For nearly four decades, Gary Matolyak, owner of Ace’s, has kept his recipes for ethnic foods locked in his office safe.
With Matolyak and his daughter, Laura Matolyak-Neatrour, selling the popular Johnstown establishment, the proprietors will be presenting the closely guarded recipes for pigs in the blanket and their special chicken to the new owners in order to carry on the establishment’s rich tradition.
The new owners, Dustin Greene and Joelle Hadix, will take the reins of the notable business when the deal is finalized in early August. Green owns Top Dog Productions Inc. and Hadix owns Wedding Elegance by Joelle and Carriage House Floral & Gifts.
Gary Matolyak, 62, said he handpicked the pair to take control because he was assured the new owners would continue to offer the same level of customer service expected by Ace’s customers.
People who have booked wedding receptions and other events over the next two years need not worry about the changeover, he said.
“The new owners will continue to honor all requests, and we will help as much as we can during the transition,” Matolyak said. “We want them to succeed.”
The current owners attribute the sale to health and personal issues.
“Dad is selling because he beat stage-four throat cancer and is now battling prostate cancer,” Neatrour said.
Matolyak brushed the diagnosis aside.
“I’m getting the correct treatment and I’ll beat this, too,” he said. “I want to spend time with my grandchildren and do more community work.”
Ace’s has hosted a myriad of events, from countless weddings and funeral wakes to political rallies and sports banquets.
It is immortalized since it was twice mentioned in the iconic hockey movie “Slap Shot,” which was filmed in Johnstown.
“Paul Newman sat in here during filming, drank a Budweiser and seemed like a regular guy,” Matolyak said.
Ace’s was founded in 1953 by Matolyak’s uncle, Frank “Ace” Babich, who did caterings through 1959.
In 1960, Babich bought the old Rodoljub Croatian Educational Society to expand his catering business. By 1970, Babich had purchased the properties at 316-318 Chestnut St. and built Ace’s. The large facility features the Chestnut Room, main banquet hall, bar area and dance floor.
“Construction was complete in less than a year,” Matolyak said. “It became the only place large enough, other than the War Memorial, to handle large crowds.”
Ace’s seats more than 700 for a sit-down dinner and 1,000 for other events.
The business has had anywhere from 12 to 25 employees over the years.
Ace’s heyday occurred in the early 1970s, when Johnstown’s industry was booming and the economy was strong.
“That’s when we noticed weddings going from an average of 150 guests to regularly accommodating as many as 400 to 500 people,” Matolyak said.
Matolyak’s involvement with Ace’s can be traced to the 1977 flood.
The Cambria City neighborhood was covered in knee-deep mud, and it took immense manpower to clear away the mess.
“I crossed the river to help clean up Ace’s and have been here ever since,” Matolyak said.
He partnered with his cousin, Jack Babich, an executive at AmeriServ Financial, in the early 1990s to take over the business.
“Jack later marched off to war to serve his country, and my daughter, Laura, came on board in 2003,” he said.
Matolyak is a 1973 graduate of Pitt-Johnstown with a bachelor of science degree in economics, but he has become a jack of all trades.
His business philosophy is to make patrons feel like part of a family.
“When someone new walks through our doors, they are a customer for the first 10 minutes, but after that you have to make them your friend,” he said.
For charitable events, he donates his facility and gives groups or organizations the food at cost.
Since the 1980s, Matolyak estimates he has hosted charity events that have raised more than $300,000.
“We see it as paying something forward to the community I grew up in,” he said. “If you don’t give, you don’t get back.”
Matolyak is touched by some of the people who have been helped.
“There was a young person who needed $3,900 worth of medicine available only from Eastern Europe, and we helped make that happen,” he said. “The young man is still alive today because he received the medicine.”
The current staff, including Chef Steven Horbal, will remain on the payroll.
“We call Steve the ‘Mad Russian,’ and he is the best chef in town,” said Matolyak. “He has been here 32 years and is not going anywhere.”
Matolyak also knows his way around a kitchen.
When a sizable banquet is booked, he said, it’s all hands on deck as everyone contributes.
From a young man sweeping floors to learning to cook with his Uncle Frank, Matolyak literally has worked his way from the ground up in the food and entertainment business.
“I have cooked all my life,” Matolyak said.
Recipes for his pigs in the blanket and special chicken are closely held.
“These recipes were brought through Ellis Island as immigrants flooded America,” he said.
Once a month, he prepares an order for a man in San Diego who has a standing order for 50 pigs in the blanket.
“I estimate I have eaten 8,000 pigs myself,” Matolyak said, laughing. “I’m a meat-and-potatoes man, so give me a steak and my daughter’s mashed potatoes, and I’m satisfied.”
Matolyak’s daughter agreed to sell because she feared her father would not break the ties with Ace’s if she stayed.
“I’m a single mother of teenage twins and need to spend more time with them,” Neatrour said. “Dad has to take time for himself and not put in 60 to 70 hours a week here.”
Matolyak wants to concentrate on the future.
“There are a lot of fish out there that need caught, and I’m on the board of directors for the Save the Steeples project,” he said.
The Steeples Project is a nonprofit that is entrusted with three former Roman Catholic church buildings in Cambria City: St. Columba, SS. Casimir & Emerich and Immaculate Conception.
“I’m excited about the future of Ace’s because the new owners care,” Matolyak said. “I’m going to continue to be part of the Cambria City Renaissance.”
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @Tom LavisTD.