The Back Door CAFÉ
Interviewer: Justin Schaeffer
Interviewee: Bill Seras (owner)
Date: Thursday November 6, 2007
(This interview was with Bill Sera of the Back Door Cafe. The purpose of this interview was to learn about his Greek heritage and how his family came to Carlisle. I also used the interview to learn about the Carlisle Greek community as a whole and try to find out why so many of the old Greek businesses are no longer established in the community.)
Mr. Schaeffer: Where are you originally from?
Mr. Seras :This is my hometown.
Mr. Schaeffer: So, you grew up here?
Mr. Seras: Yes, I went to Cumberland Valley High School. After that I went two years to Widener University out by Philadelphia and then I transfered to Florida International University and got my hospitality management degree.
Mr. Seras: Well, after my seven years with Houlihan’s, where I started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, here I am laying out by the pool when my friend brings me the acceptance letter from Houlihan’s explaining that I had to go from the hot to the cold. But I was okay with that.
Mr. Schaeffer: So, were you the first generation to grow up in Carlisle?
Mr. Seras: Well, that’s an interesting question because I am actually 3rd generation. My grandfather on my mother’s side had a hat shop on North Pitt St. My father, who went to the Dickinson School of Law, graduated with his law degree, but he met my mother here in town and met my mother is father, and that just kind of evolved into the cleaners. And that became Sera’s cleaners, which moved to the location of 113 West High St. Of course now that building is being redone. But he was there for close to 20 years.
Mr. Schaeffer: So the Seras family has been in Carlisle for almost one hundred years?
Mr. Seras: Well yes, we first moved here in the early 1930’s, and like many Greeks who came across Ellis Island, we made our mark here.
Mr. Schaeffer: Do you think that there has been a big difference in Greek-owned- businesses from when you were in high school to now?
Mr. Seras: I don’t want to say restaurants owned by Greeks, but I will say that there used to be much Greek businesses, like Koholis Pool Hall, which is now Fast Eddie’s and Koholis Bookshop, which is where Casa Mani is currently. There was a little lunch counter that was Greek owned also that turned into Subway.
Mr. Schaeffer: Essentially High St. was at one time entirely Greek run?
Mr. Seras: Yes it really was. I mean, to imagine how it was back then with the train going right through the street!
Mr. Schaeffer: Over the years Wal-mart, Target, Chilies, Applebee’s and many other chains and big box stores have come to Carlisle. Do you think that they are in some cases responsible for why so many Greek owned businesses are no longer here?
Mr. Seras: I don’t think that they are fully responsible for it. I think what happened prior to that is what is responsible.
Mr. Schaeffer: What happened?
Mr. Seras: Well, what happened is that roads got better, cars got faster, people traveled more, and then your strip malls started to happen. Like the Carlisle Plaza, which had stores, such as Montgomery Wards, and Woolworths, Sears, etc. And on the other side of town where Loews is, it is the Carlisle Point. I think people just became more mobile. And the downtown just sort of lost it. And then the Wal-Mart came in and put some of those places out of business. Yes, we lost all of our independent hardware stores, our appliance stores, like for washers and dryers, we lost our office supply store, yes that’s gone. So, I guess that you can not say that those big box stores put people out of business in our town.
Mr. Schaeffer: Do you think that they are also responsible for why Carlisle has no nightlife either?
Mr. Seras: Yes, people are much more interested in going to a lit parking lot. Park their car and do all the shopping that they need in one store. But we are working on changing that. As you know, a Starbucks is coming in to town.
Mr. Schaeffer: Yes, what is your opinion on that?
Mr. Seras: I think that it’s good. My opinion is, how many coffee shops do we need? And yes, it will hurt the Courthouse Commons and Casa Mani, but that’s just progress. And you need to be careful with the progress that you have, so that you can do it correctly. Because it is going to be here for a while, and it’s going to hurt stores.
Mr. Schaeffer: Do you think that chain stores are the answer to revamping Carlisle?
Mr. Seras: Well, yes. I think that High St. is crying for that to happen. Just because of the school. The school facilities the students very well. I want my kids to go to a school like Dickinson. It is self-sustain. There is so much going on, they barely need to leave the college. However, the town acknowledges that there is a good amount of dollars from the school that needs to filter down this way. But in order to do that, the town needs to bring in stores that are going to appeal to the students. Your president is spearheading this idea. He wants this town to embrace the college and vice versa.
Mr. Schaeffer: Like the “High Eye” project?
Mr. Seras: Yes, I’m on that sub-committee board for that. Like for example, all the new housing on High Street. Or look at Hanover Street. That street has gone through a lot. People are fixing their buildings; there are new businesses, like the farmers market. A year ago, none of that was there and still there, were a lot of vacant stores. There are a lot of positives happening now, the most positives I’ve seen in over 20 years, and that’s good.
Mr. Schaeffer: I noticed that you are only open 3 days a week for dinner. Is that because of the lack of business?
Mr. Seras: Not at all. The first 15 years I was open, we were open Monday through Saturday, straight through. But 7 years ago I switched it because I wanted to be at home more with my kids. They were no longer two and three. They were five and six and were starting to know that dad wasn’t home. We lost some sales, but I re-budgeted and we did it. I wasn’t feeling any pressure except for about three weeks when Panera came to town. But that dip only lasted for a short time, and then we got all of our business back. The Applebee’s and such, well, I just don’t even think about them. I just do what I have been doing for the past 20 years, and I talk to my customers.
Mr. Schaeffer: Why do you think that the majority of the old time Carlisle restaurants in downtown are Greek?
Mr. Seras: Well, we are established, and that speaks for us. The community supports us, and I think that we Greeks learned hard work ethics from our parents.
Mr. Schaeffer: It’s funny how both you and Athen from the Hamilton have made so many references about family and its importance to you.
Mr. Seras: Well, I’m blessed. I mean, I’m fortunate that I can have a business that supports my family, and at the same time, I don’t have to be here 24 hours, seven days a week. I’m pretty lucky.
Mr. Schaeffer- How do you see your Geek culture influencing your restaurant?
Mr. Seras: I think those who were before us paved the streets for the success of so many Greek restaurants. If it wasn’t for my grandfather, or other Greek restaurants I would not nearly be as successful. Many of the first Greeks that moved to Carlisle started to learn to cook at the Hamilton. And then most of them went on to having their own restaurants. My godfather was the old Charlie Malues who opened the Sunny Side Restaurant. And the Hamilton is where he learned how to cook.
Mr. Schaeffer: It seems that many restaurants have flipped just in my four years, yet the Greek owned restaurants some how remain successful. Why?
Mr. Seras: Yes, something is there, but to put a finger on it, I don’t think I could. I think it’s just what we know, it’s what we do. It just comes natural to us. However, as I’m sure you noticed, there are a lot of Greek-owned restaurants, but there are no Greeks that own Greek restaurants. Mainly because Greek cooking is so time consuming. However I try to keep the menu athenaeum themed.
Mr. Schaeffer: Well thank you for your time.
Mr. Seras: No problem. Llet me know if you need any more help.