in the Tex Mex environment since she was a rugrat, working as one of the first servers. She now has her own graphic design company but still manages to bartend a few nights a week.
The bar Jane and I sit in, most recently renovated, is North Wales’ diamond in the rough. The newly gray paneled floor and the 15-foot-long wrap around bar takes up most of the area, with an expansive hand painted sun done by Katy. A desert- themed wall of lizards, tumble weeds, and bison skull, also done by Katy, and one of the longtime bartenders, ironically nick-named, Texx, transports patrons to the Southwest. The exterior of the building sticks out like a well designed sore thumb, on the corner of Walnut and Second streets. Its walls of orange and blue with mosaic patterns make Jane’s statement, saying to all who drive or walk by – “Hey we’re Tex Mex Connection! Come on in!”
As you take a trip up the stairs to the dining room, you enter a foyer with tiled floors, always a set of freshly arranged flowers and the faint sound of Mexican guitars coming from the stereo. As you enter the front dining area, there are hand -painted chairs from Mexico covered with sun figures and parrots, another whimsical addition that sets Tex Mex apart from the typical Chilies’ chain.
Though a smaller dining room, for most it gives the feeling of being in your own home, adding both warmth and a sense of comfort. Some of the servers have been a part of the Tex Mex family from day one, serving regulars for so many years, that they’ve witnessed kids growing into adults, marriages and families forming. The theme song from ‘Cheers’ comes to mind…”where everybody knows your name…”
Butch, a local, comes in at 3 p.m. on the dot everyday and sits across the bar from Jane and I. “I’ve been coming here for 25 years, I sit in this same chair, and though I’ve watched the look of this place grow and change, I never felt out of place sitting down right here, enjoying my frosted mug of Budweiser.”
Besides the mom and pop bakery, a breakfast joint, gas station, and local biker bar, North Wales Pub, informally known as Mike’s, is really all there is in this quaint town. Tex Mex has become a staple for all the locals to have a watering hole with some of the best liquor prices and authentic Mexican food with a Texan spin.
“I never intended to start a restaurant, no one believed I could do it, but that just made it all the more worthwhile,” Jane tells me over a Tito’s and club, her eyes never breaking contact, an attribute that makes her strong – and maybe even intimidating – to those who don’t know her. Her toughness helped her build this restaurant from the ground up, and has kept it going for 31 years. As you get to know the enigma that is Jane Keyes you learn that her heart is just as big as her ambitions; she will and has given the shirt off her back to those in need.
Jane was born in Philadelphia with two loving parents, Millie and Bill Keyes, who are still part owners of the beloved Tex Mex. She spent her early years growing up in Bucks County. Jane attended Temple University, majoring in business, but eventually left to travel the country. “It’s a good thing I left, who knows what would have happened if I ended up staying here for my degree, ” Jane reminisces. Things could have turned out a lot differently.
Jane met her first husband, which led her to move to Dallas for her husband’s work. She traveled throughout the Southwest, tasting authentic barbeque cooking and traditional Mexican style cooking. “I didn’t understand why I never had food like this on the East Coast,” Jane continued. Aside from the typical fast food quesadilla from Taco Bell, Jane realized there were no restaurants selling authentic Tex Mex cuisine and she wanted to make that a possibility in her neck of the woods.
So, Jane headed back east, with visions of her own Tex Mex menu, serving her friends and family, and being involved in something significant in her community.
“My dad and cousin bought the bar when it was Davis’s bar and grill, turned it into North Wales Junction, where it was a typical shot and beer bar. I convinced them to let me have the dining room that was not even being used.” Jane describes how it all started. “There were just a few tables and we were only open for a couple of hours for lunch on Thursdays. Within the first day I knew I was way in over my head.”
Jane couldn’t have started it all on her own. “Our signature house dressing, my mom just came up with that one day. Someone ordered a salad one day and I realized, oh shit! We don’t have any salad dressing. She threw some ingredients in a bowl and it became our well- loved Southwest ranch.”
It was the same with the Tex Mex Connection staple of homemade salsa and chips, all recipes that were made off the cuff, simply because Jane realized there was a void to be filled.
Once a few North Wales citizens spread the word of how wonderful the enchiladas were, The Reporter, a local newspaper, wrote a feature piece about Jane running a kitchen and dining room all on her own. So the quaint, one-person restaurant started getting some attention.
“Once the article came out, things changed forever,” Jane said. The dining room could no longer cope with the amount of business flowing in. So they bought the house next door, ripped it down, turned it into a parking lot. Then, she bought the apartments upstairs and turned them into the dining room.
