PLAINS TWP. – Jeff Woytowich's business is located near the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs casino. While he says he isn't a gambler, he certainly rolled the dice 20 years ago when he decided to open a restaurant along a stretch of Route 315 that wasn't bustling or booming … yet.
Today, The Café is open for lunch and dinner and does a bang-up catering business. But in 1993, Woytowich was fresh out of Penn State and looking for a career. His grandparents had run Wartella's Market in Parsons and his mother had run a catering company, Marie's out of her home in Laflin.
So the food business seemed like a fit. But where should he locate?
Take yourself back 20 years along the stretch from the Wyoming Valley Mall area north to Pittston Township. The shopping centers and chain restaurants that now dot Mundy Street were years away from being built. What would become the state's first casino was just a horse racing track. MotorWorld, Sheetz, numerous banks and other businesses along what was then a two-lane Route 315 were not there.
The Rob Mericle-built, mega-commerce park now known as CenterPoint was a decade away from its first tenants and the East Mountain Corporate Center, near Geisinger Wyoming Valley, was only slightly developed.
But Woytowich saw something in that stretch of 315 that eventually others would see, too.
I had people saying to me ‘what are you doing opening there? There's nothing down there.' They thought I was crazy.
He rented what had been a 1,500-square foot storage area from Fox Pools and on Jan. 14, 1993 Pic-A-Deli opened for business. Seven years later, business was so good he needed to find a larger space. So he moved less than a quarter-mile south on 315 into a new strip mall and renamed the restaurant The Café, to better market what his business truly was. It wasn't a breakfast and lunch, deli-powered eatery with take-out beer.
It was dinner, distinctive coffee, a bar and more. A few years later, a 2,000-square-foot banquet room was added to the premises. Today, the business employs 12, sees 40 percent of its business come from catering and no longer offers breakfast.
The evolution Woytowich has undertaken over the past two decades is part of the reason his business has thrived, said one long-time sales rep from Maines paper and food supplies.
Natalie Zehner has been working as Woytowich's account rep since he opened and had nothing but praise on the entrepreneur.
Jeff has the drive, the ambition and the business sense, Zehner said. There was nothing around here but he had a concept and he's been successful. He keeps changing and evolving.
She said others saw that stretch of Route 315 as nothing more than the area between The Woodlands and Pocono Downs. Woytowich, she said, saw the potential and went with his intuition.
That intuition, Woytowich, 43, of Shavertown, said, was based on a gut feeling that this area was destined to grow as more businesses left the city for the suburbs and there was talk that casinos were going to be legalized giving the racetrack a bigger draw which would lead to more traffic.
He was right and soon the roadway was being widened, traffic lights were being installed, businesses began popping up and traffic increased dramatically. Slots were legalized and then table games. Hotels and a Walmart opened. And the business parks not only opened but quickly expanded filling spec buildings with thousands of potential diners.
Steve Barrouk enjoys at least one meal a week at The Café and said the combination of a good menu and reasonable prices has helped the restaurant succeed.
Barrouk, who was the head of the Greater Wilkes-Barre Chamber of Commerce at the time Pic-A-Deli opened, said Woytowich was a visionary and took quite a risk.
Barrouk said that in 1993 the area between The Woodlands and Pocono Downs was an empty stretch when it came to dining but Woytowich sensed something others did not.
When you're a visionary and you're right you look like a genius, Barrouk said.
Today, even as Woytowich sees new customers coming in thanks to the new businesses, he still sees the same faces stopping in for a meal or hears the same voices placing orders for delivery.
And as he celebrates 20 years as a restaurant owner, Woytowich isn't ready to slow down. He believes that the hotel planned for the casino will lead to additional business for him and as the business parks continue to grow and expand, he'll continue marketing his catering business, which his mother helps with.
That aspect of the business is so strong that he believes about 40 percent of his sales are derived from it. Lunch accounts for another 40 percent and dinner is at 20 percent. And he spends morning, noon and night involved in the businesses. He can be found taking orders at lunch, talking to customers at dinner and overseeing banquets and catering events.
That's another reason Zehner said Woytowich's endeavor has succeeded.
He's involved. He does everything, she said.
Name: The Café
Location: Route 315, Plains Township
Hours: 9-4 Monday; 9-10 Tuesday-Saturday; closed Sunday for private banquets and parties.