It’s been a good run(way) for Airport Restaurant, a local favorite that is, after more than 20 years, closing its doors permanently.
“We had a fire, and then we were closed for a year-and-a-half,” said Kathy Kiger, who opened the restaurant in October 2000. “I wasn’t sure when its (renovations) were going to be done. I thought this was a good time to close.”
In March of last year, a fire sparked inside the Greene County Airport’s radio room, causing smoke and water damage to the building. The magistrate’s office was relocated and Airport Restaurant temporarily closed while repairs were made to the administrative building.
What at first appeared to be a quick interior repair turned into a massive renovation to bring the building up to code. The ventilation ductwork, electrical and climate control systems were upgraded, and the space is receiving cosmetic improvements, too.
Kiger said waiting for the building to reopen has been frustrating and played into her decision to close Airport Restaurant and soar gently into retirement.
“I’m going to really miss it,” she said.
As a child, Kiger never dreamed she would one day own and serve at her own restaurant. But after getting married and working as a stay-at-home mother, an opportunity arose.
AJ’s Landing, a popular restaurant, had been closed for some time, and Greene County was seeking applications for a new restaurant owner to open up alongside the airport runway in Waynesburg.
“I did work there for a little while, when it was AJ’s Landing,” Kiger said. “I volunteered at the hospital years ago, in their kitchen. I thought, I can do this.”
So she applied. And business took off.
For the first five years as restaurant owner, Kiger’s husband helped her every chance he could. Over the years, her children and grandchildren have also risen to the occasion, serving and washing dishes when needed.
“Whenever I needed them, they were there,” she said.
Like her family, Kiger’s staff was “very dependable.”
“We had a great staff. We had very little turnover,” she said.
Though staff sometimes wore Airport Restaurant tees, most employees sported T-shirts donated by local businesses, who gave Kiger the shirts in exchange for free advertising. Kiger said it was one of her best ideas.
“We didn’t have to buy any uniforms or anything. It was all good,” she said.
All good, too, was the menu.
“We pretty much had the same menu for the last 20 years,” Kiger laughed. “It was breakfast all day. We sold a lot of roast beefs in the morning.”
The roast beef sandwich was popular, and folks loved the burgers, in-house ranch and freshly baked biscuits. But the fan favorite, Kiger said, was Airport Restaurant’s garbage plate, with scrambled eggs, green peppers, onions, ham, sausage and cheese all mixed together and served piping hot.
Kiger ran daily specials, but said most people knew what they liked and stuck to their orders.
“We had very, very good regulars that would come in every single day. I could tell you what they ate and what they drank before they even walked in the door,” she said.
Customers had their favorite orders – and their favorite seats.
Every morning, a group of older gentlemen gathered in the same spot. If they weren’t able to make it in, they’d call the restaurant, so Kiger wouldn’t worry.
She reserved a table for the same lunch party, which dined in daily for years, and recalled how state troopers, Greene County commissioners and prominent members of local organizations often dropped in for food, meetings and fellowship.
“Coal miners started meeting – I don’t know what mine it was from – once a month. We would just keep putting tables together. More would come, and we’d have a whole restaurant full of retired coal miners,” Kiger said. “It wasn’t fancy. It was a community place.”
When you stepped inside Airport Restaurant, you were part of that community.
“People that didn’t even know each other would come in. There would be, like, a family, a mother, a father and a baby. Someone older would say, I want to pick up the check for them,” Kiger said. “That happened a lot.”
Not as often, but just as wonderful, were impromptu birthday celebrations. Kiger said when a customer announced they were celebrating their breakfast or lunch date’s birthday, she’d give a heads-up to one of her regulars.
“I’d tell Gary Rohanna, and he’d say, ‘I’d like to have everyone’s attention, please. It’s (so-and-so)’s birthday.’ And everybody in the restaurant would sing ‘Happy Birthday,’” she said. “The people were awesome, especially the regulars.”
On the walls of Airport Restaurant hung shadow boxes, posters (including The Three Stooges, Kiger’s first restaurant decoration) and large collages featuring photos of regulars.
“People would come in and say, ‘I know these people,’” laughed Kiger. “Or they’d say, ‘When am I going to be on the wall?’”
One of the neatest parts of dining in at Airport Restaurant was, naturally, the view.
Pilots often flew in from Morgantown or Rostraver for a bite to eat. They’d thank Airport Restaurant staff, wave goodbye, and climb into their airplanes before making grand exits into the sky.
“People loved to watch those planes take off,” Kiger said. “Little kids ... instead of going to McDonald’s, they would want to come to the airport to see the planes take off.”
Now, Airport Restaurant, which took off two decades ago, has finally landed, and is permanently grounded. Kiger said again and again the thing she is going to miss most is her customers.
“We were a very small restaurant. I’ve seen babies grow up,” she said. “I’m going to miss seeing all those people every day.”