Hartwick To Honor Brooks

Hartwick To Honor Brooks

By LIBBY CUDMORE • HOMETOWN ONEONTA

Edition of Friday, Dec. 5, 2014

John Brooks
Even though he’s been retired for eight years, John Brooks can’t stay away from the business – he still goes in every day for lunch. (Ian Austin/HOMETOWN ONEONTA)

When John Brooks got home one night earlier this fall, there was a note from his wife, Joan, next to the phone. “It said ‘Hartwick wants you’ with a little smiley face,” he said.

Brooks, the retired second-generation owner of Brooks’ House of BBQ, had been named the 2014 Hartwick Citizen of the Year by the college’s Citizen Board. The award will be presented by President Margaret Drugovich Friday, Dec. 5, at a reception at her home, Thornwood.

“We’ve catered a lot of jobs at Hartwick College, and I’ve personally worked many of them,” Brooks said. “We always want to look good when we’re on the road, but in Oneonta, we want to look extra special.”

Raised in the family business, Brooks studied hotel and restaurant management at SUNY Delhi, graduating in 1967. He then served four years in the Air Force, rising to the rank of sergeant.

Returning to Brooks’ BBQ, he purchased the business from its founder, his parents Griffin and Frances, in 1975.
Under second-generation ownership, he and Joan expanded the catering business to a 100-mile radius, catering affairs of up to 2,000 people at IBM and the New York Power Authority, and even a party for jazz musician Lionel Hampton.

And he was never afraid to get in the pit. “One time, it was 95 degrees and humid, and me and four guys were cooking chicken for a huge crowd. This man came over, and he said, ‘I bet your boss isn’t here with you!’ and pulled out his wallet to tip us all. I didn’t say anything, but I gave my tip to my troops.”

The business became so successful that he briefly considered franchising, but quickly changed his mind. “I realized that investing in our community and making this the best place to be was enough,” he said. “I want to keep it hometown, keep it personal, give it that family touch.”

He’s catered events at Hartwick for years, and contributed to the college’s endowment. He hired Hartwick alumni to work in his restaurant – the late William Atchison was his attorney and Carol Ronovech is his accountant.

In addition to philanthropy at the college, Brooks is an active member of the Elks Club, the American Legion, the Otsego County Chamber of Commerce and the BOCES Food Board, and was also an eight-year volunteer with the Conservation Alliance of N.Y. (CANY) Venison Donation Program and the vice president of the SUNY Oneonta’s Foundation Board.

“It’s all about giving back,” he said. “This community has been good to us.”

Though he sold the business to his son, Ryan, and retired in 2005, Brooks still comes into work to chat with the staff and even help at catering events.

But his retirement has allowed him to get back to what he really loves – the Oneonta community. “Every day, I come in here, sit at the counter and talk with some of the customers,” he said. “Sometimes, I talk to so many, I can’t hardly finish my lunch! But that’s what’s so important.”