For some, the closing last weekend of the McDonald’s on Route 9W in Barclay Heights is one less place to grab a quick meal. For others, it’s the end of an era.
The family-friendly McDonald’s location with the indoor children’s Playland, reportedly the first area location for the worldwide chain, shut its doors for good on Sunday, Jan. 31. According to owner Dave Opstad, it was a business decision, partly because of the present and partly the future.
“McDonald’s, the next two to five years, you will see many of the McDonald’s today will look very different,” said Opstad, who also owns other McDonald’s locations in Ulster and Dutchess counties, including the Saugerties restaurant near the northbound exit of the New York State Thruway. “[McDonald’s is] looking at a lot of changes, modernizing the restaurant. We’re testing ‘Create Your Taste’ where customers get to come in to the kiosk and build their own burger and make it the way they want it. We just have a lot of change coming.”
But even without the companywide changes on the horizon, the restaurant in Barclay Heights wasn’t as popular as it might have seemed.
“That restaurant, with its current sales levels, it really was an underperformer,” said Opstad, who bought the location in 2014. “It did less than half of what an average McDonald’s in the New York metro area does. It was significantly below the volume.”
While it may have been the only game in town when it opened over four decades ago, the Barclay Heights McDonald’s faced mounting challenges as time went by, including increasing fast food options across the Hudson Valley.
“A river is a barrier,” said Opstad. “You always talk about barriers when you’re talking about a trade area. You’ve got a river, it’s like cutting an orange in half. And unfortunately when you look on that half circle, there was a restaurant on the other end available to customers.”
But there was also competition from within the company itself.
“At some point it was probably a mistake to have both restaurants in that town,” said Opstad. “It’s that simple … McDonald’s Corporation, our parent company, they’re very good at finding good sites. That’s what they do. But sometimes there’s misses.”
While Opstad owned the franchise, the McDonald’s Corporation owns the Barclay Heights property and they’re likely to sell rather than try and rebuild, said Opstad.
Put Saugerties on the map
Whatever eventually comes of the property, it would be difficult to imagine it holding the same emotional relevance for the many people who visited the Barclay Heights McDonald’s after the closure was announced earlier this month.
“Trust me, we had some of the most loyal customers in that restaurant,” said Opstad. “The last day, we had people bringing roses in to our crew. It was probably our most family-feeling restaurant. It was a small town family restaurant. I know the customers, especially with the Playland, I know they’ll miss it. You’re never happy to close a business. But this was a decision that really had to be made. We are very hopeful that customers will understand.”
The nostalgia wasn’t just felt in the restaurant’s ball pit or drive-thru, but also online. A Saugerties-themed Facebook group popular with current and former residents alike, was buzzing with nostalgia this week with the shuttering of the Barclay Heights McDonald’s. Nearly everyone either worked there once or knew someone who did, and they all had memories to share.
“I remember that on the final day of Driver’s Ed class — I forget who the instructor was now — would have you drive to the drive-thru, and he’d buy everyone lunch, and then we’d head back to the high school,” said Derek Balling.
Jay Cadmus said the impact of McDonald’s on the community in the 1970s cannot be understated.
“I was in junior high at the time, and I remember thinking that getting a McDonald’s kind of put Saugerties on the map,” Cadmus said. “Then we got a Pizza Hut a short time later and we were Metropolis.”
For Mercy Lee, McDonald’s was a family destination.
“When my first husband and I split, I started working two to three jobs,” she said. “When I would get a day off, I would take the kids there for lunch and the Playland for a little fun and quality time that was affordable. As a kid my dad, Tom Auer, would go through the drive thru on 29-cent burger days. He would come home with a ton of burgers for my four brothers, my mom, any friends at the house and myself. It was a treat and lots of laughs and family time then too.”
The restaurant remained a family destination until it closed.
“One thing I know, my kids [two boys, aged 6 and 8] are devastated,” said Kaila Klonowski. “And since it’s the last play place in the area my 11-month old daughter will never have the same experience her brothers or even I have had.”
The closure was also difficult for the restaurant’s staff.
“I worked there for seven years, been a manager for five, and last night I closed it for the last time,” said Kelli Young on Monday. “It was a very bittersweet night.”
But Opstad stressed that many of the restaurant’s staff will be moving over to the McDonald’s on Route 212.
“The most important thing was that we were able to not let people go,” he said. “One of the criteria for me was that I wanted to be able to protect the employees, many of whom had worked there long before I owned it. Some of the employees have been there 20 years or longer. I wanted to make sure that we had a place for them, and we did offer employment to all of the employees from Barclay Heights to come over to 212. That was another key factor in the decision.”