Vinny Cala easily remembers the early 1990s when the seats in his Derby restaurant often were occupied by workers from New Era Cap Co.
"They used to come in, all the bigwigs," said Cala, owner of Cala’s Kitchen diner on Route 5 for 26 years. "The owners, vice presidents, they all used to come in. Everybody came in, all the office people, it was a close-knit little operation.”
He said the white-collar lunch crowd from the plant was a big part of his business when he started. That gradually began to fade as the company moved its headquarters to downtown Buffalo.
On Tuesday, the beginning of the end of New Era's connection to this Lake Erie hamlet was announced with the news that the company is planning to close the plant that has been on Route 5 for half a century.
“A lot of people have been here 30, 40 years. How do you start over from that?" one employee said after company officials told employees Tuesday morning.
Many employees left work in tears.
“I’ve been here more than 40 years,” one emotional worker said. “I’m going home to tell my mother we’re going to lose our home.”
Several workers said they were told not to talk to the media – a company official said that was not the case – and were reluctant to give their names.
One employee who has worked at the plant making caps for more than 25 years said he was a year away from retiring from a job which was about 5 miles from his house.
“It stinks ... but what are you going to do, you know?” he said.
The feeling of shock and sadness spread to the community as well. Among elected officials and community leaders in the Town of Evans, where Derby is located, the emotions of choice were anger and dismay.
Evans Supervisor Mary Hosler said employees had given concessions to the company over the years, and the company had been given tax breaks for various improvements and renovations as economic incentives since 1993 until 2017.
"Everybody has given something in the past; it's time for them to continue. And they give up, they pull out," she said.
The company paid nearly $73,000 in school, town and county taxes this year, the first year without the tax break in all three jurisdictions. In 2016, the company paid no school taxes and about $10,000 in town and county taxes, under the payment in lieu of taxes agreement.
"Because it expires, you just get up and leave?" Hosler said. "It's disappointing that nobody was given the heads up on this."
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said his administration also was taken by surprise by the announcement, because no one from the company contacted his administration or the Erie County Industrial Development Agency to inform them of the decision, or to explore potential ways to save the jobs.
"I have reached out to New Era CEO Chris Koch directly to determine if any action can be taken to preserve these jobs. I hope there is still time to avoid this outcome and will work with New Era, should they choose to do so, to find a solution that is better for Erie County workers," he said in a statement.
"It would be devastating to lose a plant like that that's been here for a long time," said Angola village Mayor Howard "Hub" Frawley.
Hosler noted that Koch lives in the town. Through the years the plant has been generous to the community, particularly Cradle Beach, where several years ago the New Era Cap Foundation and members of the Koch family donated more than half a million dollars for the New Era Performing Arts Center, a 350-seat theater at the camp.
News staff reporter Barbara O'Brien contributed to this story.