Dan Nelli, owner of Dan’s Backyard Barbecue, says he expects increased traffic at Riverlink Park next year due to the opening of the pedestrian bridge and an increase in the number of outdoor events. In order to keep up with the increased demand, he proposed a list of upgrades to the city-owned restaurant facility, referred to as the Riverlink Cafe, from which he operates his restaurant business. Nelli spoke to city officials Tuesday at a Recreation Committee meeting.
“We had a very good season this year,” said Nelli in regards to his first year of operation at Riverlink Park. “There were some things that came to my attention over the course of the year that going forward, if were improved, would be a very good thing for the whole entire cafe, just not what I’m doing, for the long-term success of the cafe.”
Nelli pointed out that the facility was originally built to accommodate a small operation, but has grown over the years to the point where it can now sit approximately 130 people at a time. Nelli said the facility was filled frequently during the summer, with customers waiting to get in. He said his suggested upgrades would help his staff work more efficiently and service customers quicker.
“The kitchen just being as it is now, is very small and hard to work with,” said Nelli.
One of the proposed modifications is to move the sink and dishwasher to open up space for the cooks and dishwashers, as well as to open up an additional serving window. Nelli also wants to see the installation of a walk-in cooler and freezer unit, which he said could be purchased used from a local business owner for $2000.
Another issue brought up by Nelli was an inadequate hot water supply.
“We have about an hour and a half of hot water and then it’s done,” he said. “If we don’t stop for about two hours, the system can’t catch up.”
He added that if boaters are utilizing the shower and laundry facilities, the hot water runs out even faster.
He also cited a need for an additional char broiler, installation of an additional stove, which was already in storage at the park, as well as expanding the hood exhaust system to cover all the equipment at the facility.
Although Nelli did not factor in the cost of a new water heater in his proposal, he estimated the total cost for the upgrades to be at least $12,000.
“I think it’s very necessary to get these things in place just for a better running facility down there,” said Nelli.
Ed Russo, first ward alderman and recreation committee chair said, “I agree with what you are saying, because…with the new bridge down there, Riverlink Park I think, is going to see a lot of increase. You’ve got the waterfront foundation is planning on more functions down there. I just got a call from somebody, that they want to have a festival down there.”
During the meeting, Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler said she was not satisfied with Nelli’s handling of the maintenance of the park. Nelli’s agreement with the city stipulates that he maintain the grounds of the park, which allows the city to save approximately $6,000 per year in staffing costs.
“The overall grounds look very poor,” Hatzenbuhler said to Nelli. “I’ve got pictures here, I just pulled them up. I think I’ve shown them to you, I’ve shown them to [Recreation Director Rob Spagnola]. There’s extensive work that needs to be done down there.”
Hatzenbuhler said she visited the park on August 3 and observed some of the picnic tables and benches were falling apart, as well as problems with litter, weeds, and dog excrement.
Nelli said, “I’d be the first one to say this first year, there were bumps and bruises, it was a big learning experience for me. Everything did not go 100% right.”
However, Nellis said he believes his operation deserved a “passing grade” for the year and disputed Hatzenbuhler’s characterization of the condition of the park.
“If you only go down there one time, it’s very hard for me to say that you can have an accurate opinion of how the park looked all summer because I have plenty of people to back me up saying that the park looked amazing,” said Nelli.
“I went down there many times, and I don’t see what you’re talking about,” said Russo to Hatzenbuhler.
Some officials expressed uncertainty as far as whether benches and picnic tables were items that Nelli was required to maintain.
“I think the contract had a little ambiguity in it,” said Recreation Director Rob Spagnola.
He acknowledged that he did have some issues with Nelli’s operation during the season, but that those issues had been worked out over time.
Nelli said he would look into the problems with the tables and benches and make any needed repairs.
“Dan should be commended,” said Spagnola. “He took a big risk, he put a lot of his own money in, the very first year, and I think going forward we’re moving in the right direction.”
In regards to the proposed upgrades to the restaurant facility, Spagnola said, “The proposal is definitely worth looking into it. I thank Alderman Russo for being open and receptive to the idea of improvements. It’s a good first step to have the discussion here tonight and to move the proposal forward and see if it’s worth pursuing.”