Years before so many local residents were concerned with reinventing downtown Wheeling, Jason Miller and Becky Schmidt were attempting to do it all by themselves .
Miller and Schmidt worked side-by-side as managers of River City before purchasing the business together in 2007 from John DelGrande, and today the first and third floors of the Wheeling Artisan Center often are teaming with food-based fun during lunch and dinner hours, and while banquets and receptions are held on the top floor.
“When we first decided to buy the business, our motivation was to make something happen in downtown Wheeling,” Miller admitted. “We didn’t know what would be possible, and we didn’t know exactly what would convince people to come out of the suburbs and back to the downtown district, so we’re always looking for new things that we believe will get the attention of people who live in the Wheeling area.
“We absolutely love what’s been taking place in the downtown the past few years. It feels good to have a lot of other people now working to change the impression of this area,” he said. “It’s never been bad, but perception is reality, especially in the restaurant and banquet business.”
Miller said he welcomes the momentum, and even the new restaurants that have opened recently in downtown Wheeling, including the Vagabond Kitchen, Tito’s Sloppy Dogz, and Despasquale’s Trattoria.
“It’s going to take a larger volume of people to really make downtown work the way we all hope it does in the future, and more folks are now moving to the downtown area now than we have seen in the past,” he said. “It’s great to see the renovations taking place with Wesbanco Arena, and we see a lot of other building owners now paying attention to their properties and sprucing them up.
“The past few years it’s been very positive here in the downtown, and I believe that’s a reflection of what’s going to be happening in downtown Wheeling in the future,” Miller insisted. “More business, and including restaurants, have been opening the past couple of years, and our attitude is, ‘the more the merrier.’ That’s what this town needs.
“I believe with more growth in downtown Wheeling, it’s not only going to attract our local folks to downtown again, but that it will also start attracting people from Pittsburgh and Columbus areas. We’re already realizing that on a small scale, and I can see it growing, too.”
A 1992 graduate of Wheeling Central Catholic High School, Miller earned his business administration degree from West Liberty University in 1997. River City can seat as many as 420 guests for banquets and receptions, and the restaurant is large enough for 300 additional patrons.
“Our bar side is a great atmosphere, and we’ve added to our draft and beer selection, so our customers can try something new that’s not offered anywhere else,” Miller said. “We’re getting into all of the seasonal beers at this time, but we’ll also offer the most popular beers that are in demand all year long.
“And another reason people like to come here is because of how diverse the menu is during both our lunch and dinner services,” he continued. “Not only do we have the healthy salads on both menus, but you can also get into some Mexican, our wraps, our steaks and burgers, and we’ve added some Asian offerings, too.”
The lunch and dinner menus, Miller admitted, are ever-evolving, and that’s because of what advice his customer base has offered him since his very first day of ownership.
“Tuesday is our ‘win night,’ and Wednesdays is the evening when we offer all-you-can-eat crab legs, and that’s very popular all year long,” Miller reported. “We also have nightly specials when the Nailers have a game at Wesbanco Arena because we have a lot of people who come in an hour before the puck drops .
“We also have a great Happy Hour Tuesday through Friday from 5-7 p.m., and that’s when we have our $5 appetizer menu in place,” he said. “And during most weekends we offer free live entertainment. We offer a nice, safe atmosphere for people here in downtown Wheeling, and we believe in supporting our local musicians as much as we can.”
He considers himself very lucky to have a business partner like Schmidt, and a head cook like Tom McCardle.
“Becky has been here with me from day one, and she’s in charge of everything involved with our banquets,” Miller said. “We were both managers when we decided to buy the business, and we’ve been working hard ever since.
“And I put my full trust in Tom, and that’s why we asked him to come back to River City when Becky and I decided to buy this business,” he continued. “He is the kind of employee every restaurant owner wants to have because he loves the work, he’s always here when we need him, and his food is great no matter what he’s cooking.
“He is the type of employee who is capable of taking care of anything involved with a lunch or dinner service or during a banquet or wedding reception. And he goes about his work in a very calm manner because he knows he’s in control of the situation because of his preparation and his experience.”
McCardle, who grew up in the Warwood section of Wheeling, is a 1978 graduate of Wheeling Park High School, and today he is a resident of Martins Ferry and has been employed in the food service industry since 1977. He’s held positions at Oglebay’s Wilson Lodge, at Stratford Springs, and at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack. In fact, he was employed as a sous chef at the Island Buffet at the time Miller phoned him and asked him to return to River City.
Although McCardle admitted he enjoys soup making more than anything, no challenge is too daunting for this life-taught chef.
“I enjoy cooking for a lot of people. The more the better because I like the challenge,” McCardle said. “By now I’ve fed thousands of people between the folks that come here for lunch and dinner and during the banquets and wedding receptions.
“But cooking isn’t the only thing I can do. I’m also a mechanic, a welder, plumber, and an electrician. I like to work with my hands, so cooking just comes naturally to me,” he explained with a smile. “I’ve let life teach me a lot, and that includes my cooking, too. I have worked with some amazing chefs during my career who have taught me a lot, and I use those lessons every day on the job. I’ve paid attention, and I’ve benefitted from it.”
Stuffed Feta Chicken, Cajun Catfish, Prime Rib, Grouper – you name it; he’s worked with it and made it quite tasty along the way.
“We like to always look at we’re offering so we can make the changes based on what the people want,” McCardle explained. “A lot of the changes are based on what’s healthy and what the people are asking for. It’s important to keep your ears open in the food business because if the people do not want what you’re offering, they will go somewhere else. It’s that simple, really.
“People want to eat healthier these days, and that means they are interested in the salads that we have on both the lunch and dinner menus,” he continued. “At one time the interest in the salads decreased when the temperatures cooled off, but that’s not what happened last year. The interest in the salads continued through the winter months.”
Eating healthier is one thing, but McCardle also insisted that the meat-and-potato attitude has not completely vanished from the Upper Ohio Valley palate.
“We’re really a meat-and-potato town,” McCardle said. “They still like pork, our steaks, and our burgers, and they also like the menu items that they really can’t get anywhere else in this area.
“We have a great lunch crowd, and we concentrate on getting them in and out because they are on their lunch hours and pressed for time,” he said. “If they can get something that’s quick, then they will continue coming back as long as it’s also very good.”
McCardle also tackles the cooking duties connected with the banquet services with the help from his son, David, and the best part is watching the patrons attempt to choose from the many options offered by River City.
“We present our customers with a number of different offerings that we have here, but if they want something completely different, that’s OK, too,” McCardle said. “We schedule a day, they tell me how many people to expect, and we go from that point and move on.
“It’s very hard to make that selection because everything is just so good,” he continued. “I believe our customers have a lot of fun with the food-tasting process because they get to try so many things that they didn’t even know we offered.”
Miller initially became involved with the food service industry as a teenager, and long before heading to the hilltop to attend West Liberty University, he had made the decision to continue in food service.
“It’s a very exciting career and I always get to work with great people,” he explained. “Plus this is about downtown Wheeling. We wanted to make something happen down here long before so many people were concentrated on this area like they are now.
“I first got involved with the food business working for the family business at Neely’s,” he continued. “I started working and cooking up at Neely’s when I was 13 years old, and I also enjoyed it. That’s why when the opportunity to expand with it came available, we jumped at the chance.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)