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Jason Donofrio Uses Stepping Stones To Build Food Business; Exchanges Part-Time Leisure For Full-Time Challenge
By Tina Traster
Jason Donofrio had cracked the code. Half the year, he worked his tail off, day and night, seven days a week through the warm months, running food concessions at Rockland Lake and Tallman Park. The work was consuming, grueling, and profitable, which led to his other life the rest of the year soaking up the sun in Florida.
It had taken decades to amass the momentum and clarity that led to building his concession business, which allowed him the privilege of taking months at a time for leisure in “his happy place,” where he’d recharge his battery.
But Donofrio, with his 50th birthday looming, just couldn’t quite rid the bee in his bonnet that suggested a tired deli with a hair salon next door in Fort Montgomery in Orange County just over the Rockland County border had the potential to be transformed into a modern food shop and ice cream stand.
Country Deli at 888 Route 9W is the entrepreneur’s latest venture in the food business, and his biggest gamble to date. Donofrio spent more than a year and upwards of $200,000 to gut and renovate the space that had been a deli for decades, though he kept the name. He opened walls, including the one that had separated the deli and hair salon, and turned the former hair salon, and briefly a Smoothie shop, into an ice cream stand. Donofrio painted the cinder blocks walls a natural color, installed new fixtures and lighting, gave the exterior a fresh coat of white paint with trim, landscaped and added outdoor seating.
He’s left the kitchen open so patrons can watch the magic.
He signed a ten-year lease for the space.
With the closures of at least two nearby delis, Donofrio is counting on business from the 20,000 cars that pass by the location daily. He also plans to add delivery service to West Point Military Academy. With the recent closure of Hoyer’s, West Haverstraw’s iconic ice cream shop, Donofrio says he’s already seen North Rocklander’s trek to Fort Montgomery for quality ice cream. He sources soft serve ice cream from Panza and hard ice cream from Premium.
“If Panza had any more butter fat, it would be called a custard,” said Donofrio.
Hoyer’s is not the only ice cream shop to disappear. In fact, when The Dugout closed in Central Valley because the landlord sold the building to Bottle King, Donofrio bought out their equipment.
“There was a lot of love behind their time doing this,” said Donofrio. “What’s not to love about selling ice cream? It makes people so happy.”
Ice cream is where this tale begins, sort of. Donofrio grew up in Highland Falls, a tourist town serving West Point where teens inevitably found their first jobs in restaurants. At 14, he was washing dishes. Over time, he prepped food, worked the front and back of the house, and attended the Culinary Institute of America. At 18, with a baseball scholarship in hand, he went to Texas Junior College for two years. Food kept calling him, and he found his way back to Miami, Atlanta, and Manchester, England, where he bar-tended and worked in restaurants.
He’d learned to cook for himself at an early age: his father Joseph Donofrio, a long-time mayor, was divorced from his mother, a graphic artist who lived in New Jersey. The divorce left a void in his life. Including being fed. But along the way, in this peripatetic life, the seeds of his career were planted when he went to work for an uncle who ran ice cream concessions in New York State parks. A good student, Donofrio learned the business and over a decade sowed relationships that enabled him to land the food concession business when Rockland Lake was opening its $16 million waterpark in 2018 at the northern end of the park. At the time, there was no concessionaire in place, Donofrio said.
‘I approached Jim Hall and told him I can get a stand up and running within a month,” he said, and did. Donofrio signed a three-year contract and has since renewed for another three years through 2025.
One day he got a call from “Billy.”
“I had no idea who this guy was,” said Donofrio. But it wasn’t long before Billy Procida, the Piermont financier and operator of the Tallman Pool, recruited Donofrio to turn around the food and drinks business. In 2015, Procida signed a 20-year lease with the Palisades Interstate Park Commission to take over what was then known as Tallman Mountain State Park Pool.
Donofrio’s vision for his entrepreneurial life crystalized in 2018, when he made a commitment to get sober.
“I wanted to do things and I made a decision,” he said. “I got out of my own way.”
And in a short time, he has proven how much he’s able to juggle. His mettle was tested in Sept. 2021, the same month he closed on the lease for the deli, when Hurricane Ida ravaged Tallman Pool like a mudslide. Donofrio remembers the day. Sept. 7. He’d just begun to work on renovating the deli.
“Tallman was completely wiped out,” he said. “The food, the club, we lost Labor Day, it cost me $160,000 in damages that came out of my pocket. There was no FEMA money.”
Moments like this tell us what we’re made of. Donofrio drew from his well of experience, including what it took to clean up and define himself.
“I do a little prayer of meditation daily to stay in the moment,” he said. “I deal with what I can control and I make a list. I do one thing at a time. I prioritize but I stay flexible. During the mud slide at Tallman Pool I didn’t panic. I knew I couldn’t afford to panic. I needed to conserve my energy. Focus. And have the confidence to know that everything would find its way to the finish line.”
Donofrio will hold an official opening for the ice cream stand later this month. He’s no longer living the life of leisure; instead of fishing and golf, he’s thinking about ice cream flavors and deli sandwiches and the daily to-do list that adds up to something that he can call his own.