After surviving the pandemic many aging restaurant owners are retiring, leading to a glut of establishments for sale
Stephanie Goodsell worked at the same Pulaski diner for years before purchasing the business in 2016 and renaming it Steph’s Place.
After decades in the food service industry as both an employee and owner, however, she sold the diner.
“I’ve been doing it for 33 years,” she said. “It’s time to retire and enjoy life.”
Goodsell is not alone. More restaurants and bars have entered the Oswego County market this year than at any time in recent memory.
The longtime owners of Vona’s Restaurant in Oswego have put the business up for sale. In Fulton, Mimi’s Drive-In and Tavern on the Lock are for sale.
Other establishments that came up for sale this year include RiverHouse Restaurant, Pulaski; Gary’s Sports Bar, in Oswego; Bar Eid & Grill, located in Constantia; J.D.’s Tavern and Grill, in Sandy Creek; Ed’s Father’s Mexican Cuisine; Happy Valley Inn, in Parish; and Stick at Sports Bar & Grill, located in New Haven.
In January, Mr. Sub, a popular restaurant in Pulaski, is changing after longtime owner Sherrie Miles retired. Old City Hall, in Oswego, also known as the Market House, was recently purchased by businessman Ed Alberts for $1.5 million.
The spread of COVID-19 has hit restaurants particularly hard and although the industry has recovered, benefiting from consumer demand, rising prices in all sectors of the business remain.
In a survey by the National Restaurant Association, more than eight in 10 restaurant owners said their food, beverage and labor costs are now higher than before the disaster. Despite steps taken to address higher costs – raising prices, cutting hours and changing menu offerings – 85% said their restaurant was less profitable than it was in 2019.
Although every restaurant has faced major challenges during the crisis, it does not seem to be the main reason for many businesses to sell.
“Those who can adapt quickly are the ones who make it,” said John Halleron, a senior business consultant at SUNY Oswego’s Small Business Development Center.
Halleron regularly works with clients who are starting restaurants. He said businesses that survived the past two years are unlikely to be sold now because of the pandemic pressure. They have already shown that they are flexible enough to adjust their menus, hours and staff as needed to remain profitable.
“In most of these cases I’m convinced that age is a big factor,” he said. “The owners have been in it for 20 or 25 years if not more and they want some time for themselves.”
Goodsell has eight employees, but still puts in at least 60 hours a week at her lunch counter and works seven days a week.
“I take time off but I’m there every day,” she said. “You should be.”
The pandemic has slowed down business a bit, but not as much as she expected. Winter is even worse for business, which closes in November and reopens in May. Aside from wanting to retire, Goodsell said she sold the business because no one in her family was interested in taking it over, especially knowing how much work it was.
Donald Ryan and his wife Susan purchased the Lock III restaurant in 2007 and reopened it in 2008 as Tavern on Lock.
He is a contractor and built the roof outside and maintains the building. She has 40 years of restaurant experience at places like R.F.H. Hide-A-Way in Schroeppel and Waterfront Tavern in Brewerton. She started running the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. Ryan said his wife’s experience helped make the restaurant a success.
The business struggled during the recession, but bounced back. He said that the restaurant will bring in about 1 million dollars in 2021, which is the best year. They decided to put the restaurant on the market last year.
“We’re old,” Ryan said. “We’re 65 now, we bought a second home in Florida, and we just want to slow down a bit.”
Another reason they decided to go public when they did is that business was very good compared to 2020 and revenue was down. Ryan said it will be easier to sell the business doing it better than ever.
Several interested buyers checked out the restaurant. One deal fell through because the numbers didn’t work. Ryan said he is confident the right buyer will come along.
One of the restaurant’s properties also makes it difficult to find the right buyer, he said. The restaurant has a staff of 25 and includes a downstairs banquet hall as well as a large dining room, full bar and outdoor deck covering approximately 2,500 square feet.
“It’s a big operation that we have, that’s one of the drawbacks,” he said. “One must have more energy.”
Half a mile away, Chris Sachel, co-owner of Mimi’s Drive-In, is facing a similar problem. He works about 35 hours a week at the lunch counter, down from 65-70 hours last week.
“I call it my retirement,” he said. “I’m trying to slow down a little.”
Sachel turned 65 earlier this year and would like to retire for real. He started helping his parents in the business as a boy and has been working full time for 45 years.
He said revenue has recovered from the depths of the crisis, the business is profitable and popular with customers, but that overcoming the crisis has been a “hard slog.” Even with government support and a takeover model, Sachel has gone into savings to stay afloat.
One of the biggest challenges is finding and hiring staff. The workers make minimum wage, but they also get important tips for high-level business, he said. Cooks start at $15, but their pay can go up as they train and gain some experience. More experienced cooks can make $25-30 an hour.
Sachel has about 30 employees, down from 50 before. His staff is reliable, but he is very short and has cut short hours, closing on Sundays and early Mondays.
“I have a good crew,” Sachel said. “You can’t just hire people. It’s ridiculous.”
As much as Sachel would like to retire, he lacks something his parents had: a family member to take over the business. His mother Mimi, the diner’s namesake, recently celebrated her 91st birthday in Florida.
Sachel said the business could be profitable for the right person to run it, but his children are going to college and have other jobs. They are not interested in going into the restaurant business.
“We decided it would be best to take it down and see if anyone would come along and carry it on,” he said. “We’re hoping for someone with a good work ethic who understands the business and the time you have to dedicate.”