Lisa Scanlon stands behind the new bar at Blessing’s Jim Franco/Spotlight News
COLONIE — “A place where everybody knows your name.”
Across the nation, there are thousands of neighborhood taverns just like the lovable watering hole immortalized in the sitcom Cheers.
And now Colonie has one of its own back that will stand up to any of them. Just ask the regulars, who have been pouring into Blessings Tavern II since Wednesday’s soft opening.
“It’s good to be back. I used to come here to the old one quite a bit and it’s nice to see it open again and they did a wonderful job and it looks great,” said Dan Lynch, as he was waiting for his lunch at the brand new concrete bar. “It’s the people. The food is great, of course, but I come for the people. You get to know the people who hang out here and work here and it’s just a good spot.”
The Blessing family opened the tavern in 1950. The Blessings hired Elizabeth Bennett Altrock in 1983 and she bought the aged building with a loyal customer base in 2001. In October, 2016, the old building was destroyed by a fiery car crash that took the life of 16-year-old Niko DiNovo and it took Altrock more than three years to re-build.
“It’s great to see everyone back again,” she said on Friday, Dec. 13, two days after her soft opening. “I thought I could get it done in a year but it didn’t work out that way. There was so much red tape. Insurance, regulations, variances. Just a lot of stuff to deal with.”
The parking lot was full for the lunch time crowd and the wait staff and other employees were double checking the menus and deciding where things should go to make service most efficient.
They were also hugging customers who they haven’t seen for a more than three years.
“I am very happy to be back. This like my home and I missed it and everyone here is like my family,” said Lisa Scanlon, a bartender who spent the three-year hiatus working at TJs and getting a knee replaced. “The place is beautiful isn’t it? It’s brand new, and bigger but it still has the homey feel to it.”
The barn-style décor, designed totally by Altrock, was to give the place a down home feel but also a nod to her heritage. She grew up on a self-sufficient family farm on Pigeon Hill Road outside of Norwich in Chenango County.
She moved to the Albany area, where a cousin was living to attend school, and worked retail for a while before getting into the restaurant business 41 years ago.
“We weren’t Amish but we were very much like the Amish. We didn’t have electricity or running water and we did all our farming with horses,” she said. “I wanted to bring some of that to the new Blessing’s. My dad was a part time blacksmith so I have some of his horseshoes hanging on the wall.”
There are also lanterns like what used to hang from horse drawn carriages, old, large milk cans and a wagon wheel leaning along the outside of the building that faces Watervliet Shaker Road.
The tavern, known for its homemade soups (especially cheeseburger chowder,) corned beef and burgers, was ticking along just fine at the funky, Y-shaped intersection of Consaul and Watervliet Shaker roads until Oct. 28, 2016.
On that night, with the place packed and people singing Karaoke , everything changed for a lot of people.
“I was behind the bar helping my bartender that night when there was a huge blast and a ball of orange flame went through the kitchen and there were two more blasts after that. The first was when the truck blew up and the second was when the car blew up and the third was when my natural gas lines in the kitchen ignited and a ball of flame went right through the dining room,” Altrock said. “I had like 50 people for karaoke and people were on the floor smoke everywhere. They were crawling on top of each other. It was horrendous. Just horrendous.”
Michael Carr, then 18 years old, was speeding along Watervliet Shaker Road when he failed to navigate the turn and slammed into a pickup truck parked in Blessing’s parking lot. His passenger, DiNovo, just 16 years old, was burned over 95 percent of his body. He fought for 508 days, undergoing scores of surgeries at the Westchester Hospital Burn Unit until he died on March 19, 2018.
The Blessing’s cook working that night was severely injured and is permanently disabled. Several of the customers were singed and burned and all were traumatized. The bar sustained significant, irreparable damage and was eventually razed.
And Carr pleaded guilty to assault and admitted he was drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana on the night of the crash. He is currently serving six years in prison.
“There were no winners. When you are 16 and 18 you think you are10-foot tall and bulletproof. We all did stupid, stupid things when we were 18 years old,” Altrock said. “Of course, the DiNovo family lost the most and Niko can never be replaced, sadly. But I feel bad for the kid who was driving too. He was only 18, and his life was changed forever because of it.
“And my life changed forever. I don’t like to play the victim but my employees lost their jobs. I lost my livelihood. Everyone lost. It was an awful night.”
She worked as a kitchen manager while trying to navigate the many loopholes of financing and opening a brand new bar and restaurant and basically trying to get back on her feet.
Why not just pack it in and move on? Two reasons, she said:
“The community was supportive and they expected it and they wanted it. This place was a landmark. There were a lot of people who were at a loss as to where to hang out. It’s always been a neighborhood meeting place. And I had lost everything. I had to rebuild to get back on my feet.”
Blessing’s II is 400-square-foot larger than the old place and it has a basement, something sorely lacking in the original, is handicapped accessible and friendly and has a front and side porch.
When Altrock was going in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals for the necessary variances, her project manager recommended getting a petition or something to show the board the neighborhood and community at large supports the project.
“So I put it up on Facebook and we got more than 1,500 signatures in three days,” she said. “It was very humbling to see that kind of support. They passed me unanimously.”
While it would have been nice to save some memorabilia from the old place, everything was just too far gone, either burned or smoke and/or water damaged. There is a spot, though, where some photos of regulars hang on the wall as a nod to what was as they enjoy what now is.
Right now, Altrock is putting in 15 hour days to make a go of it and hired 25 full and part time employees. She knows she won’t keep all 25 past the grand opening rush, which could take a couple weeks given it is the holiday season, and hopes she will be able to cut back on the hours a bit too.
Somethings, though, won’t change, she will still make the soup and sauces from scratch, and the place still has a feeling about it where after a couple beers, everyone will know your name.