Tom Sibol: Anchor of York City's downtown
When Tom Sibol's father first told him he'd sell him his downtown York bar in 1984, the York Catholic High School graduate didn't think he was ready.
"I said, 'I can't do it,' and he said, 'Yes you can; I've been watching you for eight years, you can do it,'" recalled the 56-year-old Sibol, now in his third decade as owner of White Rose Bar and Grill.
The third-generation business owner grew up with a thriving downtown economy surrounding his family's North Beaver Street business, but by the time he took over, surrounding stores were struggling and White Rose was just keeping its "head above water," he said.
But current revitalization efforts have the downtown economy back on the upswing, and, according to numerous community leaders past and present, Sibol and White Rose have served as an anchor for that growth.
Growing up: Sibol's grandparents opened the business, originally called The Beaver Inn, in 1933 in a building that now serves as the bar's smoking lounge, Stoagie's.
Sibol's parents bought the business in 1944 and changed the name to White Rose Bar and Grill three years later, Sibol said.
He began working for his parents when he was 10 years old, he said, at the family's other downtown business ventures, a parking lot and laundromat.
The fifth of seven children in his family, Sibol said those first few years working left a lasting impact.
"At 10 years old, waking up at 7 in the morning on a Saturday, that's where I got my work ethic," he said. "I'd always ask (my parents) for pay, and they'd always say, 'You have a roof over your head and food on the table.'"
Sibol recalled handing out tickets at the parking lot as locals left their cars to visit thriving downtown shops including Jack's, The Bon-Ton and Bears Department Store.
Beginning in the late 1970s and early '80s, though, many of those shops were either gone or struggling, and his father was looking to move on to another venture.
Taking over: Having worked at the White Rose for years as a bartender, dishwasher, cook and everything in-between, Sibol took over in 1984 with four employees.
Learning as he went, Sibol spent a lot of time at the business, which wasn't always the safest proposition.
"I had my life threatened, and I was here all the time," he said. "I look back at it, and it was some difficult times."
But with businesses foundering all around him, