By Dan Hiner
BOARDMAN – Twenty years ago, the Blue Wolf Tavern opened its doors in Struthers and owner Joseph Rzonsa saw business pour in from across Youngstown.
Over time, the restaurant became a staple in Mahoning County. Diners flocked to it for its variety of food and drink options.
“Our actual birth date is Aug. 14,” Rzonsa said. “It’ll be 20 years since we opened in downtown Struthers. And out of the 20 years, last year was one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging.”
The first 18 years went smoothly. Blue Wolf moved from Struthers to its current location on U.S. Route 224 in Boardman in 2004. Customers packed the dinning and bar areas to the point the staff had to start reminding people to leave when it was closing time.
However, the 19th year – 2020 – tested Rzonsa as an owner.
On March 15, 2020, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced the shutdown of in-person dining. The Blue Wolf staff wanted to continue working, and Rzonsa admits that he was a little worried for the future.
The next day, however, Rzonsa had a rented tent in the parking lot outside the front door. The tavern already had a take-out option, but he knew the would be necessary to expand the option to carry Blue Wolf through the difficult times that were ahead.
“More so, we used that as an attention grabber to let people know we were still open and we did have options for curbside and delivery and pick-up,” Rzonsa said.
That was one of many adjustments for Blue Wolf. Rzonsa didn’t just adapt to survive, he took the time to experiment in the kitchen.
As protein ingredients became scarce, the restaurateur had to make due with what was available. The new ideas were blended in with the fan favorites for an evolved menu and service options.
“We’re still doing the same thing we’ve been doing for 20 years,” he said. “We still have a lot of the same core menu items on our menu that we had on Day 1 in Struthers.”
“We’ve added a lot to our menu, we’ve added a lot to our services. At the same time, we’ve expanded our abilities to do different things. And there are new pathways there.”
Blue Wolf Events at The Maronite Center in Youngstown also took a hit over the last year. With weddings and events canceled, Rzonsa lost out on some revenue. But he said many of the weddings from last summer were rescheduled.
The catering service was started in 2013. Rzonsa said expanded services, like Blue Wolf Events, and to support local employees are significant reasons to support local businesses.
“Our owners decided – because we had partners at the time – that we were going to reinvest that money,” Rzonsa said. “And that’s how our banquet facility and catering company came to be and added another 25 people to our payroll. That’s 25 more families that have a livelihood.”
The banquet center was only one of several ideas that are still swirling around in Rzonsa’s head.
Blue Wolf survived 2020, and Rzonsa has plans for the future. He hopes those plans go over as well as Blue Wolf has over the last two decades.
“Things have turned the corner,” Rzonsa said. “Things are looking up and we’re excited for the next 20 years, for sure.”
Copyright 2021, AfterHoursYoungstown, Youngstown, Ohio.
Posted April 26, 2021