End of an era: Maggie’s Café will become Ted’s Fish Fry

The Enterprise — Elizabeth Floyd Mair

Maggie Smith has owned Maggie’s Café for 25 years — first, on Fuller Road and then, since 1999, at its current location at 1186 Western Ave. The restaurant will be open till April 28 but has been sold to Ted’s Fish Fry.

ALBANY — A lucky day at the races turned Maggie Smith from a waitress into a restaurant owner. After a quarter of a century in the business, she will close Maggie’s Café and Sports Bar, a popular community gathering place just over the Guilderland town line in Albany.

Smith has sold the restaurant to Ted’s Fish Fry but will keep it open until April 28.

“Twenty-five years is a good run for any restaurant,” said Smith, who is 68. “Walking away free and clear is a good feeling.”

Smith worked as a waitress and restaurant manager at Garlic John’s at 1 Fuller Road in 1994 when she and a close family friend who would later become her business partner hit a Pick Six, selecting the winners of six consecutive races.

It was the first time she had ever played a Pick Six. She didn’t know anything about horses, she said. It was a lucky day, she said. “Meant to be.”

Smith and her friend won $540,000 together, she says, adding, “They took $150,000 right off the top, right at the track.”

The owners of Garlic John’s came to her a few months later to ask if she wanted to buy the place, and she did, she said. She renamed it Maggie’s Café and continued in that location for five years, until the owners of the building sold it in 1999 to Rite Aid.

Smith then bought the building at 1186 Western Ave., which had been Son’s Tavern. She renovated it, renamed it, and continued Maggie’s Café there.

She had been waitressing at a number of local restaurants since the age of 17 and knew about the business, she said. Still, it was a steep learning curve, particularly when a dishwasher would break down or another major problem occured. “That’s when I realized it’s more fun being a worker than an owner,” she said.

The restaurant started out as a fine-dining establishment, she said, until an electrical fire in 2006 forced her to regroup and reinvent. “We started checking places to see what was doing good,” she said. Maggie’s then became a sports bar, one of only about three in the area, she said.

“We had the Giants here,” she recalled, of the days when the team held its preseason training camp at the University at Albany, across Western Avenue from Maggie’s.

“They were all here,” she said, naming players Plaxico Burress, Eli Manning, Michael Strahan, Antonio Pierce, and Madison Hedgecock. “They were a lot of fun. They brought a lot of people in.”

The players always sat separately, Smith said — offensive players in one part of the restaurant, and defense in another area. “Different worlds,” she said.

Things got quieter a few years ago when the team left UAlbany for New Jersey, she said.

Over the years, Maggie’s Café has been closely involved with the community, holding fundraisers for organizations and causes including, she said, the Angels church group at the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, Gold Star Mothers, Wounded Warriors, and the Tri-county Council Vietnam Era Veterans who built a monument downtown.

Some of the fundraisers at Maggie’s have been to help individuals — like the sisters of Kenneth White, a kindergartner who was murdered in Knox, or Niko DiNovo of Colonie, in need of treatment after suffering a car crash, who later died.

Referring to fundraisers, Smith said, “I think everybody that has one calls me, because I never say no.”

The restaurant has also been the site of numerous Guilderland High School reunion-weekend informal gatherings. And Smith has hosted a lot of showers, funeral gatherings, christenings, and birthday parties, she said.

Smith struggled to pinpoint what has been the secret of her success, saying at first that it might be because she is a people person. “I put a lot of time in here. I care about my customers. I think I’m a pretty fair boss. I hope I’m a pretty fair boss.”

After thinking about it for a moment, she said, “Being consistent. The food is always consistent here.”

Finally she said, “The location maybe. I don’t know.”

She concluded, “I’m just lucky that people have continued to come all these years.”

Her advice to people entering the restaurant business?

“Don’t do it,” she says with a laugh, before giving a more serious assessment.

“It’s a very tough business. You don’t own it; it owns you. You have to know everything in the restaurant business — I can cook, clean, waitress.”

She has no particular plans for what she will do next, besides spending more time with her children and grandchildren. She and her husband are leaving the big Albany home where they lived for many years and raised their two children. They are moving to a one-story ranch just a couple of blocks from the restaurant.

After 25 years, a clean break from the restaurant business might not be in her immediate future.

“I might help them out for a while,” she says of the new owners.

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