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OLD MAN RIVER AWASH IN DEBT AS BANK AUCTION LOOMS

Sinking under the weight of bank debt, the City of Tonawanda's funky Old Man River restaurant is sending out an SOS to potential investors.

Chuck Miano, owner of the popular glorified hot dog stand, said Thursday that he would close the 19-year-old establishment at the end of business today to concentrate his efforts on securing investment partners.

"It's do-or-die time for me," Miano said. "I've got to find investors by Nov. 13 or I lose it all. I'm working feverishly to avoid that."

Miano faces foreclosure by KeyBank, which has scheduled an auction for 10 a.m. Nov. 13 in an effort to recoup an undisclosed amount of debt.

The restaurateur finds himself in a situation that is all too common in the small-business world: The success of his original restaurant led him to expand. Unfortunately, as Miano now knows, it is not always possible to duplicate success at a new address.

In this case, Miano and family members opened additional Old Man River restaurants on Transit Road in Lockport and on Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda. Although both of those satellite locations are now closed, the costs associated with launching them have not gone away.

"We over-invested; we put a ton of money in and didn't get a ton of money back," Miano said. "The saddest part is that debt has been dumped at this doorstep."

The restaurateur had been negotiating with KeyBank for more than a year to find a way to repay an undisclosed amount of expansion debt, but the parties were unable to come to terms.

"They dropped the hammer on me," he said. "Now, my only hope of keeping Old Man River is to find some partners, and quick."

Miano said he has been in discussions with "some serious prospects" to help him bail out the business. Unfortunately, with the foreclosure auction just two weeks away, he is running out of time to find backers.

"It just kills me. I've got a line of customers out the door right now," he said. "I better be
able to pull a rabbit out the hat."

Chuck Anderson of Anderson Auction & Realty described the place as a "true landmark. Everybody's eaten at Old Man River. Unfortunately, he's saddled with the debt from his other locations."

The auctioneer said that if Miano is not able to save the business before the auction date, he expects that the sale will attract a number of serious bidders.

"He's got a tremendous location overlooking the Niagara River. There's a lot of restaurant people who will be giving it a look. It's a prime spot," he said.

Miano and his brother, Sam, opened Old Man River in 1978 with the idea of creating a carefree, lighthearted dining atmosphere reminiscent of the post-World War II years. Both the decor and menu reflect the whimsical attitude the Mianos intended.

One of the eye-catching decorations is what Miano calls the "Fallserator" -- a barrel-like contraption attached to canoes, which appears banged-up enough to actually have carried the restaurant's namesake character, "Old Man River," and his sidekick, "Sully," over Niagara Falls.

The menu is similarly unusual, a place where all-beef hot dogs share space with Old Man River's patented "Bunny Dog," a steamed and char-broiled carrot, served on a hot dog roll.

At Old Man River, customers order heaps of sweet potato fries at nearly the same frequency as do for their pale cousin, the french fry.

Another of the many longtime oddities is the "Liver Burger," a stack of char-broiled liver slabs piled on a hamburger bun. Just this year, the "Frickle" (a deep-fried, breaded wedge of dill pickle) made its debut.

"We've tried to keep things interesting," Miano said. "The ideas just keep coming."

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