After 30 years, Schenectady bar owner serves last free meal (with photo gallery)
Difficult times force an end to longstanding tradition
SCHENECTADY The sign outside the Saw Mill Tavern on the corner of South Avenue and North Jay Street reads “free Sunday buffet,” but come today, the sign will either be covered up or taken down, according to owner Don Birch. That’s because the bar’s final buffet dinner was served at noon on Sunday.
Birch has been preparing hundreds of free meals each weekend for more than 30 years, but the tradition will end because of the economy. Not even the donations he received each week from Price Chopper, Perreca’s Bakery or local farmers could save the weekly dinners — meals many in the community rely on.
“It breaks his heart that he can’t do it anymore,” said Artie Smith, whose wife, Ellie, is the bar’s manager. “My heart’s breaking. My wife’s heart is breaking. It’s sad.”
Birch opened the Saw Mill Tavern as a biker bar in 1978. Two years later the free meals began, but only as a courtesy to his friends and regular patrons.
Word spread quickly. Patrons began bringing their families for the free meal. Members of the community with nowhere else to go came too.
Now, Birch estimates about 200 to 250 people come for each meal. About 190 showed up for the final meal despite Sunday’s rain.
Birch said he owes his generosity to his mother, who also was a single parent. He said his mother and grandmother were givers, who always wanted to help people. They raised him to be that way, too.
“I went a little bit further,” said Birch. “When you have the money, the more you want to do.”
The 73-year-old said his mother told him how proud she was before she passed away in 1992.
The number of meals given out increased as the economy got worse. Unfortunately, Birch has fallen on hard times as well.
“It’s grown to the point that I can’t handle it anymore,” Birch explained. “I’ve been doing it for years, but I’ve always had a good job. I could afford to do it. Now I’m going downhill trying to keep up.”
In 2009, Birch lost his job as assistant plant manager for Super Steel when it closed. He supports himself now with his Social Security and the income from the restaurant.
He’s also the single parent of a 13-year-old boy, who was born when Birch was 60 years old.
Birch is struggling to pay the bar’s utilities and is making payments on back property taxes.
With the dinners costing about $350 a week, mostly because of the price for meat, cuts had to be made, even with Avon Meat Market giving Birch a significant discount.
“I can’t imagine what the price would be without it,” he said.
The meals also add thousands of dollars annually in trash removal, according to the bar owner.
The dinners themselves vary. Sometimes there’s chicken, other days Birch serves just hamburgers and hot dogs. But there’s always homemade mashed potatoes and a vegetable.
For the last meal, Birch bought 10 racks of prime rib, which was prepared and cooked by Cornell’s Restaurant down the street.
“I appreciate the help,” he said. “I could never have cooked all of that at one time.”
Theo Canape has volunteered Sundays at the bar for the past five or six years. He wishes more local groups would have come together to help Birch.
“He’s a great guy,” Canape said. “Who do you know that would spend nearly $1,000 on lunch for people for one day?”
Wendy Murray, manager of the Horses Lounge on McClellan Street and another weekly volunteer, agreed, calling it “a shame” the community couldn’t pull together.
“There are so many restaurant owners in the area. It’s too bad we couldn’t all pick a week to host,” she said. “Times are hard and we have to take care of our own.”
Birch has done his best over the years, at times delivering dinners to older customers who couldn’t make it to the bar in Schenectady’s Little Italy.
Maria Papa, co-owner of Perreca’s Bakery, which donated bread to the dinner for decades, said, “Don Birch and the Saw Mill Tavern are cherished staples of Schenectady. For as long as I can remember, our Don has come to the aid of those who need it most. He makes the biggest, most elaborate functions for hundreds look easy.”
Those who depend on the meals said they will be greatly missed on Sundays, when the tavern turns into “just another bar.”
“It’s beautiful, what Don does,” said Harold Powell, who showed up for Sunday’s meal. “I’m sorry it’s going to end. I’m just worried where people are going to go now.”
Many patrons felt the same, noting most local churches or organizations that provide meals to the needy are closed Sundays.
“I’m not homeless now, but I was at one time,” said Enith Berry. After coming to the Saw Mill for dinner on and off for 20 years, he was shocked to hear the dinners would end. “On Sundays, everyone comes here. There’s not a lot of other places for people to eat.”
Evelyn Ives, who’s gone to the dinners since 2003, said she’s not totally dependent on the meals. However, for some people of lower income, she said, not having them will be a big difference.
For now, Birch plans to still prepare the three holiday dinners he gives out each Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving. He will also keep participating in the Toys for Tots fund drive and the numerous bike runs he organizes to raise money for veterans and the City Mission.
In order to cushion the loss, Birch bought 50 tickets to a spaghetti dinner at the VFW Post in Rotterdam next Sunday and handed them out to patrons in the buffet line.
The $5 dinner will benefit the March of Dimes. As long as those given a ticket can make it there somehow, Birch was happy to provide another meal.
“At least they’ll have someplace to go,” he said.