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Student-run outdoor restaurant announces partnership with Sahlen’s
By Michael J. Billoni
Senior Contributing Writer
Gabby Bergstrom was a Grand Island High School sophomore in 2018 when she and fellow DECA members Luke Hess and Lauren Merletti were on a bus ride home from state competition. It was then they decided owning their own business could give them an edge in winning a state award. Using their cell phones to open craigslist, they found a hot dog stand at 1437 Ferry Road on the mighty Niagara River was available to rent.
Despite the fact these teenaged entrepreneurs were not old enough to hold a driver’s license, they met the building owner and impressed her enough that she agreed to rent them the business, which previously was the Old Bedell Grille.
Interestingly, there is a historical marker on the property for Grand Island’s famous Bedell House, which opened in 1877 as a three-story hotel by Ossain Bedell, known politically as the “Duke of Grand Island.” The spot was also a stop for the ferry that transported folks across the river until the Grand Island Bridges opened in 1935.
Gabby, Luke and Lauren discussed their business plan with their parents and the Grand Island School and Business Alliance, who all agreed to get them started with a loan for the security deposit, first month’s rent, and operating expenses that included a lot of paint and supplies to refurbish the old building. Suddenly, the dream that began on the bus ride home from DECA state competition, was on its way to becoming a reality.
“To say I am impressed is an understatement,” said Rich Bergstrom, Gabby’s dad, who often bike rides to the Cabana to offer a hand when needed. “I have watched these young students grow tremendously each summer from their experiences of working at Casey’s Cabana. It has become an honor and privilege for them because they know it was started by three Grand Island High School students, which is pretty cool.”
When it came to a name, the choice was easy – Casey's Cabana, just like Grand Island High School’s store and concession stand at its athletic facility. They are all named after George Casey, a former school board member and a strong supporter of the business programs in Grand Island schools.
The business opened on Memorial Day of that first year and was open on weekends until school ended in June; then daily until Labor Day. The staff was students from school, while the three owners learned quickly how to open a bank account, purchase food, pay bills and taxes and payroll.
For all of them, it was a fun experience and it earned them first place in the state DECA awards the following year. During that same competition in Rochester, Grand Island’s long-time respected DECA coordinator, Cheryl Chamberlain, received a Lifetime Achievement Award, while Gabby Bergstrom became GIHS’ first ever New York state DECA president, in the 2019-20 school year.
While her two cofounders have moved in different directions, Gabby is entering her second year as the sole owner of Casey’s Cabana, which opens its sixth season tomorrow, May 20, and will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily until Labor Day.
Bergstrom just returned home from Boston, where she completed her junior year at Gordon College. She is working toward her bachelor’s in business administration, with a concentration in marketing.
“I have learned a lot throughout my education at Grand Island and Gordon, and it is fun and exciting to put those lessons to the test in the real world through my ownership and operation of the Cabana,” she said this week while working on ordering product for her staff of students to offer customers.
A lesson she learned in her business classes was to constantly keep her eye on the cost of goods. When Casey’s Cabana originally opened, they knew a good hot dog would bring customers back, so the decision was easy: Sahlen’s Hot Dogs. They had been purchasing them at local wholesalers and, when she mentioned the price to a friend, he said he would call Rob Free, the vice president of food and beverage for Rich Baseball Operations, which includes the Buffalo Bisons, who play at Sahlen Field. After a conversation with Bergstrom, Free was so impressed with her enthusiasm and entrepreneurism that he suggested a name at Sahlen’s she should call. They were equally impressed with this young businesswoman that they visited her this week and completed a deal where she is now ordering hot dogs direct – just like the Bisons and other big restaurants in town.
“We are so excited to announce our official partnership with Sahlen’s,” a proud Bergstrom exclaimed. “Beginning Saturday, customers will see some new Sahlen’s advertising along with plenty of promotional material. This relationship has been a long time coming, and it truly brings exciting new possibilities for both the Cabana Crew and the Sahlen’s Family.”
Bergstrom’s management team is set for this year, with veteran Cabana team members Stephen Kaelin, a Gordon College junior, and Andy Loomis, a Houghton College junior, overseeing daily operations and customer service.
“I am so proud of this dynamic duo, who are extremely prepared to lead our team to its most successful season yet!” Bergstrom said.
Bergstrom used Zoom to interview potential new hires while she was at school. New to her team of 20 are GIHS students Lily Burke, Sam Carpenter, Jenna Gorton and Katie Prell. Mikaila Clendening joined the team after graduating from Kent State University.
Bergstrom said new items to the 2023 Casey’s Cabana menu are additions to the ice cream offerings, including hot fudge and a brownie sundae. She said the team has continued to perfect the smoothie bowl and is honing its grill work to ensure that, along with the delicious new menu options, the usual items are as good as ever.
“What has impressed me since we began is how incredibly passionate our team is about their commitment to excellence. After this long winter, they are so excited to get this season started, and they cannot wait to serve the Grand Island community and beyond through their exceptional customer service – and, of course, the outstanding view of the Niagara River,” Bergstrom added with pride.
More details can be found online at www.caseyscabana.com, and its social media network.