Thursday, December 11, 2014

After 21 years, Sky Manor Restaurant owners aim to revitalize another airport eatery: Sky Manor Airport (N40), Pittstown, New Jersey

 Marty Lane cooks and Vicki Lane serves the customers.

ALEXANDRIA TWP. — Marty Lane came to the Sky Manor Airport Restaurant as an employee and a few days later was dismayed to have the establishment dumped into his lap by the owner. Twenty-one years later, at age 53, he’s taking his winnings — namely his wife Vicki and their three kids — and moving on to new challenges at the Cherry Ridge Airport in Pike County, Pa.

The current management of Sky Manor Airport “is moving in one direction and we’re moving in a different direction,” he says. Ken Johnson, one of the dozens of pilots who own the airport, said, “I’m sorry to see ‘em go. They’ve treated me probably better than they should have for decades.”

They will close the place after lunch on Monday, Dec. 22. No plans for a successor there have been revealed.

Leaving means parting with customers whom Marty and Vicki regard as extended family. The back cover of each Sky Manor menu contains a big family photo of Marty, Vicki and their three kids and the words, “Thanks for letting our family be a part of yours.” Family is a huge word for Marty.

When not quite 14 years old, he was a runaway living on the streets of Jersey City. Then the owner of Steve’s Diner “let me sleep in the back room and earn my keep washing dishes and cleaning up.” Finding the boy reliable and eager, Steve rented him a cheap apartment and began teaching him his trade.

As his short-order cooking skills developed, Steve gave the boy praise and encouragement that Marty “didn’t experience earlier in my life.” So cooking was more to him than a job — it was survival and fulfillment. Marty worked at Steve’s Diner for seven years, and then took jobs at a succession of other restaurants. “If I wasn’t learning, I moved on,” he says. And in 1993 his education was about to take a giant leap.

Kent and Marie Lynn owned Sky Manor Airport then, with Marie was running the restaurant. But like the bumper stickers say, she’d rather be flying. Marty recalls, “I was hired as a cook, and Marie would just disappear. I’m taking cash, waiting tables, washing dishes, cooking. About two weeks passed and I’m talking to some of her friends. ‘Is this normal? Is this how the restaurant operates?’”

Word got back to Marie and she gave him a brusque explanation: “I just wanted to see if you could handle it. The restaurant is yours.”

From when the restaurant was built in 1939 up through 1993 no one had survived two winters at the middle-of-nowhere eatery, says Marty. At that point its hours were irregular and its only customers were the pilots. “I knew enough about the business that I wanted no part of owning it.”

The Lynns “had leased it and taken it back so many times, Kent didn’t want to do it anymore,” Marty said. But Marie pressured him into offering a lease, and despite his own misgivings Marty decided to sign it. Thus, two months after he’d walked in the door, he was the proprietor.

Fast forward five or six years and his waitress’ sister-in-law Vicki dropped in “and we just locked eyes and uh-oh, that was it. She’s got beautiful eyes,” says Marty. Vicki and her daughter married into the restaurant, and the family grew as did their customer base, with Sunday brunch and Friday dinner buffets proving to be crowd pleasers.

Now daughter Sierra is 17, and sons Hunter and Daniel are 13 and 9. Sierra buses tables and is breaking into waitressing, and Daniel, barred from more participation by child-labor laws, owns and operates gumball machines near the front door.

“It’s the end of an epoch,” says pilot Peter Blake. “We watched his kids grow up.” Indeed Vicki used to wait tables with an infant son in a sling.

Now she does it unencumbered. She also handles the bills and shares cash register duties with Marty. In the past five years she has compiled email addresses of 1,700 customers, and has been sending out a weekly email blast announcing that Friday night’s menu. It also makes it easy for customers to suggest dishes they’d like, something Marty finds really helpful.

When word went out that the Lanes were leaving, hundreds of customers sent emails asking them to stay and, when reconciled to their departure, emails suggesting eateries they might want to take over. “We looked at 37 different restaurants,” says Marty.

They finally picked a restaurant 90 minutes away (less if you’re flying) at an airport in northeastern Pennsylvania. Cherry Ridge Airport has never had a successful restaurant; “I feed all their guys,” says Marty.

Cherry Ridge Airport has a new owner who “is basically giving us the place for a year to get (the restaurant) up and running. We’re leaving our drive-up business; but we still have our aviation.” Marty smiles and adds, “I believe we can do our magic there.”

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