SCHENECTADY, N.Y. — After spending the past 1,500 or so Sundays making sure he had enough food to give a lot of people a free, hot meal, Don Birch took a Sunday off — a casualty of the same hard times he tried to make easier for others.
Last weekend, the longtime owner of the Sawmill Tavern served up what he said was the last of the free buffets he has offered every Sunday afternoon since 1980, two years after opening his biker bar in the Little Italy neighborhood in this economically depressed city on New York's Mohawk River.
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Anyone who needed a meal — the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, whole families struggling to make ends meet — could show up at the Sawmill, no questions asked.
"There are so many people out of work. They really have a tough way to go," said Birch, 73, perched atop a bar stool during a recent weekday afternoon.
Birch says he can no longer afford to pay for the free meals out of his own pocket, even with food donations from local businesses and a farmer who provided potatoes. He lost his job as an assistant plant manager at a locomotive factory when it shuttered two years ago amid a cratering economy and rising unemployment.
That's been the story for years in this formerly bustling industrial city of about 60,000, at one time the home of General Electric.
Birch's bar business took a hit, with fewer paying customers passing through the door, even with most beer priced under $3.
While he kept his drink prices down for his blue-collar clientele, utility bills, property taxes and other business expenses kept climbing.
"I just paid 2009's taxes off," he said. "Now I'm working on 2010."
When the bills piled up to the point where Birch had to start dipping into his Social Security checks to cover the costs of each Sunday buffet, he knew it was time to pack it in.
"It cost me $350 a week, easy," said Birch, a strapping 6-footer with huge hands who's dressed this day in a black cable-knit shirt, blue jeans and boots.
As Schenectady's economy worsened, the number of people who showed up each Sunday rose to about 200. For the final meal, Birch served prime rib to about 170 people. A typical spread featured chicken, ribs, meatloaf or spaghetti and meatballs, vegetables and mashed potatoes. Birch's regulars pointed out that those showing up for the free eats didn't have money to spend on drinks, so Kool-Aid was given away.
"It's beautiful, what Don does," Harold Powell told The Daily Gazette newspaper at Sunday's last meal. "I'm sorry it's going to end. I'm just worried where people are going to go now."
Some who couldn't make it, mostly the house-bound, got meals delivered to their door, often by Birch himself. Born in nearby Saratoga Springs and raised in rural neighboring Schoharie County by his single mother, Birch credits his generosity to his upbringing.
"My mother was always giving," Birch said.
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Birch, the single parent of a 13-year-old son he's raising in a nearby suburb, spent decades working mostly in manufacturing, including a five-year stint in the 1980s when he was employed at a bus factory near the Mexico border in Texas. Even then, he'd fly home most weekends to check on his bar and make sure the Sunday buffet got laid out.
"I had always had a good job and I could afford it," said.
A motorcyclist since he was 14, he still rides Harley-Davidsons, including the 1998 model he parks year-round on the sidewalk outside the bar's front door. Inside, there's plenty more biker-bar ambiance, from the dozens of bras hanging over the bar to the 1954 "panhead" Harley decorated with Hells Angels stickers and mounted against a wall.
He has led fundraising bike "runs" for the notorious motorcycle club and others, often winding up back at the Sawmill for a pig roast out back while Harleys line the streets around the bar.
But Birch has also helped out plenty of other good causes, often enlisting the close-knit biker community to contribute. There's the annual Toys for Tots fund drive and bike runs for homeless veterans and Schenectady's City Mission. Birch said he'll still feed his neighbors on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter.
On Sunday, the first in 30-odd years without a free Sawmill buffet, he'll run loaves of donated Italian bread from nearby Perreca's Bakery to a March of Dimes benefit for a little boy.
Last weekend, Birch handed out 50 tickets, at $5 each, to people in line at his buffet so they can attend the boy's fundraising spaghetti dinner. So for one more Sunday, at least, Don Birch is making sure someone in need gets a hot meal.
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