Crogan’s in Montclair looking forward to St. Patrick’s Day
By Lou Fancher
Struck with the fear and doubt experienced by every restaurant or bar owner in the Bay Area when the pandemic response shut down all indoor and outdoor public dining and drinking, Mike Williams remembers thinking, “This is gonna get bad.”
The owner since 2013 of Crogan’s Montclair after serving as manager since 1999, he never believed the initial closure would be just two to three weeks.
“I wasn’t sure if we would ever be open again,” he said.
Even so, Williams was certain of one thing: “There’s a part of me that can handle it if I lose my business because I’m not capable and make mistakes. But I wasn’t willing to let COVID take my business away from me.”
The upcoming St. Patrick’s Day holiday, he adds, marks when he can “stop acting like a turtle, tucking my head and tail into a shell so I don’t get hit too hard. I’m hoping I can start planning for the future instead of just planning to survive.”
On the menu March 17 are the usual, all-time favorites: New England clam chowder (the recipe remains unchanged after 40 years), fish and chips, chicken Cobb salad, Reuben sandwiches, the always-popular Crogan’s hamburger and of course, corned beef and cabbage. Bagpipe player Dave Winter will entertain guests during lunch and dinner hours.
“What’s special about this year?” Williams asks. “It’s an interesting holiday, one I’ve always looked forward to, but now, it has this PTSD feeling of almost losing my business. And there’s an extra excitement because we didn’t give up. There’s an intensity because it’s the first time in two years I’ll feel that loud, full-to-capacity, bagpipe-playing vibe.
“The camaraderie we’ve all missed is so important. Come in, have fun, smile. It makes it worthwhile to be alive. Celebration to me means we’ve made it through the worst of this and there are better days ahead.”
On March 20, 2020, after offering orders to go for a week, Williams made the difficult choice to temporarily shut down the restaurant completely. To-go orders hadn’t penciled out to anything but loss. He and his devoted staff buckled down, and by June 2020, they were back up with a limited menu and to-go orders only. He recalls people wearing gloves but no masks and wiping down the bags and containers. On St. Patrick’s Day in 2021, outside dining and reduced-capacity seating indoors were allowed.
“We got to open up a little bit, to 25%. We had the dining room open with 6-feet separations, but the bar area wasn’t open yet. It was better than 2020, but it wasn’t like 2019. There were still a lot of to-go’s (orders) and fear. I still get that from some guests. I’m glad we have our outside, which seats about 35. The indoor (area) at full open is about 140.”
Williams recalls the 1999 kitchen fire that swept through Crogan’s and the damage from smoke that closed the restaurant for nine months. Meeting provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act before reopening meant relocating the front door, and then-owner Bob Gattis used the setback as an opportunity to completely renovate the establishment.
“The dominoes of that crisis (that fell) made the remodel make sense,” says Williams. “The pandemic, so far, has been the greatest challenge I’ve encountered as owner, but in a weird way, it’s the best thing for me and Crogan’s. It gave me time to reset, to fight for my business and reopen it in a way that means I’m more involved. I now wait tables, interact with the families that come in. As an owner, I had lost that.”
From his perspective, Williams says he noticed that more customers — he most often calls them guests — appeared to be especially angry during the pandemic.
“It was usually over masks, whether or not you were vaccinated. I keep thinking, ‘If we can drop the anger as we get over this, stop the divisiveness and know we’ve all been through a horrible crazy two years, we can get back to letting it go and just enjoy ourselves for a moment.’ ”
The staff at Crogan’s formed a tighter bond in response to occasional antagonism from disgruntled or even outraged customers.
“We were there looking out for each other when we got yelled at or sworn at. We had guests yelling about the mask part of it. It was unfortunate because it was kind of like killing the messenger. It just showed how upset people were about the mandates.”
To set protocols for the staff, Williams says he didn’t dictate orders but asked all staff to have input.
“This was about all of us having a safe environment to work in. With restrictions loosening, you still have to hold yourself to a higher standard because some staff have family members who were immunocompromised. We’re like a family protecting each other. This pandemic really taught us to respect each other.”
Williams takes time and has throughout the pandemic to respond to comments he reads on Yelp that used to cut to the bone.
“When I first started looking at Yelp reviews, it killed me. I used to take it really hard. But now, this gives me an opportunity to interact, to admit we’re not perfect, to let people know that we care and will try to make it right. If they write, they give me an opportunity to make the situation better. We’re a family restaurant and friendly pub — we’re not the ‘wow’ fine-dining experience — so unless that’s your expectation, we do really well.”