The queen of hospitality

With its eighty-six-year-old owner in the engineer's seat, Leroy's D&R Depot stays on track



Michael Hanlon

Entering the former train depot, I’m greeted with the utmost hospitality, as if we were best friends. Nancy Nickerson and her business partner, Sean Valdes, make you feel right at home at the D & R Depot in Leroy. The homemade food and personalized touch draw people from all over the world—in fact, there’s a map right in the entrance with pins showing how far people have come to visit this unique, cozy establishment.

The main draw other than the building? It’s Nickerson herself. This hardworking, humble, hospitable entrepreneur has a passion for people. Her satisfaction comes from seeing happy customers. “A restaurant business is a heart job; if it doesn’t affect your heart, you’re not doing something right,” she says.

 

In the beginning

“D & R” stands for Don and “Rebel,” Nancy’s nickname, since she doesn’t like to do anything conventionally. The pair met when Don was driving a bus and saw Nancy in a yellow dress. Later, at a roller-skating rink, he asked her to skate. They eventually got married and had five children. “Don was brilliant,” Nancy says. “He was the one who created the sensory park for the [New York State School for the Blind in Batavia].”

Before children, their only form of transportation was a BSA (Birmingham Small Arms Company) motorcycle. They even rode it to church. Nancy says, “Back then you didn’t wear slacks to church. I wore a dress and heels and carried my hat and purse while sitting sidesaddle on the back of the bike.”

Nancy cared for their children during the day while Don worked; she worked at night. That is how she got familiar with the restaurant business, which gave her the hours that fit her schedule. Her friends, stopping in for toast and coffee, encouraged Nancy to work in a better place. She did, becoming manager at the Red Osier in Stafford. But not everyone had the budget to go there, and the Nickersons were interested in operating a more inclusive establishment. That’s when they decided to open D&R Depot. Nancy was sixty years old at that time.

Several years ago, a young man came along who filled in for his cousin doing dishes. Gradually, he became the regular after-school dishwasher. When he saw Nancy’s daughter making salads, he asked to be taught how to make salads and then how to cook. Eventually, Sean Valdez took over partial ownership and partners with Nancy running the restaurant today. Valdez’s wife, head chef Jen Valdez, creates food with artistic flair. The team also operates a thriving catering arm.

 

The menu

Nibbling on assorted homemade baked goods (which you can also preorder to take home) gives you time to peruse the D & R Depot’s extensive and varied menu. For starters, the Conductor’s Special French onion soup is quite popular. It’s served with mini scissors with which to cut the stringy, melty cheese. The Valdezes, who oversee all kitchen and catering operations, keep up on dietary needs such as gluten-free and sugar-free options, but there are lots of old-time favorites. The signature dish is the homemade chicken pot pie.

 

Secrets to success

Nickerson says her secret to success is a good staff. “You can’t run any business without good staff. Sean and Jen develop people under them and know how to find good people.” The servers are friendly because they want to be—they are friendly people—not just to get a paycheck.

Promotion is important, too. The Depot’s original menu was a newspaper that included stories. Customers took them home to pass onto others, which drew more customers. Nancy sends out 120 handwritten birthday cards every week, gifting a discount when the cardholder comes in for lunch or dinner. And every year there is a counting contest at holiday time—snowflakes, reindeer, nutcrackers, or angels strategically placed around the dining area. Whoever comes closest to the total number wins a prize, which is often cash. The restaurant’s elaborate train-themed décor changes with every season, the center display being an upside-down diorama suspended from the ceiling. At Christmas, there’s a fully decorated tree with packages and stuffed animals surrounding it and the whole scene circled with a model train. People don’t come just for the over-the-top decorating, but it doesn’t hurt!

 

Lori Bruton creates stories of fun, food, and adventures as a freelance and travel writer.

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