Alex Morales stands next to a statue of "Grandma" Photo by Jim Franco/Spotlight News
#GrandmasPieShop #LaFiesta #NewOwners #JimFranco #SpotlightNews
COLONIE — It’s a story as American as Apple Pie.
The Capital District’s favorite pie shop re-opened under a new owner on Friday, Aug. 3 and it’s like eating comfort food with your slippers on.
“It was a good business opportunity first, and the other thing is it is one of the places I came to when I first came to America 17 years ago,” said Alex Morales, the iconic restaurant’s new owner who also owns LaFiesta, a Mexican restaurant in Albany. “After working very hard in different places, when I heard about the opportunity to buy Grandma’s I thought it was an amazing opportunity.”
Grandmas has been on Central Avenue since opening its doors in 1976. Famous for its pies — crowds flocked to the place for special occasions like Christmas and Thanksgiving — it also offers a full breakfast, lunch and dinner menu.
“When we heard they were closing it was a very sad day,” said Daniel Lewicki, a customer for at least a decade and who favors the strawberry rhubarb, cherry and apple pies. “Our tradition is we go to church every Sunday morning and then we come here. We are so happy to see it open again.”
Morales said he doesn’t expect much to change right off the bat but is not afraid to make some minor adjustments as he settles in and he observes what customers like and don’t like and what sells and doesn’t sell.
“We will try to stick to the past. To keep it like it was and keep the tradition,” he said. “We will continue with the high quality the restaurant is known for and then see what we can do next.”
There are about 35 employees, he said, and after a staff meeting last week. They are happy to be back, and Morales is happy to have them.
“This is like my second home,” said Patty Reinhardt, who has worked at Grandma’s for 33 years. “The customers are like our family. Some of them have bene coming here as long as we’ve been here. This is definitely more than just a job.”
According to reports, Grandma’s was opened by Joe Danaher and purchased by Dave Houle and Ron Raylinsky in 2008. In April, the owners said they were selling the iconic restaurant on Central Avenue but said the restaurant and pie shop would remain open. Last month, it was announced on Facebook it would be closing, and not two weeks later, Morales said he was buying the place.
100 hours a week
Morales was 30 when he came here from Uruguay, a South American country between Brazil and Argentina, when his daughter needed surgery to address hip dysplasia. He and his wife opted to stay here and he has worked in the restaurant business ever since in every capacity: dishwasher, busser, waiter, bartender, cook and manager.
“The restaurant business is hard,” he said, adding he often puts in 100 hour weeks. “I can tell you about any position in the restaurant business and not one of them is easy.”
His daughter is doing well, as are his other two children and his family consider themselves Americans.
“I say ‘where I come from’ when I speak of Uruguay because this is my country now,” he said. “That is where I was born and ‘where I come from’ but myself and my family are Americans and we feel proud to be here. I can say most people who helped me are American people. American people appreciate very much when they see people who want to work, and better themselves and have ambition and want to do things.
His first job was at Sign of the Tree on the Empire State Plaza as a dishwasher and has since opened some restaurants, including Tango, and worked at a number of others, including Mariachi’s and Ralph’s Tavern. He opened LaFiesta seven years ago and said some of his customers there are also customers at Grandma’s.
“You just keep working and you never give up,: he said. “Sometimes, it’s a lot of headaches but you just never give up. My lawyers are very happy now because now they are getting free pie.”
It’s the border not the people
He was quick to talk about the immigration controversies that seem to dominate the news and the political agenda, and said the problem is not with the people but with the current system.
“Most of the people, 95 percent or more, who come here from other countries come to work and for their families,” he said. “The problem is with the border and where people can cross easier than coming here through proper channels. But they are just looking for work, they are not looking for anything else.”
It is not uncommon to hear stories of people paying $10 or $15,000 for help getting across the border and is not sure why the U.S. doesn’t charge $2,500, for example, for people to come into this country for a two-year visa. And if they do well, they get another two-year visa.
The benefit it three-fold, he said. On the one hand the people looking for work will find it. The government will have a record of who is in the country. And the employees will have a source of labor.
“I have immigrants working for me and they work very hard. When they go back to where they come from for vacation or for good they are hard to replace. It took me two months to find a dishwasher. It is very hard to find people willing to work,” he said. “They work very hard because they want something better for their families.
“If we had a better system in place, people would come knock on the door and say ‘I would like to come here and work’ rather than trying to sneak in,” he said. “I’m waiting for the president, who is a smart businessman, to discover that.”
He did go through the proper channels and yet coming here was a difficult decision for himself and his family. Since being in this country, his mother and father died and he could not make it back to Uruguay for their funerals. He wanted to bring them here, he said, but they preferred their native land.
“I think you make different decisions in life and this one was one of the most important things I decided in my life for me and my family,” he said. “It was a big decision, and a good decision, for me and my family to change our lives and their future.”