Dining at The Tavern has been a time-honored tradition for generations of Penn Staters since the restaurant opened in 1948. Many generations of Penn State students have also worked as servers, busboys, cooks, dishwashers, and cashiers at The Tavern.
Pat Daugherty and business partner Bill Tucker purchased the restaurant in 1980 from original owners John “Jace” O’Connor and Ralph Yeager. Now, 40 years later, Daugherty is still the face of The Tavern, greeting customers when they come through the doors.
Like many restaurants in the area, the pandemic has slowed business. However, Daugherty is still optimistic and has exciting new plans to renovate and expand The Tavern in the coming months.
Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith interviewed Daugherty via Zoom to discuss the changes The Tavern has had to undergo to provide a safe dining experience during the pandemic, and what renovations are being planned for the restaurant.
Mimi: It’s a very small list of people who I have chosen to interview twice. But I’ve chosen you because there’s so much change in the air all over State College and Penn State. The whole idea of Town&Gown when it first started back in 1966 was to recognize people, processes, and projects that were relevant to both the community and the university. You’re a guy that has done a lot on both sides of the avenue. I’m part of that club too. I consider you an institution – you, The Tavern, and you, Pat Daugherty – in this valley.
You probably know more people than I do. You’ve been involved in so many things. And since we’re in the season of the Renaissance Fund as well, you’re one of the locals who had the wonderful honor to be a Renaissance man some years ago. And now this year, we and the university working together have chosen to honor the Penn State Alumni Association as the Renaissance group of the year on its 150th anniversary.
I’d like to start with what’s happening in the hospitality business in our community, for which The Tavern has been a key component for how many years, Pat?
Pat: Since 1948. Our 75th anniversary will be 2023.
Mimi: There are great changes taking place at The Tavern, along with many parts of the community. Can you cut us in a little bit on what’s happening?
Pat: A lot of things are happening and the project that we were going to embark on has expanded from its initial idea. To put that in perspective, we were hoping to close after New Year’s Eve dinner and be reopened in time for Valentine’s Day. And now we’re thinking about closing sooner than that and hopefully being open by the summer.
So, it’s really expanded; we initially were going to have to update our lobby and our restrooms and make them handicap-accessible. And then we started looking at other opportunities. And one of the things that The Tavern needs to do is we need to make sure that we’re still the place where people want to go. But some things have evolved. The biggest change that people will see is we’re going to convert the student apartments on the second floor of the old original house to dining. Not only are we going to convert the inside part where those apartments were, but we’re also going to have seating on the roof. We’re going to flatten those roofs and have seating on the roof. So that’s an ambitious project.
We’re going to move our bathrooms to a separate area of the lobby, closer to College Avenue, so it will allow us to make our Adam’s Apple bar larger.
Mimi: Tell us the status of the ownership. You’re the face of The Tavern for a whole lot of years. When did that happen? When did you buy it?
Pat: Bill Tucker and I bought it in late December 1979, from John O’Connor and Ralph Yeager. And then Bill Tucker retired as an owner – he and I still owned the building together for a long time – but he retired in 1986 as my partner, and I’ve been here since 1986. I’ve been very fortunate all my life.
I sold the building on January 9, 2020, and we retired that mortgage. I don’t know what I’d be doing with this virus and us running at 27 percent of sales if that hadn’t happened. I’ve been fortunate a lot. Where we are right now is, I’m still operating as Tucker & Daugherty Incorporated. And that’s partly due to the virus because I’m the owner until the PLCB gets their people back to work to the point where we can transfer the liquor license. But the agreement that we have is I am still going to stay here. I’m still going to greet customers. We’ve got a great general manager named Shawn Kelly. He’s done a lot of things already; people who are venturing downtown have noticed nice things with the menu and some other things that are happening that are positive.
We are open five days a week for dinner. We’re open from five to nine. We don’t do lunch. We did lunch on (Penn State) move-in weekend.
Mimi: Were you busy?
Pat: Yes, it was worth doing lunch; move-in weekend was our busiest since we reopened. The busiest we’ve been since Valentine’s Day was a move-in weekend. We’ll be busy for home games.
I’m being cautious and it translates to how we operate here. We take our kids’ temperature before they come in; our kids wear gloves and masks. We deep-clean. We sanitize after you leave. A lot of restaurants are doing the same thing. We frequently sanitize the common-touch surfaces. We have a lot of single-use things. We don’t have salt-and-pepper shakers on the table. After you handle the menu, it gets thrown away and everybody gets a brand-new menu. We wrap our silverware; we don’t just put it on the table.
We’re just doing a lot of things that that we need to do. And the 6-foot distancing. Right now, the state went from (allowing) 25 to 50 (percent occupancy). If they told us we could be 100 percent of our posted occupancy, we’ve already figured it out; we can only be at 38 percent, we can’t get to 100 percent and still have 6-foot social distancing between tables. So, as a result of being closed from the middle of March until May 29, we’re at 27 percent of our normal sales. And so, this would be a time to start some of the renovation work here, once we get plans approved.
