Johnstown entrepreneur invests in historic restaurant, betting on tourism rebound

Growing business community in nearby industrial park helping Bridgeview Dockside Restaurant and Patio weather pandemic
Sean Lucey
Sean Lucey at the newly renovated Bridgeview Dockside Restaurant in Johnstown. (Photo by Joe Martelle)

Location, location, location: South Grenville entrepreneur Sean Lucey has long been aware of the answer to the age-old question of the three most important factors in determining the desirability of a property.

But now the owner of Johnstown’s Bridgeview Restaurant – a business located near the shores of the St. Lawrence River that he purchased last year – is betting that its proximity to the busy waterway, international border and a growing business community will pay dividends in a post-pandemic economic rebound.

While investing in a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic may sound like an unusual move to some, Lucey argues it’s an ideal opportunity.

“We believe the restaurant industry will come out just as strong, if not stronger, than when it went in,” he says, predicting there will be pent-up demand for leisure and outdoor activities as public health restrictions are eased.

“The appetite coming out of COVID is going to be (for things) that gets people out of their house – ‘I want to go somewhere. Let's go for a drive. Let's go for a cruise. Let's go for a bike ride. Let's go for a boat ride,’” he argues. “Because we can accommodate all those things, we're in an exceptionally good position to draw from far and wide.”

Rebuilding the past

Lucey’s initial venture into the South Grenville market came with the construction and launch of the Windmill Brewery. The small craft beer facility opened in 2016, residing on the edge of the Johnstown Industrial Park, and immediately began to reap the rewards of its location. 

Located within view of the Ogdensburg-Johnstown International Bridge, a stone’s throw from highways 401 and 416 and with the Port of Johnstown just to the south, the industrial park has enticed tenants such as Prysmian Cables, Greenfield Ethanol and the 750,000 square-foot Giant Tiger distribution centre

But the Bridgeview Restaurant predates all those businesses and has been a favourite for locals for decades. Nestled between the Port of Johnstown and the St. Lawrence Marina, the restaurant has served up meals to generations of residents and visitors. 

When Lucey heard the previous owners were looking to sell, he acted quickly.

“It was never going to be a better time to buy a restaurant.”

“When it officially went on the market in early 2020, we took advantage of the opportunity,” Lucey recalls, noting that the pandemic creating a buyer’s market made the decision that much easier. “It was never going to be a better time to buy a restaurant, especially in the location: 50 feet off the St. Lawrence River. We were reasonably comfortable with the assumption that you could never build a restaurant that close to the water again ... so we took the opportunity and ran with it.”

Lucey, a big believer in building the future on the foundations of the past, says restoring the Bridgeview came with a focus on going back to the eatery’s roots. 

The original counter from when the restaurant opened in the 1950s remains a focal point in the rebranded Bridgeview Dockside Restaurant and Patio, now accompanied by enough period booths and tables to seat 112 and employ more than 20 workers.

“We have an active search going on for old photos and old maps of the area that are historically significant. Again, we very much stayed with the old ’50s/’60s theme, which is very reminiscent of the origins of this diner. This area is steeped with some fantastic history. We very much want to keep that history here, showcase it and be proud of it,” Lucey says.

The end goal is to market the Bridgeview as a destination restaurant, capturing the hearts, minds and meal budgets of the thousands of tourists who frequent the Seaway region, tagging Johnstown as a stopping point for boaters, cyclists, campers, and seasonal drivers.

In the meantime, Lucey is capitalizing the “solid core” of steady business from companies in the nearby industrial park, especially with indoor dining restrictions leaving him “100 per cent” reliant on takeout and delivery orders.

“We are delivering food to at least half the businesses in the area numerous times a week, sometimes a couple times a day,” he says.

Sitting in a window booth of the empty restaurant, Sean Lucey sees more on the other side of the glass than the few ice-fishing shacks and the frozen St. Lawrence River. He sees a bridge to the future.

“We're here and we've got a view,” he says with a slight hint of awe in his voice. “We've got a chance to do something that very few people in the area can do … just because of our location.”