The Apollo Grill
Little did Rod Holt know a decade ago that his passion for collecting USA Space Program paraphernalia and mementos would be the inspiration for the name of his 1999 venture into the hospitality business: The Apollo Grill.
Rod’s wife, Dyanne, enthusiastically endorsed the moniker and immediately envisioned a celestial logo with a partial moon surrounded by stars. Business partners Pat and Tucker Lyons agreed and in February of 1999 the Apollo Grill launched at 85 West Broad Street in downtown Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The location was a bit of a risk at that time because the only other eating establishment nearby that looked like it would sustain itself was the Brew Works. The four Apollo Grill owners thought their menu would be unique enough to not compete with the successful microbrewery but would rather be a complement to the popular eatery. Their assessment turned out to be 100% accurate as is evidenced by the proliferation of dining establishments which have joined the original two on what is now commonly referred to by locals as “Restaurant Row.” The Broad Street corridor is now home to several full-service dining establishments and several specialty food shops.
Visitors to the Lehigh Valley are often referred to the Apollo Grill by locals who rank the restaurant as one of their favorites. Patrons who enjoy “sampling” a variety of foods are always impressed with the extensive appetizer selections and half-portion meal options. The atmosphere in the 100-seat café is relaxed and comfortable and most customers return because the service is superior. David Hausman and Connie Postupack are co-owners of Brownstone Design Group, Inc. on Broad Street and are regular patrons of the Apollo Grill. David enjoys the warm welcome he and Connie receive and they both rave about the food and service.
“You can always expect courteous, professional service and the food is extraordinary,” according to David.
When asked to what she attributes their phenomenal success, Dyanne admits that there are no secrets at the Apollo Grill. No secret recipes and no secret formula for success. “It hasn’t been easy and we’ve certainly had our challenges over the years but basically it boils down to one simple principle: We always try to do the right thing.” When pressed further to define “the right thing,” Dyanne explains that their top priorities are to consistently serve good, fresh food at reasonable prices in a warm and friendly atmosphere. Sound simple? Not so, according to the owner, who should know because she wears many operational hats including that of Host.
To accomplish their goal of consistent good, fresh food, seafood must be delivered five times-a-week. When gas prices soared this past spring and summer, vendors were quick to pass the increase on to restaurants yet the Apollo owners resisted passing along price increases to customers because it just wasn’t the right thing to do, according to Dyanne.
Maintaining a warm, friendly atmosphere can have its challenges at times, too. Owners and managers invest inordinate amounts of time and resources in training service personnel. Finding the right personality to fit in at the Grill is of utmost importance from servers and bartenders to bussers. “We actually have a ‘try-out’ as you would for a performance,” explains Holt. “Employees literally work with us for a few hours before we make them a final offer.”
The most rewarding aspect of the restaurant business boils down to relationships for Dyanne, Rod, Pat and Tucker. Meeting good people who develop into wonderful friends brings balance to the sometimes hectic pace and demanding hours. Dyanne especially enjoys the benefits of developing a loyal customer base. Almost always at the front of the house to welcome guests, Dyanne considers it a privilege when grandparents take their grandchildren to what the kids call their “favorite place for a special birthday celebration.”
Rod Holt, who spends most of his time supervising the kitchen activities, is particularly proud of the work ethic among the Apollo’s 50 employees. Nowhere else is this more evident than the last Sunday of every February which has been designated as the restaurant’s Anniversary Celebration. Apollo Grill employees and owners, who otherwise would be enjoying a day off, prepare the restaurant for a three-hour food and beverage extravaganza that is considered by many patrons to be the single best fund raising event of the year.
Guests enjoy a plethora of Apollo appetizers passed dutifully by staff despite the crowded quarters. Bartenders work diligently preparing specialty drinks as requested by guests. This past February, servers went above and beyond the call of duty and solicited donations from area businesses to create gift baskets which were raffled off in between sets of the popular band On Fire. More than $24,000 was raised this year and every penny was donated to former Apollo server, Stephanie Mo Davis, who is in need of a kidney transplant. Just another good example of the Grill’s commitment to “do the right thing.”
The Holt’s and the Lyons agree to donate all of the revenue generated from the Anniversary Celebrations to a different communitybased non profit or an individual in need each year. To date, the six bashes have generated in excess of $100,000!
The Apollo Grill’s generosity and high standards for performance do not go unnoticed. In addition to attracting the cream of the crop among the work force (the Apollo is one of the largest downtown employers), the restaurant serves anywhere between 300-600 people daily during the week. If you want a weekend reservation, be advised to call well in advance. Local artists are also drawn to the restaurant which has adopted a policy of showcasing various works of art throughout the year.
The accolades continue…Best Lehigh Valley and Best Bethlehem Restaurant awards have been showered upon the Apollo Grill from The Morning Call (Reader’s Choice Award), Lehigh Valley Magazine and Lehigh Valley Style. And the Chamber selected the Apollo Grill in 2003 as the Outstanding Small Business of the Year.
Although Apollo Grill owners insist there are no real secrets to their success, one can’t help but wonder if there may someday be an Apollo Grill II. Dyanne politely smiles when asked about a second venture and demurely responds, “We are always looking for good opportunities.” Stay tuned. After all, Apollo 13 beat the odds.