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Couple faces new future away from Wilson House

WILSON – Every day except Christmas for the past decade, Caren Ashkar and John Cracchiola have opened the Wilson House Restaurant and Inn at 300 Lake St. for business, greeting tourists and locals alike.

The historic cobblestone structure – which dates to 1844 – sits on the corner of Young and Lake streets, standing sentinel over the tiny village’s business district.

But there’s a “For Sale or Lease” sign on the front lawn these days and the couple, who do not own the building, say they will not purchase it. They have leased the space for their business and have decided to close the doors on Dec. 20.

“We’ll watch the football game, then turn off the TV and go home,” Cracchiola said.

In fact, they’ve already been forced to begin shutting down in subtle ways, as employees find other jobs, Cracchiola said. At its peak, the establishment employed 25 to 30 people, he said.

The Wilson House is no longer open on Mondays, for example, effective last week. And they’ve begun canceling some service contracts in anticipation of the closing, they said.

Local civic groups, which have long used the restaurant as a meeting place, have had to find other accommodations. The Wilson Lions Club, for example, moved to Midnight Run Wine Cellars for its meeting last Monday.

Wilson Mayor Bernard “Bernie” Leiker said, “This place has been a cornerstone in our community and to see it closing is very hurtful to our little village, but I truly understand why John and Caren are not continuing.

“But, we’re not only losing the Wilson House, we’re also losing great people who made a great contribution to the whole community, because they have been involved in everything,” he added.

Cracchiola, 61, said he and Ashkar, 54, were ready to renovate the restaurant, moving the bar into the dining room area for starters, when the building’s owner, Norm O’Brien, who is in his late 80s, decided to sell the building. He notified them in January.

The couple knows the restaurant business, having operated Dacc’s on Millersport Highway in Getzville for 13 years – five of them overlapping with the Wilson House.

Cracchiola said that in recent years, liquor sales in stores have risen 50 percent and sales in bars and restaurants have dropped 50 percent. He said tougher DWI laws and the smoking ban also helped curtail business.

Ashkar added, “When the minimum wage goes up, that’s going to hurt small businesses, too.”

“There have been a lot of things changing, and I’m not being negative, these things are actually happening,” said Cracchiola. “It’s hard to keep your head above water as a small business, but I’d say it’s grown a little since we got here.”

Ashkar said she operated the “back of the house,” while her husband handled the “front of the house.” And, after nearly two decades in the volatile restaurant business, the couple said they’re ready for a change.

“We missed many events if they fell on weekends, because every Friday and Saturday night, we had to be here,” Ashkar said. “We worked all of those weekends and holidays and now we’re getting older and we just want to enjoy ourselves.”

The restaurant business wasn’t their first career. The couple met when Ashkar was director of purchasing and Cracchiola was director of operations for a paper distribution company, Sofco, in Depew.

They discovered Wilson on a pleasure ride and bought a cottage about 20 years ago in Roosevelt Beach, which they still own, but their main residence is in East Amherst.

Recalling a decade of business in this lakeside tourist town, Cracchiola said, “We’ve always tried to support the wine trail – and there were just three wineries on the trail when we opened.”

“We also carry Woodcock Brothers’ beer and BlackBird Cider Works’ cider,” Ashkar added.

“We’ve been part of a wine tour every year for the past 10 years and we’ll have our final tour Nov. 22,” said Ashkar. She explained that patrons will meet at the Wilson House and depart for five local wineries before reconvening at the restaurant.

The historic building – built in 1844 as the home of Luther Wilson, eldest son of Wilson founder Reuben Wilson – became the Wilsonian Club in the 1920s and a restaurant following World War II.

It has long served a community that quiets down through the winter months and expands its offerings during the warmer, tourist months. Along with a cozy bar area, it boasts a dining room that seats 45, a banquet room for 100, and a screened porch that adds another 40 seats in good weather. The inn, located upstairs, offers seven guest rooms and is operated as a bed and breakfast.

The establishment has long been supported by locals and tourists alike.

“The people of Wilson are really good people,” Ashkar said. “This has been a meeting place.”

“We’ve made lots of nice friends here,” Cracchiola added.

Pondering what lies beyond Dec. 20, Cracchiola said, “This is the first time, since we met, that we won’t be working together.”

Ashkar and Cracchiola said they don’t know what their next move will be, but Cracchiola said they’ve already been given some job offers.

“It was fun, we had a good time, and now we’ll find something else to do,” Cracchiola said.

“I know this sounds odd, but I just want to spend more time with her,” said Cracchiola, nodding toward Ashkar with a smile.