With liquor license transfer approved, new restaurant will move forward in State College

State College Borough Council approved a liquor license transfer with some restrictions for a New Zealand-themed restaurant planned for the former Spats Cafe and Speakeasy location downtown.

Martin and Deanna Gillespie, who both grew up in Centre County, attended Penn State and moved back to the area after several successful restaurant ventures in San Diego, are planning to open Queenstown, a restaurant named for the New Zealand city in which Martin’s friend and business partner first developed the idea for an upscale burger joint.

The license, owned by Moershbacher Enterprises, was transferred from the old Celebration Hall location at 2280 Commercial Boulevard in College Township. Cyril Moershbacher, owner of Hoag’s Catering and Event Rentals, moved his business from Commercial Boulevard to Summit Park in early 2018, and the property was sold to Unity Church of Jesus Christ.

Only five members of borough council were present Monday night for the liquor license transfer vote, and all but Councilwoman Theresa Lafer voted for the license transfer with no restrictions on food and beverage ratios.

Lafer said the Gillespies’ insurance company’s requirement that 40% of the restaurant’s sales be from food only serves to “cover their butts.”

“I think you have a lovely idea for a restaurant, and I would be perfectly happy to let you be a restaurant, not turn rapidly into a tavern or bar,” she said, addressing the Gillespies on Monday night. “You’re taking what would’ve been a really nice place ... and making it just like every other place in town before you’ve even opened.”

Other restrictions placed on the liquor license are: the restaurant can’t sell alcohol when food sales aren’t available, borough council will review the food/alcohol sales ratio after one year to see if modifications are needed, license operation is restricted to the location of the restaurant, the license can’t be transferred without approval, restaurant facility rental is prohibited, modification of the agreement is subject to council approval, the agreement is legally binding and the license is subject to state Liquor Control Board requirements.

Borough Manager Tom Fountaine said the original proposed food and beverage sales ratio of 65/35 came out of research the borough has conducted in an effort to curb the effects of drinking culture in State College. Because there are so many liquor licenses already operating in the borough, he said, the transfer applications are the one opportunity the borough gets to make any changes to them.

“The goal is, with these (liquor license) transfers, to create dining experiences, not bar experiences,” he said.

The license transfer for the Gillespies is the first to pass without restrictions on a food and beverage sales ratio, he said. There have been five applications for liquor license transfers, four of which were approved with restrictions and two of which are still operating — Fuji & Jade Garden and Faccia Luna, he said.

But Martin Gillespie said a bar has never been in the cards for Queenstown.

“I want to bring a concept that you can have family there, you can have adult fun ... and serve some really cool food, and have a great place to be,” he said. “I have no interest in a bar ... I’m too old, I don’t want to deal with the headaches — I was the headache in college, you know, I get it!”

Gillespie, a retired orthopedic surgeon, said he has no intentions of putting anyone out of business with his new restaurant. “I’m trying to bring the community in (and) serve the 150,000 people downtown so that they have a place,” he said.

Every restaurant he’s opened has been inspired by some aspect of New Zealand culture, and Queenstown is named for home — as both the place the restaurant concept started and the Gillespies’ home.

“Each one is a little bit different,” Gillespie said. “And that’s why we do it. Because, you know, I don’t want to be a Friday’s, I don’t want to be a Chili’s, I don’t want to be an Outback Steakhouse. We want to be able to have the flexibility to adapt to each individual market.”

For the time being, the Gillespies are focusing on getting their plans into code, finding local vendors and coming up with an interior design vision. Once those items are accomplished, they’ll focus on refining the menu and hiring management and waitstaff.

Related stories from Centre Daily Times

Sarah Paez covers Centre County communities, government and town and gown relations for the Centre Daily Times. She studied English and Spanish at Cornell University and grew up outside of Washington, D.C.