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Chamber Award: Alabama Hotel recognized for history of community service and success

By Howard B. Owens
alabama hotel chamber award business of the year
Bonnie Woodward, owner of the Alabama Hotel, and Joe Bradt, general manager.
Photo by Howard Owens.

NOTE: This week, The Batavian is highlighting the annual Chamber of Commerce Award winners with a story daily through Friday. The awards dinner is Saturday evening at Batavia Downs. This is the final story in the series.

Bonnie Woodward has owned the Alabama Hotel for a relatively short time, but big news events have twice already taken center stage in the restaurant's business operations.

She bought the restaurant and bar from another Woodward, Danny, in 2019, and a few months later, COVID-19 forced her to close the tavern in the town of Alabama.

Then Winter Storm Elliott on Christmas Eve 2022 brought unexpected challenges that she and manager Joe Bradt met with such cheerful charity they made national news.

"(The attention) definitely shocked me," Bradt said. "In the days afterward, all the media attention and the phone calls and the messages from people shocked me."

The attention, Woodward said, warmed her heart.

"It really does," she said. "So many people were thankful for such a simple thing that anybody should have done, you know, just open up your home to people and take care of them while they're in trouble."

What Bradt did, with Woodward's blessing and support, was let stranded travelers stay in the restaurant, providing shelter, warmth and food while the blizzard made travel conditions potentially deadly. For those 48 hours, he was the sole member of the Alabama Hotel staff on-site to take care of more than 100 stranded travelers.  He prepared meals (with guests and a local resident and neighboring business owner helping) and kept guests comfortable while the storm raged around them.

The Alabama Hotel -- along with hundreds of first responders, other generous residents in Genesee County, and countless other government workers and residents -- are the reason nobody died during the storm.

That dramatic role the restaurant played during the storm, along with its long history of providing charitable support to the community, is why the Alabama Hotel is the 2023 Business of the Year for Genesee County.

Winter Storm Elliott
Events started on Dec. 24 as Elliott rolled into Western New York and the Thruway Authority, with no apparent plan to ensure traveler safety, closed the I-90, forcing travelers unfamiliar with the area onto snow-covered, wind-swept two-lane roads during whiteout conditions.  When travelers realized they wouldn't get far, they looked for shelter, and Google told them about the Alabama Hotel at the crossroads of Route 77 and Route 63.  A hotel would be a good place to go, right?

The restaurant didn't open on Christmas Eve as planned to keep employees at home and safe during the storm. Bradt spent the morning getting things in order since the restaurant wouldn't reopen until Jan. 4. 

When he was done, "I loaded up the Jeep with my Christmas dinner and Bonnie's Christmas dinner, which I was going to drop off at her house, and left here about 12:30. I didn't get a quarter mile up the road, and there was no visibility. The roads were completely covered, and there was already an accident right here," Bradt told The Batavian the day after the storm ended.

"I immediately turned around and said the safest place I can be is here for now. You know, I'll just wait it out here. No sooner did I put the key in the back door and unlock the back door than people were knocking on the front door. That didn't stop for two days."

The weather outside was vicious.  Heavy, lake-effect snow blown around by 35 mph winds with 70 mph gusts. The roads were nowhere for anybody in any vehicle, let alone people unfamiliar with the area in sedans, minivans and luxury SUVs. 

People came looking for a hotel. They found a friendly place with no proper guest rooms, not entirely prepared for this level of hospitality, but willing to provide shelter from the storm.

Once first responders learned the Alabama Hotel provided a warming shelter, they started shuttling stranded motorists there.

As many as 140 people passed through the restaurant over two days, with 120 staying the night on Christmas Eve.

Was it stressful?

"I don't know if stressful is the word for it," Bradt said. "I think, at times, it was overwhelming. You know, I spent some time at the bottom of the basement stairs, whether on the phone with Bonnie or with my wife or chef Swimline, getting advice from him and just crying it out, you know. I'm gonna take a few minutes for myself to figure it out. Where are we at? what's our next step? What are we doing now? You know? It wasn't just a blizzard, right? It was a blizzard in the middle of Christmas."

The Alabama Hotel was once a key stagecoach stop between Buffalo and Rochester.  It was built in 1844, and at one time, the second floor was an actual hotel.  It was always a place that served meals and libations, but Woodward doesn't know when the hotel ceased being a hotel.

It has always been a community hub in the town of Alabama.  At one time, it was the main meeting hall and the courthouse, as well as a venue for weddings. It's still a place where locals gather for drinks and camaraderie, even while the restaurant attracts patrons from throughout WNY.

"It's like Cheers," Woodward said. "They're really friendly, and when strangers come, they'll bring them into their fold, and they'll talk to them, and they feel comfortable. People like that."

