Harry's Grill set to close in August
SHAMOKIN - The neon "open" sign in the window of Harry's Grill will flick off for the final time next month, signaling an end of an era in the city.
After 73 years, the famed eatery will close Aug. 16.
Chef Tom Kearns, 66, needs both knees replaced. There's no one in line to take over the kitchen and support the owner, his wife, Barbara, 65. It's time, they say.
Harry's could find a new owner. There's been a few sniffs from interested investors who caught wind of its closing.
If the restaurant stays closed, though, it will be a memory, eulogized by the faithful whose hunger was always sated by "fine food at coal region prices."
Two pizzas and a cheeseburger plated and out the kitchen door, Tom finishes the day shift Tuesday with a pair of sirloins grilled on the charbroiler. Longtime employee Lisa Slovinsky takes over for the night. Tom walks cautiously out of the kitchen and into the dining room, a limp in each step evidence of the pending knee surgery. He labors to sit down, and even more so to stand. A 10-year stint decades ago in masonry construction sped up the debilitation. Standing for hours at a time in cramped kitchens for nearly 30 years didn't help.
His father-in-law, Harry Sanzotto, the restaurant's obvious namesake, was feeling the same pains 25 years ago.
"The same thing that I'm going through. I'm becoming Harry," Tom said.
Two "Harrys" opened the restaurant on Market Street in 1941 - Sanzotto and his uncle, Zito. Barbara recalls as a girl riding her bicycle from her home on Willow Street to the restaurant. She'd help wait tables or work in the kitchen with her father. At closing, Harry would put her bicycle in the trunk of his car and drive her home.
She worked at her father's joint before graduating in 1967 from Our Lady of Lourdes High School. She earned a nursing degree and worked at Bloomsburg Hospital, where she met an orderly named Tom, who had graduated from Lourdes in 1966. They married in 1971 and had two daughters, Dawn and Kerry.
Sanzotto remained the face of the place for 50 years. Tom worked with Harry on and off into the 1980s. After earning a culinary arts degree, he had a short turn managing The Wayside Inn before landing a culinary teaching position at the former Northumberland County Vocational-Technical School, now Northumberland County Career and Technology Center.
In 1989, Barbara took on a more prominent role at the restaurant while her father's health worsened. After his death in 1991, she and Tom took over operations - Barbara at the front of the house, Tom in the kitchen.
Tom continued teaching at the vo-tech, employing some of his students in the process. He left the school in 2002, the same year Harry's expanded into the neighboring building, opening another dining room and a catering kitchen.
Aside from the expansion, there were additional upgrades in the kitchen and a remodeled dining room in the mid-1990s. But Harry's never lost its charm, its untouched original bar tying the modernized dining areas to an era when Harry's was a night spot.
And what a night spot it was. Barbara says the crowd was three-deep at the bar some nights. Tom wanted a restaurant, though. His experience at the Culinary Institute of America added a dimension of fine dining, French and Italian cuisine bolstering a classic menu of burgers and pizza. The Kearnses chose not to push the bar business. Nothing good happens after closing, 10:30 p.m., anyway, Tom says.
Harry's is nothing if not consistent - its dishes and its staff. There are 13 employees; Tom Bamford, Nancy Eckman, Suzanne Wolfgang and Slovinski, the cook, among the most familiar faces. Barbara and Tom say breaking the news to them was the roughest part in deciding to close.
Business has been good, and that's not at issue, Tom says. But it's no surprise that it's gotten better of late now that word has spread that Harry's days are numbered.
When it's all over, Tom says he'll miss the adrenaline of working a kitchen at rush time.
"And we'll miss the customers, too," Barbara said. "With closing, it really hit me, the legacy. I was really taken aback."
"We've been humbled by the number of customers coming to the register with a tear in their eye talking about the place closing," Tom says.
The dinner hour sets in and Barbara stays for the night shift. Tom goes home, his shift is over. It wouldn't be unusual if a rush came and he had to drive back to work. It happened just the other day; that's the restaurant business.
Harry's shift is almost over, too, it seems - save for a change of hands. The Kearnses are hopeful a new owner will take over. They say Harry's and its customers have been good to them, and they say it can continue to be good. It's closing is an end, but it could be a new beginning.