PHILIPSBURG — Pat Romano, proprietor of the We Are Inn hotel and restaurant in Philipsburg, is always ready to switch gears, try something new, and keep going. He’s constantly adding new food items to his menu and innovating the way his business operates. And he’s just getting started.
Romano had his hotel booking system up and running in mid-February of this year, but within three weeks, COVID-19 mandates brought almost everything to a screeching halt.
“Everything was booked for Penn State graduation, the Blue-White game, the Olympic trials, the playoffs they were doing for hockey, and different things, and I just remember telling [my wife,] Jennifer, ‘This is going to be great,’” Romano says. “And then the next day, my phone just started dinging, one after the other with all the cancellations. And it was pretty devastating. But we were in it for the long-term.”
Looking back, Romano says the virus and the restrictions it has brought with it may have helped the We Are Inn pace itself.
“In a weird kind of way, COVID allowed us to go slower with things, instead of pushing everything right out,” says Romano. “Because of the demand we had, it gave us an opportunity to focus.”
From hotel to restaurant
Romano has been focusing lately on filling a culinary niche he himself had been missing since moving to the area.
“We moved here 16 years ago from Philly,” Romano says. “We had a camp for hunting and fishing and vacationing in the summer in Philipsburg, and I always loved Philipsburg. When I was a little kid, and we would leave, I would actually cry and fight with my mom and dad because I never wanted to leave, and I finally was able to move up here. And the only thing I missed from the city was the food.”
While tailgating frequently at Penn State games, Romano says people were always telling him there was not enough lodging in the area, and some friends started staying at his camp. He would drive by the former Mallard Motel, which stood empty for years, and ponder turning it into something.
“Rather than have these guys staying at my camp, I could get them to spend a couple dollars and stay at the motel,” Romano recalls.
Fast-forward, and Romano took possession of the property and went to work renovating it.
“So many things started happening so quickly,” Romano says. “When we found out we could get a liquor license, we fast-tracked getting a restaurant.”
Romano has been busy lately providing an eager audience with cheesesteaks, hoagies, meatballs, Italian wedding soup, chicken parmesan, imported tomato pies, and other dishes he grew up on, helping his mother and grandmother make them.
“The main thing is the food we’re putting out,” says Romano. “Everyone says it’s the best cheesesteak they ever had, the best Caesar dressing, the best meatballs. People are taking pictures of their food – when you see that, you really feel proud of what you’re putting out. It’s become a destination. There are people coming from a few hours away.”
Romano seems willing to do whatever it takes to please his customers. His addition of Creamery ice cream was a smash hit this summer and is soon to be followed by Creamery milkshakes. He’ll also be introducing boardwalk fries and steak dinners to his menu, and has big plans for his hotel to become the “it” spot for social and entertainment functions of all kinds. Romano says he already has several “regulars,” and credits the Penn State community with much of the buzz surrounding his new establishment.
“Social media is great for us,” Romano says. “Especially when you’re a Penn Stater. We’re so tight. We have the largest Alumni Association base … so if you share something, they share it. So it spreads like fire.”
Music, entertainment, and film
Nowadays, Romano’s phone is buzzing for reasons that are much more welcome than cancellations.
“After they announced the Big Ten was going to play, my phone was making noises I never even heard,” Romano says. “It was like being in Vegas and hitting the big jackpot, because my phone went that crazy. Even though you can’t have people in the stands, they still want to be with their tribe – the Nittany Nation, getting together.”
Romano plans Friday night pep rallies tailgate-style events, with COVID precautions in place.
Romano says he’s been hosting plenty of curious diners venturing over from State College, Bellefonte, Bald Eagle, and beyond. He hopes the abundant walking paths, hiking, biking, and side-by-side opportunities surrounding Cold Stream Dam and Park will draw a crowd and expand to more diverse offerings.
Romano was the executive producer of Shooting Heroin, a movie chronicling the opioid crisis in small-town America that was shot in the region and premiered last year. He sees the We Are Inn as the perfect place from which to produce other such films.
“We have the rooms, we have the catering, the meeting space,” he says.
Romano also has a vision of using the hotel’s back space for bigger events, such as comedy nights or evenings featuring various types of music, with thematic food to match.
For now, Romano says he’s going for a “welcome, comfortable, real country” vibe.
“It’s exactly the way I would do it at home – except maybe not as much garnish,” Romano says with a laugh. “My kids don’t need to have pieces of rosemary and stuff.”
The We Are Inn, at 1535 Port Matilda Highway, Philipsburg, is open for lunch and dinner, 12-9 p.m., seven days a week.
Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.