Earl Woodward purchased the Alabama Hotel in 1956.  His wife was Agness, known to friends and family as Bunny.  

Earl had cancer and wanted to make sure he left behind something that could provide for and shelter his family.  After he passed, Bunny, her children, and her mother, Nannie, lived upstairs in the former hotel and Bunny and Nannie ran the business.

Earl and Bunny's son Mike -- Bonnie's husband, who passed away in July -- ran the business next.  Patrick Woodward ran the business from 1990 until he passed away in 2000.  Danny, his son and Bonnie's nephew, ran the hotel for the next 29 years.  

Bonnie bought the restaurant in 2019 to keep it in the Woodward family, though her experience didn't extend much past washing dishes in the kitchen as a youngster.

"Most of the employees are employees I inherited with the restaurant," Woodward said. "They took me under their wing and taught me the business."

Shortly after she took over, Josh Swimline approached her about a job. He already had a successful food truck but was looking for a chef's job as well.

"He's done a marvelous job in the kitchen," Woodward said.

The other thing that happened shortly after she took over the business, besides the storm, was COVID-19.  Without the community's support and people buying take-out meals, the restaurant might not have survived the shutdown.

Then she hired Bradt as her general manager, just months before Winter Storm Elliott.  They had known each other for years because both have been frequent volunteers in the community -- youth sports, the Lion's Club, and just about any volunteer effort in the community, they would both be there helping out.

"We both had the same goal all the time," Bradt said. "Who can we help? How can we help? So deciding to come here and work with Bonnie was easy."

To the uninitiated, the location of the Alabama Hotel might seem rather isolated for a restaurant to be as popular and as successful as it has been for all these years. Bradt said it comes down to the food.

"I'm surprised by the amount of people, with the amount of good food in Buffalo, who come this way," Bradt said. "I'm surprised at the number of people that come this way versus going that way."

Woodward said the restaurant's fame has mostly spread by word of mouth. 

"People say, 'We've always heard about this place, and I wanted to just stop and see what it was like,'" Woodward said. "During the summer, a lot of people would walk the refuge (the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge) and birdwatch and all that other stuff, and then they would stop here for lunch or dinner."

Good Food and Friendly Ambiance
The restaurant is also a popular destination for bikers in the summer and snowmobilers (when there is snow) in the winter.

The Alabama Hotel has always been known for its fish fries, chicken and biscuits, and it's also taken on a reputation far and wide for its salad bar, Wednesday night pizza night, prime rib on Thursdays, and the swamp burger, which is a hamburger with cajun seasoning, mushrooms, onions, and American cheese.

The fish fry, Bradt said, remains something special and also illustrates the care they put into meal preparation.

"We've have half a dozen suppliers, Bradt said. "We will stop at no end to find the best quality fish and the rest of the ingredients. We've tried different things, and we go with quality. Quality might cost us a little bit more, but quality is our number one goal."

The publicity from Winter Storm Elliott has helped business, too.  Woodward said business is up more than 60 percent since the storm. Bradt said he gets stopped by customers in the restaurant regularly to let him know they heard about what he and the restaurant did to help out travelers.

And on Saturday comes one of the county's most prestigious honors, Business of the Year from the Chamber of Commerce, and Woodward and Bradt are both a little surprised by it.  They're also honored because, to them, it doesn't just represent that single 48-hour event.  It represents what the Alabama Hotel has meant to the community for so many decades and that through turmoil and change, it's still a popular place for food and friendship.

Because of the awards ceremony at Batavia Downs, the restaurant will be closed on Saturday. Bonnie Woodward booked six tables so 48 people could attend, including nearly all of the employees and "diehard" customers, as well as members of the Woodward family.

"It's really important to us to make sure that the employees feel included in this," Bradt said. "It's more than just the blizzard, you know. Without our employees and our staff and the people who continue to come through those doors every day, whether it's to grab a quick burger or have a drink, the doors wouldn't be open."

Previously: Alabama has its own Christmas story to tell, and stranded travelers aren't 'home alone'

alabama hotel chamber award business of the year
Photo by Howard Owens.
alabama hotel chamber award business of the year
Photo by Howard Owens.
alabama hotel chamber award business of the year
Photo by Howard Owens.
alabama hotel winterstorm elliott
Christmas Eve at the Alabama Hotel during Winter Storm Elliott in 2022.
Submitted photo.
alabama hotel winterstorm elliott
Weary travelers at the Alabama Hotel during Winter Storm Elliott.
Submitted photo.
alabama hotel winterstorm elliott
Travelers who were stranded at the Alabama Hotel during Winter Storm Elliott help prepare a meal in the restaurant's kitchen.
Submitted photo.
alabama hotel winterstorm elliott
Christmas Eve dinner during Winter Storm Eillott at the Alabama Hotel.
Submitted photo.

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