By Ken Sturtz
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 changing the name to Steph’s Place.
After decades in the food service industry as both employee and owner, however, she’s put the diner up for sale.
“I’ve been doing it for 33 years,” she said. “It’s time to retire and enjoy life.”
Goodsell isn’t alone. More restaurants and bars have come on the market in Oswego County this year than at any time in recent memory.
The longtime owners of Vona’s Restaurant in Oswego put the business up for sale. In Fulton, Mimi’s Drive-In and Tavern on the Lock are for sale.
Other establishments that have come up for sale this year include RiverHouse Restaurant, in Pulaski; Gary’s Sports Bar, in Oswego; Sand Bar & Grill, in Constantia; J.D.’s Tavern and Grill, in Sandy Creek; Daddy Ed’s Diner in Mexico; Happy Valley Inn, in Parish; and Stick’s Sports Bar & Grill, in New Haven.
In January, Mr. Sub, a popular Pulaski eatery, changed hands 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 COVID-19 pandemic battered restaurants especially hard and while the industry has rebounded, benefiting from pent-up consumer demand, soaring costs across all areas of the business persist.
In a survey released by the National Restaurant Association, more than eight in 10 restaurant owners reported that their food, beverage and labor costs are now higher than before the pandemic. Despite measures taken to address higher costs — raising prices, cutting hours and changing menu offerings — 85% said their restaurant is less profitable than it was in 2019.
While every restaurant dealt with significant challenges during the pandemic, it doesn’t appear to be the main reason many of the businesses are for sale.
“The ones that could adapt quickly are the ones who made it,” said John Halleron, a senior business adviser at the Small Business Development Center at SUNY Oswego.
Halleron regularly works with clients starting restaurants. He said businesses that survived over the last two years are unlikely to be selling now because of pandemic pressures. They’ve already demonstrated that they’re flexible enough to adjust their menus, hours and staffing 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 at it for 20 or 25 years if not longer and they want some time to themselves.”
Goodsell has eight employees, but still puts in at least 60 hours a week at her diner and works seven days a week.
“I take time off but I’m there every day,” she said. “You’ve got to be.”
The pandemic slowed business down somewhat, but not as much as she expected it to. Winter is far worse for the business, which closes in November and reopens in May. Aside from wanting to retire, Goodsell said she put the business up for sale because no one in her family is interested in taking it over, especially knowing just how much work is involved.
Donald Ryan and his wife Susan purchased the Lock III restaurant in 2007 and re-opened it in 2008 as Tavern on the Lock.
He’s a contractor and built the decking outside and maintains the building. She has 40 years of restaurant experience at places like R.F.H.’s Hide-A-Way in Schroeppel and the Waterfront Tavern in Brewerton. She started out running the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. Ryan said his wife’s experience helped make the restaurant a success.
The business struggled during the pandemic, but rebounded. He said the restaurant grossed about $1 million in 2021, its best year. They decided to put the restaurant on the market last year.
“We’re aging out,” Ryan said. “We’re 65 years old now, we bought a second house in Florida and we just want to slow down a little.”
Another reason they decided to put it on the market when they did is because business has been very good compared to 2020 when revenue was significantly off. Ryan said it will be easier to sell the business with it doing better than it ever has before.
Several interested buyers have looked at the restaurant. One deal fell through because the numbers weren’t working out. Ryan said he’s confident the right buyer will come along.
One of the restaurant’s assets also makes it challenging to find the right buyer, he said. The restaurant has a staff of about 25 and includes a banquet facility downstairs as well as the main dining room, a full bar and an outdoor deck that’s nearly 2,500 square feet.
“It’s a big operation we have, that’s one of the drawbacks,” he said. “Somebody’s got to have a lot of energy.”
Half a mile away, Chris Sachel, co-owner of Mimi’s Drive-In, faces a similar dilemma. He works about 35 hours a week at the diner, down from 65-70 hours a week in the past.
“I call it my retirement,” he said. “I’m trying to slow down a little bit.”
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 pandemic, the business is profitable and remains popular with customers, but that getting through the pandemic was a “tough slog.” Even with government support and a take-out model, Sachel dipped into savings to stay afloat.
Among the biggest challenges has been finding and hiring workers. Wait staff make minimum wage, but also get tips which are considerable in the high-volume business, he said. Cooks start at $15, but their pay can go up once they’re trained and gain some experience. More experienced cooks can make $25-30 an hour.
Sachel has about 30 employees, down from 50 in the past. The workers he has are dependable, but he’s so short-handed that he cut back hours slightly, closing early on Sundays and Mondays.
“I’ve got a pretty good staff,” Sachel said. “You just can’t hire people anymore. 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 can be lucrative with the right person running it, but his kids are going to college and pursuing other careers. They’re not interested in going into the restaurant business.
“We decided it would be better to just unload it and see if someone would come along and keep it going,” he said. “Hopefully someone with a good work ethic who understands the business and the time you have to devote to it.”