This summer, after more than four decades in business in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, family-run spot Wharf Bar & Grill changed hands. (Don’t worry, the much-beloved Buffalo wings haven’t gone anywhere.) We chatted with new owner Mike VanGavree to learn how he and his staff are balancing innovation with time-honored tradition.
How would you describe The Wharf?
The Wharf is a community staple in this part of South Central Pennsylvania. Part of what appealed to me and my partners—Wayne Pecht and Joe Perkinsis—that the Sakelaris family had owned this place for 42 years. I’d been coming here for 30 years and our staff has been here almost that long. That’s continuity. We sat down with the team early on and said, “Look, it’s pretty simple: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Do you have a personal favorite item on the menu?
It would probably be the wings, but I enjoy the steaks as well. My teenage son loves them too, and always has.
Is there a trademark dish, or an item that you’d recommend everyone try?
We’re known for our wings. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that more than two dozen of my friends, when they learned we were purchasing The Wharf, inquired if the wing sauce was part of the transaction. And I said, “Absolutely.”
The Wharf recently redesigned and updated its menu based on a Sysco business review. Tell us what that process was like.
When we took over The Wharf, people asked me how I would make this venture work when I have so little experience in the food and restaurant industry. But the community adores this place, and the staff is so experienced—that was the first part that made me feel confident that I could make this work.
The second part is the vendors and partners, including Sysco. The menu was redone before we came in, but I’m quite familiar with it. Michele Harkins, the Sales Consultant from Sysco, and Lauren Gnazzo, the Business Resource Consultant, did a menu analysis from top to bottom so we could look at costs, and the price of what things could and should be. She helped us break everything down, organize the menu and call out items that needed to be highlighted so we could draw more attention to them.
They also helped us understand and implement online ordering. Sysco isn’t just a source of product for us—they really want to see us grow. They’re true partners in our success.
What sort of items do you typically source from Sysco?
You name it! Not only do we order the food and refreshment products, we also source everything from cutlery to plates to any restaurant implement you can think of.
How do you see The Wharf growing in the future? Do you have anything new planned?
We’ve always had a little bit of a sports theme, but we just refreshed the barroom with 65-inch TVs all around. We’re going to start college football tailgates on Saturday mornings. We’ll offer a breakfast menu from 9 a.m. to noon, and then when the games start, we’ll kick over from ESPN College GameDay to individual games. We’ve been working with a restaurant adviser named Gary Herman to develop more plans. We’re going to overhaul the dining room. We also have a very nice outdoor patio, and we’re going to expand that early next year.
You’ve got a lot of stuff in the works!
Yes, we do! We promised the staff that, from a server’s standpoint, we were going to fill their aprons with activity and tips, and the same for the bartenders. We’ve got some great cooks here in the back, and they thrive on being busy. And I can tell you, we’re holding up our end.