With its tough exterior and 225-year history, one Northern New Jersey bar has proved to be an iconic landmark amongst constant chaos.
The Great Notch Inn sits on State Route 46 West, bordering Little Falls and Woodland Park, New Jersey. It is known for its live music, bringing in local acts performing jazz and classic rock.
The Notch, as some call it, has more than a two-century-long history that was almost cut short by a highway expansion project.
“Since the day I walked in here, it’s always been a looming topic that the highway expansion could eliminate the place or alter the property,” Rich Hempel said.
Hempel is the co-owner of Great Notch Inn with his sister, Gail Sabbak. The two are the grandchildren of Gregory and Florence DiLeo who bought the property in 1924.
“I’d say knocked about a third of our business out for ten years, which is money we’ll never get back,” Hempel said.
The highway expansion project was meant to keep up with the millions of cars that commute across Northern New Jersey every week.
Hempel explained that the original plan was for the state to buy the property and expand the highway through the land the bar sits on. The family did not want this for their business and chose not to sell the property. Instead, the construction was done around their property. However, they did lose approximately 30 percent of their land due to eminent domain.
In 2020, the Six Brothers Diner, a nearby diner, closed down. A contributing factor for this was the $40.3 million construction project on Route 46.
Michelle Vernuccio, president of the North Jersey Chamber of Commerce, explains that between COVID-19 and the construction on Route 46, many small businesses have struggled.
“I mean the construction really, really really, put a [damper] on that specific business,” Vernuccio said. “For some small businesses, they have to work a little bit harder in trying to think outside the box.”
New customers share similar stories of always passing the roadside bar, but never going in. Once they do though, they are greeted with live music and friendly patrons.
Live classic rock and jazz music is The Notch’s specialty. With no cover charge, local performers fill the bar every night it is open.
“What [Hempel] has created here, what his family has created here is something that’s lost,” James McGill said, a musician himself. “There’s a lot of chains nowadays and this is a true roadhouse.”
Guests will often find musicians in the crowd who jump in to perform with one another. From time to time, Hempel will even show off his own drumming skills.
“This place is one of the friendliest establishments you can come to,” McGill said. “If you don’t come here, then you’re missing out.”
The Notch prides itself on being a safe and friendly environment. New customers can sign their name and leave a message in the ‘first timers book’.
“I love when people come in and see their eyes when they look around the place,” Hempel said. “There’s no place like this around anymore and they appreciate it.”
Whether you come in a minivan, on a bike or by Uber, Hempel says that The Notch will continue to do what they are known for: providing friendly service and good music.
History of Great Notch Inn
In 1798, Cornelius A. Vreeland built a hotel and tavern on a one-lane dirt road in the town of Great Notch, New Jersey. Wagon drivers who worked transporting iron ore from New Jersey’s mines needed a place to rest and the Great Notch Inn fulfilled that need. Vreeland owned and operated the business until 1818 when he sold it to Simeon Brown.
According to the Passaic County Historical Society, in 1839 Brown sold the property which included the buildings and thirty acres of land to Henry Piaget for $4,000. Piaget ran the business until he was frustrated with a $200 fine for selling liquor on a Sunday, an illegal practice in the 1850s.
Piaget’s son Frank Piaget ran the tavern along with a watch-making shop in the nearby town of Montclair. In 1868, Frank Piaget turned over the reins to his brother Francis H. Piaget. After 58 years, the tavern went out of the Piaget name when it was sold to George Skidmore in 1897, according to the Little Falls Historical Society.
Due to a lack of historical records, there is little information on the tavern’s ownership from 1897 to 1924.
In 1924, the building was set to be destroyed as part of the highway expansion and renumbering that the state was planning, Gregory and Florence DiLeo bought the building from a friend for just one dollar in 1924. According to Hempel, they invested approximately $2,500 into the building and rolled it across the road to set up their establishment, The Green Chateau.
The Green Chateau was a roadside store from 1919-1933, that also ran as a speakeasy during Prohibition.
When Prohibition came to an end in 1933, Gergory DiLeo applied for a New Jersey state liquor license. Hempel says the Great Notch Inn has license number four, making it one of the oldest establishments that sells alcohol in the state.
In 1988, Gregory DiLeo passed and Hempel’s mother took over owning the bar. Hempel explained that his mom was a teacher and “had no desire to own and operate a bar.”
Hempel was made a business partner with his mother ahead of graduating from Montclair State University with a business degree. When his mother passed away in 1999, Hempel and his sister, Gail Sabbak, became the owners of Great Notch Inn, and have run the establishment to this day.
And that is what they plan on continuing doing, as long as they can.
“Come in and have a good time, help support what we do,” Hempel said. “As long as we can make a living doing it, we’re going to try to keep going with it.”