Lease holder: ‘Uber and Beacon killed us’
Whistling Willie’s American Grill, the tavern and restaurant at the intersection with Cold Spring’s only traffic light, served its last burger and beer on Wednesday (Jan. 22)
Willie’s has been owned since Jan. 1, 2013 by Frank Ciafardini. He purchased it from founder Bill Sohan, who sold the business due to poor health. As part of the transaction, Sohan stipulated that the restaurant’s name, which honored his grandfather, would not change. (Sohan died eight days after the sale at age 65.)
Ray DiFrancesco, Ciafardini’s stepfather and grantor of the business’s lease, was active in the restaurant’s operation, along with his son, Ray, and daughter, Brianna.
“Uber and Beacon killed us,” said DiFrancesco, explaining that groups typically stopped at Willie’s only briefly before taking Uber to Beacon, where opportunities to barhop are more plentiful.
An altercation with a customer alleged to have occurred in the early morning of Jan. 1, 2014, that led to DiFrancesco’s arrest on charges of assault and reckless endangerment also hurt the restaurant’s reputation. (The Putnam County district attorney eventually dropped the charges.)
“It cost us business,” DiFrancesco conceded. Events booked by groups from Haldane High School and other organizations were canceled, “but they came back 19 months later,” he said, adding that even during his lengthy legal proceedings, organizations had no trouble asking the restaurant for donations.
The franchise appeared to be on the upswing by 2016 when the family opened Whistling Willie’s II in Fishkill, which thrived but then closed in August, another victim of Uber and Beacon, DiFrancesco said.
DiFrancesco said both of his sons have moved on and are no longer working in the restaurant business. All but one of Whistling Willie’s employees, including his daughter, have already found new jobs, he said.
Asked if he would consider getting back into the hospitality business, DiFrancesco said: “Yes, but not here and probably not in this state.”
For now, he said he may simply spend some time at a small farm he owns in the Catskills.
The future of the building that has welcomed customers for more than 170 years is uncertain. DiFrancesco said much of the building’s infrastructure, grandfathered as acceptable when he and his family took over Willie’s, will have to be upgraded at great expense before a new business can open there.
Most of Cold Spring’s commercial buildings have seen widely varied uses over the years, but 184 Main St.’s history has always centered on hospitality, first as the Diamond Hotel, which opened in 1849. The upper floors served as a veterans’ hospital during and for a short period after the Civil War, with a ground-floor saloon.
After its use as a hospital, the building was remodeled and reopened as the Hotel Manteo, a name that lasted until 1978.
In 1986, the restaurant became Henry’s-on-the-Hudson. After two more ownership and name changes, Sohan established Whistling Willie’s in 2007.
The south end of the bar at Whistling Willies featured the remnants of a wooden Hotel Manteo sign that the DiFrancesco family discovered in the basement. Much of the present-day mahogany bar is believed to date to the Diamond Hotel era.