Curbside’s OK, but owners are happy to welcome pandemic-weary patrons back in
By Karen Carr Keefe
Island Dispatch Editor
And Mike Billoni
When a state judge opened the door to indoor dining for Erie County eating establishments last Thursday, Jan. 14, patrons beat feet into Grand Island restaurants. The patter of their feet was music to the ears of restaurant owners, who were more than ready to comply with the required COVID-safe measures of 50% capacity, 6-foot distance between tables, no more than four people per table and 10 p.m. closing.
The Island Dispatch is taking a look at four Island restaurants that have weathered the storm – The Viking Diner, the Village Inn, Dick & Jenny’s and Zobud Bistro.
Viking Diner owner Chris Polizzi and General Manager Caitlyn Klingersmith are happy to welcome diners and continue to do takeout orders from the ’50s-style diner at 1849 Grand Island Blvd. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
The Viking Diner
Some local restaurants held their own with takeout and delivery. Others teetered on the brink of solvency. Still others shut down, fearing they would never open again.
The Viking Diner was one of the latter. The restaurant at 1849 Grand Island Blvd. bills itself as a ’50s-style diner with a fun atmosphere and great food. But it appeared the fun and the food were about to end when it shut down, apparently for good, on Jan. 1. However, as very good luck would have it, the diner came back in only about a week, like the phoenix rising again, thanks to community support.
“We were just struggling and struggling and struggling,” said owner Chris Polizzi. “We just couldn’t really find the momentum to keep going,” he said, describing what COVID restrictions had done to his business. They were open for takeout the whole time, until their brief closing right after New Year’s Eve. They had first opened Feb. 1, 2020, and were closed down, and endured the first COVID-related closing as of March 16. “We really didn’t even get the wind under our sails yet. We were just starting to take off, and then we got shut down,” he said of the first, state-imposed closing.
Restaurants were allowed to resume indoor dining for about two-and-a-half months in the summer and early fall. Then, in late fall, only outdoor dining, takeout or delivery had been allowed to area restaurants beginning Nov. 18, when Erie County was designated an “orange zone.” That’s when a rise in cases and a decline in available hospital beds converged to prompt the state to close restaurants to indoor dining in much of Erie County, including Grand Island.
Polizzi explained how the two different micro-cluster zones in the counties on either side of the North Grand Island bridge – a yellow zone for Niagara and an orange for Erie - caught Grand Islanders in the middle of a dilemma.
“I guess what really happened was Niagara County was left to be open,”Polizzi said. “With us being closed down, there’s nothing to do. People don’t have anywhere to go. So they get up and they go to Niagara County because they can go out to eat and they can go to the gym, they can do whatever they want, right across the bridge,” he said. “Though Grand Island residents have been fantastic. I mean all the way through the whole thing. But you can’t expect them to eat at the Viking Diner five days a week. They want to support everybody, as I do. I eat everywhere,” he said. “But it just got to a point where we just couldn’t do it anymore. You know the rent piles up and the electric and all the bills … the gas, everything,” he said.
“But one lady, she found my Venmo [mobile payment service], asked if she could use it. I said sure. So the community just kind of rallied. We got some donations from the Island residents. There was a GoFundMe that was started for us, so that generated some money for us,” Polizzi said. “We were able to go out and buy some groceries and be able to open back up again. People were really happy that we were. I’ve tried to thank every person that I could.
He said close to 60 or 70 people donated to get the diner back in business. He said more than $2,500 was raised through community efforts.
“We’ve just kind of been going day to day since then. The new round of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loans has finally become available, so we’ve applied for that. We’ve got some very faithful, loyal customers that come in – some daily!
Polizzi said that Cheryl Frailey, who set up the Venmo fund for the diner, had a portrait of Bills quarterback Josh Allen that she donated, as well as a mug, shirt and other Bills items to make up three Bills tailgate raffle baskets. Those who donated to the Viking Diner were entered into the raffle.
“So she was the one that started the whole thing, so we’re very thankful to her,” Polizzi said. “Suzanne Kennedy was the woman who started the GoFundMe.” He said they are very thankful for her help, as well.
Frailey told the Dispatch that David Perri of Pizza Amore donated a gift certificate for the raffle, as did Marnie Knopp of Tim Hortons. Shannon Zaccari donated an Island Bills logo to the baskets.
Frailey said she struck up a friendship with Polizzi on Facebook, sharing ideas for the Viking Diner he planned to open.
“I couldn’t believe what a nice guy he was, and he took the time to speak with me, like he knew me his whole life,” Frailey said. “I, too, come from a restaurant family that was started in the 1960s or earlier by my late grandma. I just gave him some ideas. Then it opened, and we frequented the diner,” she said.
“Fast forward to the pandemic, and the fact that Chris may be losing everything,” she said. “He took the time to speak with a person he didn’t even know. So I felt the need to come to his aid, never thinking it would get this big! I had to twist his arm to let me help. So the journey began.”
Frailey expects the diner has a bright future. “The diner can be the heart and soul of the Island. Chris is an amazing person, and I just felt the need to help him!”
Polizzi said the response has generally been great since indoor dining resumed, but some people seem a little hesitant. “We do what we’re supposed to do, but people are still kinda iffy about going out.”
The diner has been doing “Bills boxes,” a meal-sized snack of seven or so items in a pizza box that has become quite popular, he said. For more information on Viking Diner, call 716-773-9707.
