Just as hotels within the hospitality industry in Happy Valley found new ways to pivot during the beginnings of the pandemic, so did many restaurants around the region. Eateries that had never before offered online ordering, delivery, outside dining and other social distancing-friendly options learned to do so with gusto. That’s not to say the changes were easy — the Pennsylvania Restaurant & Lodging Association continuously monitored the situation across the state and reported the struggles restaurants were and still are facing — but they were possible and, in fact, some in the industry even found it possible to launch entirely new endeavors over the last two years.
At the end of December 2019, Pat Croce & Company purchased the Hotel State College suite of businesses, which includes iconic spots such as The Corner Room and Allen Street Grill, among others. Already, the company was going into an endeavor that would be challenging — after all, how do you bring new life to properties that are indelibly linked to the Penn State experience for so many, without a lot of pressure and high expectations? Three months after the purchase, though, things became even more difficult.
“When the pandemic hit, we were deeply shaken and frankly scared as hell as we managed and processed the closure of our businesses and the furloughing of the majority of our staff. The uncertainty was very challenging. I think it forced us to face the illusion of control we felt we had over how all our businesses operated and performed,” says Jeffrey Sorg, CEO at Pat Croce & Company. “After we processed the shock and grief from the closures and the uncertain impact on our people, we felt a very real obligation to get to work to make our businesses better during the closures, so that we could improve the ability for our people to return to work with excitement and financial gain.”
"We felt a very real obligation to get to work to make our businesses better during the closures, so that we could improve the ability for our people to return to work with excitement and financial gain.”
As a response to the pandemic, Sorg and his team had to make new, tough decisions to create safe environments for staff and guests, while also maintaining experience quality for guests in the face of issues like staffing shortages. However, it was issues like staffing shortages that also prompted a focus on building a positive work culture and looking for ways to reward the existing team. “We believe if we can continue to build and foster a strong, positive culture and reward our people well, then we'll attract new people to join our team,” says Sorg.
And in the face of all these challenges, Pat Croce & Company has still managed to unveil multiple redesigned properties, to rave reviews. Allen Street Grill now boasts a creative, high-end, seasonal menu created by a highly-lauded chef. The new-and-improved Chumley’s Cocktail Bar received a similar menu facelift and even an expanded footprint, with a revamped interior. And the much-beloved, Penn State alumni-favorite Corner Room has been brought into the current era, while still retaining all its old-school charm.
Sorg says the restaurant reimaginings were an optimistic creative outlet especially during the beginnings of the pandemic, but he also gives a nod to the Happy Valley community for helping it all come together.
“I think we all had the mindset [of] ‘If not now, when?’ Starting a business during a pandemic certainly had its delays and challenges, but if it taught us anything, it's that life is short and you need to seize the opportunities that fall into your lap.”
“First, the outpouring of community support we've received from the beginning has been incredible. It's been very inspiring to our entire team to know that we're reimagining spaces and brands that mean so much to the community and so many of our guests and staff. Second, we've really worked hard to be very thoughtful in reimagining each brand and space in a way that both honors the tradition and enhances quality and creativity across both the environment and offerings. And, finally, the incredible team we have has really made it all possible. We've worked to build a shared creative vision, which creates a collective enthusiasm amongst our team that I believe can be felt by our guests. That enthusiasm coupled with an investment in training we believe leads to successful projects,” he says.
But the Hotel State College properties weren’t the only historic restaurant spaces to receive new life in the midst of a difficult few years. The Gamble Mill in Bellefonte has been a long-awaited project, remodeled and revitalized in 2020 to include a restaurant, bar and hotel space.
“I think we all had the mindset [of] ‘If not now, when?’ Starting a business during a pandemic certainly had its delays and challenges, but if it taught us anything, it's that life is short and you need to seize the opportunities that fall into your lap,” says Megan Marcaurelle-Jones, co-owner of The Republic, the bar situated on the Gamble Mill’s first floor. She and her team also saw the same staffing shortages that Sorg witnessed, but also construction delays, especially when it came to sourcing everything needed to restore an 18th-century historic mill. “However, despite all of this, we feel that we really opened at a perfect time, when restrictions were beginning to lift and people were ready to get out and mingle again.”
"We joined an already thriving area, which helped us immensely!”
Marcaurelle-Jones also gives credit to the Happy Valley community for its support as she and husband Cody Jones and friends and Gamble Mill owners Jonathan and Christopher Virgilio worked to open the much-anticipated property.
“This building is special… The community of Bellefonte and the surrounding areas have treasured this space for many years and people were anxious to see it come to life again. That was a huge benefit for us as we faced the uncertainty of small business ownership in today's climate,” she says. “The small business community of Bellefonte, as well as Downtown Bellefonte Inc., has been incredibly supportive during this time. We joined an already thriving area, which helped us immensely!”
Do you know a Happy Valley business or entrepreneur who not just merely survived, but thrived during the pandemic? Let us know about it in the comments below or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.