As the business grew, the staff did as well, which brought new menu ideas and new concepts of how to make Tex Mex Connection a part of the town of North Wales and Montgomery County. One of the most compelling components of Tex Mex that makes this restaurant stand alone is the simple fact that it is a scratch house that uses no frozen, artificial products brought in from a truck. Everything is made by a group of talented, hardworking chefs who dedicate time and patience every day to making the Tex Mex menu authentic, fresh, and flavorful.
With Jane’s new power in the community her first decision was to adopt the plot of land directly across Walnut Street. Jane turned the little stretch of dirt and rocks across the streeet into Walnut Street Park. Flowers were planted, a bench was put in, and the park is now maintained by the Tex Mex staff. This was one of the first steps Jane took into making North Wales a place where people wanted to be.
The most famous and loved events Tex Mex holds every year are the Tiki Parties. A charity event that started with just a party in the parking lot with Cyle and a family friend, slinging drinks and flipping burgers. “I still remember, they got their asses handed to them.” As the years passed, more planning went into the event. Now the parties have expanded, with a live band, a cover charge that goes to charity, food, and drinks, all with a tiki theme. There are five parties starting with Cinco De Mayo, ending in August that have become woven into the summer fun in the North Wales Community.
“I wanted to become involved with a local environmental cause, when a friend told me about the WVWA.” Jane first became involved with the Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association, which is now Tex Mex’s largest beneficiary. The WVWA is a non-profit land trust that protects the quality and the beauty of the Wissahickon Creek. WVWA has worked with landowners, local municipalities, Montgomery County and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to preserve and improve woods, meadows and wetlands in the Watershed. Jane is overjoyed to be involved with an organization that has had such a tremendously positive effect on the local environment.
Jane started organizing a Tex Mex 5K, where all runners who pay to be a part of the run have to put together a team, get sponsors and raise at least $1,500. Jane throws a private drink/dinner party for the winner. The whole parking lot is closed down for the race, and it’s an entire day of music, drinks, food, and fun for the whole community. This is a 100 percent charity event, staffed by volunteers, with food and drinks donated by Tex Mex. The money raised goes to the charity that Jane chooses. 2016’s 5K will now be the 27th anniversary of this event, and in total Jane has raised over $700,000 for the Watershed and also for charities such as the North Penn and Indian Valley Boys and Girls Club, an organization dedicated to supporting children and young adults in disadvantaged circumstances
Keyes always wanted to have a significant role in conserving the environment. “I knew how hard it would be to maintain a restaurant without harming the environment,” Jane continued, so she started the very rigorous process to becoming a Green Star Certified restaurant. To be a Green Star Restaurant there are seven environmental categories she had to succeed in – water efficiency, waste reduction and recycling, sustainable durable goods and building materials, sustainable food, energy, reusable and environmentally preferable disposables, chemical and pollution reduction. You have to reach at least 100 green points to gain two of four stars. Tex Mex Connection reached three stars within two years. There are about 27,000 restaurants in Pennsylvania, and only seven are Green Star Certified. Tex Mex Connection is one of those, something Jane, and the whole Tex Mex family, is extremely proud of.
It’s a given that someone so passionate about having a significant impact on the environment would celebrate Earth Day and use it as an outlet to educate the community about what is happening to our planet. Earth day for the Tex Mex family always was viewed as an opportunity to have people bring in their old computer batteries for a free margaritas. This Earth Day will mark the first party Jane will be throwing. Party for the Planet will run the same way as the Tiki Party, but besides a celebration, Jane has set up demonstrations of how to plant certain native plants, and how reusable water basins can be extremely helpful in saving water. There will be drop off locations set up through out North Wales where people can bring plastic bottles, cans for example to dispose of the properly
The jukebox came to life with the classic ballads of Patsy Cline, “Hold on I’m going to just need a minute, I don’t think I can hold a conversation while ‘Crazy’ is playing.” Jane says, as she closes her eyes for just a moment. I take a minute, sitting next to her, letting the sultry voice of Cline wash over me. It’s almost cathartic. Moments like this remind me and prove to those that are lucky enough to witness, how Jane Keyes is a kindred spirit. A unique, fiercely witty, and bright woman that redefines what giving back to the community really is. Keyes will continue on that path by any means necessary, savoring every moment on the way, while singing alone to Earth Wind & Fire and maybe some Stevie Wonder too.