You won’t find any drunks, druggies or rowdies at Gatrell’s Cowboy Up, a family-oriented bar and grill in nearby Virgilina. The owner, Alan Gatrell, is a former cop who doesn’t put up with troublemakers. “I’m not going to babysit anyone else’s bad behavior. I don’t want them here,” says the tall, stocky entrepreneur in a cowboy hat.
It’s no wonder that he has had little trouble with the 100 to 150 people he estimates that he has escorted out of the bar over the years. He was an undercover military policeman for years, and he was a North Carolina state patrolman until 1998, when he was badly injured while dealing with an armed robbery.
So he bought a 200-acre cattle ranch in Oak Hill, three miles from Virgilina, and still works it by himself during the day before his bar and grill opens at 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
He draws crowds with karaoke singing events on Friday and Saturday nights. Mike, who started taking voice lessons two years ago, belts out “Georgia on My Mind” there regularly. He’ll bring Oak Grove Plantation guests there if you ask him, though he might ask you to sing. If you walk into the bar now, you’d think you were in a big family gathering, with grandparents chatting alongside grandchildren over hot wings and pizza. Senior citizens are dancing, ordinary people (talented or not) are crooning country songs, and the friendly chatter is a background to the music. Gatrell serves beer and sodas, and patrons can bring their own wine bottle for a corkage fee.
After his bar was vandalized in 2006, Gatrell put in a system for regular customers to type in a code at a side entrance before they entered. Among them have been a state senator, three church ministers, a Halifax County sheriff and a U.S. marshall and their families. He keeps a blacklist of banned customers on his door, but newcomers are welcomed at the front door and can be seen via camera.
With the riff-raff gone, Gatrell sees his establishment as a community center, with a children’s play yard outside and customers and other volunteers doing the rest of the work. Every other month he has a band, “Mimi’s Pork Destroyers,” and he hosts funeral and wedding receptions, as well.
Promotions for fund-raisers are frequent on his Facebook page. He estimates that 3,500 people showed up (indoors and outside) last year for one of two fundraisers for Rob Brewer, who lost his leg in a tractor accident. He has raised money to buy air conditioners for elderly people and has given away some of his heating to the needy. He has raised money for two local softball teams, and he usually buys the food himself. Next is a fund-raiser this fall for the Clarksville Little Theater in which he is thinking about an American-Idol style karaoke competition.
Not only does Gatrell have a bar and grill and a cattle ranch, but he has three small children with his wife, Kimberly, who is a doctor in Oxford, N.C. Two of the kids are a 3-year-old twin boy, Kevin, and girl, Kallie. And Kaleb, age 5, spends a lot of time at the Cowboy Up helping out his dad. An older son, Rusty, is a North Carolina State University student who works on weekends
When it comes down to it, Gatrell is really the only employee of both the Cowboy Up and the cattle ranch. He says, “If I didn’t operate it the way I do, I wouldn’t be here doing this. Honest.”