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Monday, March 1, 2010 at 12:25 am

Genesee County Business of the Year: Viking Valhalla Restaurant

post by Howard B. Owens in business, Chamber Awards, Viking Valhalla Restaurant

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It was hard -- even 43 years later -- for Mary Sardou to retell the story of her husband's passing and what it meant for 13-year-old Tom.

"When my husband passed, we sat in the funeral home for three days," Mary says, and then stops, pushing back tears. "I'm sorry," she says.

"You started the story, ma. You've got to finish it," says Tom, now 56, as we sit in the dining room of the Rose Garden Bowl/Viking Valhalla Restaurant in Bergen, talking over a plate of wings about the history of Genesee County's 2009 Business of the Year.

sardou02.jpgDoc and Mary Sardou bought the Rose Garden Restaurant -- 30 years in business at the time -- in 1954, added a bowling alley three years later and renamed it Viking Valhalla in 1966. They had some rough times as young entrepreneurs, working hard, trying to raise two sons, and dealing with the region's changing business climate. But it was the death of Tom's father that may have been the biggest challenge for the family to overcome.

"Everybody," says Mary, trying to start again, "everybody who walked up to us said to him ... 'now you’re the man of the house. You’re the man.' I’m sure that just stuck in his mind. It stuck in mine. I think he felt very obligated to stay with me."

"Did that have an impact on you?"

"Absolutely," says Tom. "That was drilled into me. When I went into high school I knew what my course in life would be. It was going to be running a business."

Tom Sardou did what many teenage boys did -- he went to school, made the wresting team and even dreamed of being a cop. But after graduation, he didn't enter the University of Buffalo or RIT or even GCC. Sardou started a different education program: "the college of hard knocks," as he puts it.

First, Sardou took a job at Gates Bowl as a night manager so he could learn the bowling business. The next year, at age 19, Tom started running, with his mother, the restaurant and bowling lanes.

And he's been at it, seven days a week, ever since.

"I do enjoy it," Tom says. "There’s times when I would like a little more time off than I get. There’s times when I wake up in the morning and say, 'geez, I’d like to call in sick today.'"

Hard work and innovation to adjust to an ever-changing business climate pretty much define Viking Valhalla and the Sardous.

At 82, Mary Sardou still comes to the restaurant every day to take care of the books and look over the operation. Tom took a special interest in the bowling business, even serving for years as president of the area's bowling operators association, and manages the restaurant along with his wife, Chris -- who met Tom, where else, at the Viking Valhalla.

sardou03.jpgWhen Mary, Tom and Chris attend the chamber's award ceremony Saturday evening, it will be the first time ever that at least one of them was not at Viking Vahalla on a weekend night.

That's quite a bit of dedication for a restaurant Mary wasn't sure she even wanted her husband to buy when they first saw it. She didn't even want to go inside after they drove from their home in Fairport to look at it. "We came all this way," Doc said. "We might as well take a look."

Her first day of work at the restaurant began minutes later, when she saw the owner's wife needed help with the dishes.

At first, the couple paid weekly rent on the restaurant. Doc cooked and Mary tended bar, pregnant with their son, George.

Doc happened to meet one of the county's richest men at the time, Oakfield's G. Sherwin Haxton. Haxton came into the bar one day to meet Mary. He decided the Sardous seemed like decent, hard-working people. He decided to help them out. Mary calls Haxton, "our angel."

“He liked us," Mary said. "He went to bat for us. He went to the Columbia Bank in Rochester and he talked to the owner of the bank and told him to give us the loan, and he did.”

The loan helped them expand.

Winters for a restaurant along Buffalo Road in Bergen were dead. In the late '50s, there were no snowmobilers riding up to your front door looking for a brew and a burger, and with Batavia Downs closed for the season, there was very little Rochester-to-Batavia traffic. The Sardous had to figure out a way to bring in business during the cold, snowy months.

The bowling alley seemed like the right idea.

That worked for a while, but after the Thruway opened, more and more traffic bypassed Bergen. While a lot of family businesses in New York shut down as a result of the Thruway opening, the Sardous were determined to hang on. They worked harder, started hosting more parties and found ways to make ends meet.

While other business owners might have given up, Tom Sardou said, "We've never been of that mindset."

To keep the bowling business going, the Sardous have added leagues to fit into any bowler's schedule, from monthly leagues and morning leagues for mothers to a "wine and cheese league" Chris created to attract people who like to try new, fine wines.

But bowling slows down in the summer when people are more interested in outdoor activities, so Tom added sand volleyball courts in 1993.

The constant tinkering and finding new ways to keep the business going are just part of the family tradition.

"After my husband died, people said, ‘she won’t last six months,’" Mary recalls. "They were thinking I would give up or fall on my face. I’m not sure which. But I was determined to make it.

"This is my whole life."

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