The Village Inn
Mike Carr, who has owned the Village Inn since 1988, was fortunate to have an expansive outdoor dining area at 1488 Ferry Road. He also was happy they have had a more than 10-year history of promoting a takeout menu.
“We were able to do similar numbers when the restaurant dining was shut down, but doing takeout exclusively is a much greater challenge. Not having diners means we miss having servers describe our famous soups and appetizers, and you certainly do not have the drinks ordered from the bar,” he said.
“We are now welcoming back our customers and it has been fine. We are adhering to the social distance protocols; we have spaced out the tables and limited the capacity, so it has been fine.
“Most of our customers just enjoy walking through the front door and being able to enjoy what they knew as normal for a long time – the quaintness of the Village Inn, good service and the comfort food we offer, especially the homemade soup.”
Mel and Trey Stevens of Kenmore have been customers of the Village Inn for about 30 years. They were very happy to be back inside the restaurant in Ferry Village on Jan. 15, the first day it reopened for indoor dining.
“There is no finer spot. This is like coming to family,” Trey said.
“It absolutely feels like a dream to be eating indoors – to go out for lunch. Hallelujah!” Mel said.
For more information about the Village Inn, call 716-773-5030.
Cindy Sharpe of Grand Island and Cheryl Cardone, an assistant superintendent of the Grand Island School District, enjoy getting together for dinner and were pleased when they could do so this week at Dick & Jenny’s. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
Dick & Jenny’s
It is safe to say the only Grand Island restaurateur who may have been prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions on restaurants was Dick and Jenny Benz, owners of Dick & Jenny’s, 1270 Baseline Road. When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the shutdown of non-essential businesses in mid-March because of the growing worldwide pandemic, Jenny thought about August of 2005 when they were in New Orleans operating a restaurant that was hit by the deadly, horrific Category 5 Hurricane Katrina.
“As they said down South back then, ‘Everything is “Caddy Wampus’” which essentially means everything is upside down, up in the air and a mess,” she said during a break serving dinners on a busy Wednesday evening, six days after Erie County restaurants were allowed by the state to open under yellow precautions.
“When this began in March with phase one of the shutdown for restaurants, we all went into emergency management to determine what we could do when we were allowed to serve our customers again,” she explained. “When word came that we could offer takeout and outdoor seating, we attacked that business model with a vengeance.”
They expanded the patio area on the side of the building and added tables the restaurant purchased from the shut down Fantasy Island amusement park, along with hanging some signs from the park. “We wanted to make that experience cheerful and fun,” she said with a laugh.
As for takeout, they put her wait staff to work delivering orders that became more creative than ever, including Mason jars filled with bar drinks. On Saturdays they were delivering brunch with containers of their famous Bloody Marys to homes throughout the Island. Unfortunately, its annual Crawfish Boil in the summer was canceled but they are hopeful to resume again this summer.
While business went well in the first shutdown it was not so when Erie County restaurants were placed in the orange zone in November and did not come out of it until Jan. 14. “That lasted so long and because Niagara County restaurants were open a number of customers went out for dinner there. It was not a level playing field and we never heard why,” she explained.
Now that they are back in business, Jenny is pleased to see so many of her loyal customers return for dinner.
Cindy Sharpe of Grand Island and Cheryl Cardone, an assistant superintendent of Grand Island Schools, enjoy getting together for dinner and were pleased when they could do so this week at Dick & Jenny’s. “Throughout the pandemic my husband and I would order take out dinners from restaurants throughout the island because it was important to support them,” Sharpe said. “For us to now be able to enjoy a dinner out, it is great.”
Cardone, who lives in Lewiston, was fortunate to frequent Niagara County restaurants but the former Island resident enjoyed returning to Dick & Jenny’s for dinner with her friend. “It is nice to dine again in Erie County and to support our many great restaurants on Grand Island,” she said.
Dick and Jenny Benz said it was extremely sad to learn their popular piano player, Don Burns, had died of COVID-19 complications in November. “It was so sad that for such a social man as Don, who loved people and they loved him, to die without the comfort of people around him.”
For more information on Dick & Jenny’s, call 716-775-5048.
Sue Conway, left, and her daughter and server Jennifer Conway at Zobud Bistro, 1879 Whitehaven Road. (Photo by Mike Billoni)
Sam Reda, who has been an executive chef for white tablecloth restaurants for over 30 years, opened the charming Zobud Bistro at 1879 Whitehaven Road in September of 2019. When the pandemic closed restaurants six months later, he was going to stay closed, until so many customers called for takeout.
“We had a great summer on our outdoor patio, but since Mother Nature determines when we can be outside, so we are going to construct a cover for that space in the spring,” he said. “There is a big market for takeout on the Island, but since we pride ourselves on the presentation of the entrée, you lose a bit of that presentation in a takeout container. That is the most challenging part of it for me, but the response from customers has been great.”
Jennifer Conway, a server at Zobud Bistro and an elementary school teacher in the Ken-Ton School District, is extremely grateful to be back to work. “It is such a relief to have that second income and especially to see our customers again.”
Her daughter, Lana, was enjoying dinner recently at Zobud Bistro with Conway’s mom, Sue, who lives in Lewiston. “It feels normal to be back in the restaurant again,” Sue said. “It is fun and enjoyable to enjoy dinner with my granddaughter, see my daughter and especially, to get out of my kitchen.”
For more information on Zobud Bistro, call 716-775-5145.