This is the first story in a series called Back and Better Than Ever. Business Writer Tracey Porpora will profile business owners who have made it through the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and changed services or product offerings that have contributed to their operations coming back even stronger than they were before.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Like a lot of restaurants on Staten Island, Ken Tirado, owner of Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn in Charleston, was gearing up for St Patrick’s Day in March 2020 when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shut down New York — and eventually the world.
“Even though I own a German restaurant, St. Patrick’s Day has always been huge. I sell a lot of corned beef and cabbage for a German restaurant,” said the owner of the restaurant and building that has been touted as the Island’s oldest bar, dating back further than the 1830s when Charleston was known as Kreischerville.
“We had to scramble. …We closed up not knowing for how long that would be, so I donated hundreds of potato pancakes to Project Hospitality,” Tirado added.
When he realized his restaurant — which is located in an industrial area and never offered delivery in the past — was going to be shuttered for the long haul, he made the hard decision to remain closed.
“Most of our to-go business was through the local businesses, and they were all shut down. …We tried to do takeout for a while, but we weren’t getting the teachers, construction workers — no one was coming in for lunch. I was paying more in salaries than I was bringing in,” he said.
“I also felt I was in the danger zone being over 60, and I have a pre-existing medical condition from a kidney transplant a few years ago,” Tirado added about his decision to stay closed.
But when outdoor dining was allowed in 2020, Tirado opened his large beer garden on the premises.
“We got everybody masked-up and got the signage put up, and we followed all the Health Department rules and regulations,” he recalled. “It went fairly well, but the hardest part was the stupidity of the public. We had people walking in without masks, arguing — it was the virus-deniers. …And I don’t care what your political beliefs are or if you believe this was a martian invasion, but if you’re in my restaurant, you have to follow my rules. …It was a nightmare for my staff.”
Also, during the summer of 2020 when he had some live “incidental” music in the beer garden, the Killmeyer’s staff had a hard time keeping people from getting up and dancing, which was prohibited under coronavirus mandates at the time.
“I actually had a woman complain about my manager on Facebook for not allowing her to run around dancing without a mask that summer,” said Tirado.
Needless to say, trying to do business during the height of the pandemic was tough.
While the beer garden was hopping until Octoberfest, Tirado said winter 2020-2021 was very uncertain. So he shuttered the business again at the end of November and reopened on Valentine’s Day, when indoor dining was permitted at 25% capacity in New York City.
A NEW BUSINESS MODEL
After losing so much business over the last year and a half, Tirado said he took time to reflect about his business model.
Prior to the pandemic, Killmeyer’s was known for having rock ‘n’ roll bands play in its beer garden on weekends. He decided that he wanted to go back to the eatery’s German roots, and make the restaurant known for its authentic German cuisine — not as a bar where bands perform. This new model would save money by being able to operate with less staff, he said.
“I totally took this opportunity to reinvent the restaurant,” he said. “People think I’m nuts, but the rock and roll bands never sat well with me. It’s always been a German Restaurant — a historical place, the oldest bar on Staten Island.”
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Tirado said he has completely stopped the outdoor live music going forward.
“I realized it [bands in the beer garden] totally changed the tone. It makes Killmeyer’s go from being a family restaurant to being a nightclub,” said Tirado. “I’m trying to reinvent the entire culture.”
To do this, Tirado said he is following the model of the former Schaffer’s Tavern in Meiers Corners.
“I will be closing at 11 p.m during the week and midnight on weekends. I’m not doing late-night bar service at all. If you want to hang out and get drunk after midnight, you can go someplace else,” he said with a laugh.
And so far, he said the new business model is working.
He’s providing live German music, and customers seem to be enjoying it, as well as the authentic German cuisine, said Tirado.
“I just consider myself lucky, because I know a lot of businesses closed [during the pandemic] and a lot of people got sick, and I personally lost several friends. I feel I got lucky and I’m able to continue doing business,” added Tirado.
Killmeyer’s building was bought by Balthasar Kreischer, who founded the Kreischer Brick Manufactory, in 1836, said Tirado.
“Before then there was a structure here. A [former owner] said part of this building probably goes back to the Revolutionary War,” he said.
Balthazar Kreischer sold the property to Nicolas Killmeyer in 1859 and it became a bar/inn. It was sold to the Simonson family in 1945 and became Rube’s. The same family changed the name to the Century Inn before Tirado and Jim Stayoch purchased it in 1995. They returned the name to Killmeyer’s, and restored the restaurant to its old-world German charm.
If you own a Staten Island business that had to change course, or has come back stronger amid the pandemic, please e-mail Tracey Porpora at [email protected] to be considered for a story.