DuBOIS — Sam Mollica III has many memories of the recently closed Ponderosa Steakhouse, a business owned by his family for the last 39 years.
Due to retirement, the last day of business for the restaurant located on Route 255 in Sandy Township was Feb. 3. It had been owned and operated by the Mollica family since 1979 when Sam and Reba Mollica purchased it. Sam’s siblings include Stephen Mollica, Becky Hummel, Nancy Hayes and Claudia Russell.
“My dad, Sam Mollica, was an Army chef,” said Mollica. “He grew up in a large family. They were Sicilian and they all loved to cook. When he was in the Army during World War II, he became a cook. He had this lifelong dream of having his own restaurant. He worked at the brickyard in Clearfield and he opened a dry cleaners in DuBois and opened a loan company.”
“There was no infrastructure, they had to wait for a sewer line to be built across the road,” Mollica continued. “Then when he was about my age, around 60, he finally opened the Ponderosa, which was the Bonanza Family Restaurant at that time. That was the only reason why we had the restaurant — he wanted a place where he could cook for people.”
Mollica was 24 years old at the time and worked at the restaurant.
“I had majored in business logistics in college and I sort of dropped out of college at my senior year. I have gone back on and off, but I never graduated. I just stayed there from then until now,” said Mollica, who eventually took over as president of the business.
“I never actually cooked. I was the one who made sure all the rules and regulations were followed,” said Mollica, noting that his wife, Leah, also worked at the restaurant from the start.
Reflecting on the restaurant business then and now, Mollica said it was built on minimum wage being $2.10.
“We did a tremendous amount of business. On a Saturday night, we’d sometimes do close to 2,000 customers,” Mollica said. “If you look how we did it, look at our menu. People would come down the line and Bonanza was actually pretty far ahead because we kept an extensive chart.”
“We knew exactly how many steaks we would sell per hour,” Mollica continued. “So what we would do is we would start pre-cooking them because we’d have a line usually out the door all the time. By the time the people came down we served their steaks. They ordered them at an order station and by the time they got their drink, we’d serve them a steak, Texas toast and a potato. You could serve a lot of people quickly. Once you switched to buffet then people started staying longer. You didn’t have enough seats.”
Over the course of 39 years, Mollica estimated that the restaurant employed close to 2,500 people.
“It was a good place for people to work,” Mollica said. “We probably had about 50 to 60 employees at any given time. At the very end, we had about 40 employees, but they were all such good employees and I don’t think they’ll have any trouble finding jobs. Most of them had the ability that they could go out and they’d get hired right away. They all knew we wanted to sell for a while.”
At times, the restaurant served meals to several celebrities who “tiptoed” through the DuBois area, including singer Tiny Tim, who may be best known for his novelty hit in 1968, ‘’Tiptoe Through the Tulips With Me.”
Steven Tyler of the rock group Aerosmith also came in one time with his family and had dinner.
“It was late on a Sunday night and I had already gone home,” Mollica recalled. “This was back in early 2000. He posed for pictures with everyone. He was really nice to everyone. A lot of the employees got their pictures taken with him.”
“Then Aretha Franklin would stop in multiple times because she was afraid to fly,” Mollica said. “She lived in Cleveland and when she performed in New York City, her bus would always pull in. She liked her privacy, so we never really took pictures. The employees treated her really nice, and I think that’s why she kept stopping back, because she was treated nicely and they didn’t make a fuss.”
The decision to sell was not very difficult, said Mollica, noting that the business had been on the market for about four years before the sale occurred.
“I saw my friends that had been in the business for years getting out of the business,” Mollica said. “I talked to my brother and sisters and I said, ‘Hey, it’s probably time to sell,’ and then we decided on a realtor. We were hoping maybe someone would buy it as a Ponderosa, but we weren’t sure what would happen. Plus, my franchise agreement would end in 2018 and I’d be 62 then, retirement age. I just decided it was time.”
The sale of the former Ponderosa Steakhouse was recorded Feb. 9, according to the Clearfield County Register & Recorder’s office. The seller is listed as DuBois Bonanza Inc., with the principal’s address listed as 1216 Daisy St., Clearfield. The buyer is listed as GUO Enterprises, 48 Greenbriar Ave., Selinsgrove, Pa. The price of the sale of the 1.35 acre is listed at $925,000. Though a new restaurant is expected to replace Ponderosa, no further details on what that may be have been made available yet.
Mollica said he will miss the employees, the customers, and the challenge of making sure everything was running well and meeting the expectations of the customers.
“One sad part is I think back on all the customers that I used to see that have passed away,” Mollica said as he looked through a scrapbook of old photos from the restaurant. “That was the only sad part about being there a long time. You remember customers that would come in and all of a sudden they don’t come in anymore. They had passed away. Just looking at these pictures, I see so many people. Actually, I don’t look at them very often because it does make me sad, just to see all the customers that are no longer here.”
One thing he won’t miss is the constant worry when you own a business.
“Because we’re having constant customers in there, you worry about people falling down. You worry about food outbreak. You worry about equipment breakdown,” Mollica said.
As for retirement, “Right now, I’m just going to relax, just visit my grandkids, and my kids.”