Mimi: This whole pandemic keeps passing on to other situations. There’s an oversupply of apartments in State College. What’s going to happen, in your mind?
Pat: I think enrollment has to go up – I’m only kidding, Dr. Barron. I’m not in that market. I don’t know as much about that market. I was a student when there was Walkertown on the Old Main lawn, because there wasn’t enough housing for students. It doesn’t bother me that the students have more choices than they used to. A lot of this is driven by where the big equity firms decide to put their money. Twenty years ago, they decided they needed office buildings, and it turns out that they got over-built, too.
I see what you’re saying. I think it’s the result of having a town zoning and plan that are addressing, in some cases, things that we don’t want, instead of saying, “Well, this is what we would like to have,” and then figuring out a way to fund the gap. If you want more professionals downtown, you figure out how to do that. If a developer can’t make money with that, you have to figure out how to fund that gap so that you can have a diverse community living downtown and working downtown. For instance, this is not quite analogous because it’s a bigger place – but Ithaca gets close, and that’s what they do. And again, there’s people that know more than I do about this. But I think we have created a situation where the only way you can meet the requirements for parking and workforce housing, setbacks, and everything else is to go up.
Mimi: Well, the Downtown Improvement District is the organization of businesses and property owners downtown. How significant is their role in the total planning of the future of downtown?
Pat: We have people on our board who are also on some of those committees at the borough working on things. But it’s not something that gets discussed in our meetings. We’re more activity-driven. Otherwise, there’s nobody promoting activities, whether it’s welcoming parents or going back to sidewalk sales; nobody else does Christmas downtown except us. That’s more of our role. Maybe we need to change it, but I don’t think we have the budget to have the kind of people on staff that we need to do all the things that are out there that are possible.
Mimi: It doesn’t feel like all elements are working together. And as a result, we have a hodgepodge. And I thought, I’m a schmoozer, and you’re probably one of the best schmoozers in the valley. Maybe in a discussion, we could identify some thoughts that would help us as a total community control our future. It’s gone way out of shape already. How far is it going to go? Will downtown die economically?
Pat: No. Some things could be better. Many of us are independent, and I don’t see as many young ones coming along behind; we need to encourage more of them.
Mimi: Well, all of the problems that have existed have been exacerbated by the pandemic. So, we’re living in conditions that none of us have ever experienced anything like this. I believe the mood is right to find ways to do everything better.
Pat: That’s what we’re doing at The Tavern. That’s my focus.
Mimi: The changes are all around us. Just take the old restaurant, Spats. The new restaurant that’s coming there are people new to the community. And their idea is new to the community. The people who are taking over the Corner Room, Allen Street Grill, and all five of those properties are established people from Philadelphia with fresh ideas. So, there’s this opportunity to join together to make it more exciting going to downtown State College, which is still a beautiful place to be.
Pat: I agree with that. I’ve seen a preliminary plan for the new restaurant where Spats was. And the Allen Street Grill just refurbished and reopened. So, we’re doing those things and heading in that direction.
Mimi: We have some exciting news for upscale dining. And we need to plan together, both the government and the businesspeople, to spread this that has started to make what exists even better.
Pat: Some aspects of the government have been helpful. I think the borough is helping a lot with their free parking. It’s an incentive to come downtown. The county has been helpful. In the beginning, we had to buy masks and gloves, and now we’re getting some from the DID. Some people doing the best they can. I don’t think we’ll be out of this until the counts go down to where it’s a regular flu.
Mimi: You came back as a person who had worked at The Tavern as a waiter, as did your partner. I understand that the person who was the leader of your purchasing group used to work at The Tavern.
Mimi: You’ve provided experience and help to thousands of students who are still loyal and come back. How do we preserve that as well as we can?
Pat: I’m not going anywhere, one. And two, I’ve got a young lady sitting here waiting for me when we get done. Her mother worked here. I mean, we’re going to continue that. Just earlier this week, I saw that Kelsey Joyce had a birthday. Kelsey Joyce is our first three-generation server. Her grandfather worked here for Jace and Ralph. Shawn Kelly has been here since July; he’s seen it. Some of our best servers now, their fathers or mothers worked here. I think the legacy is part of The Tavern.
When we renovate, we’re going to keep it The Tavern, but we’re going to have some new things. So, we’ve got a surplus of certain things, maybe chairs, maybe some tables, and we’re talking about maybe having an auction. And this auction would give people who feel nostalgic the opportunity to have a couple of chairs from The Tavern if that’s their wish. The proceeds would go to some student-related charity, and one of the things we’ve talked about is the Renaissance Fund.
Mimi: You and I have been friends for a long time because both of us are dreamers. We both say, “Why not?” And we’ve done a few of those things together. I value your friendship. And may you live for many more pretty healthy years. You have been a true friend of this community and this university. Be well and good luck.
Pat: Thank you for all those nice words. I almost feel they’re undeserved, but thank you.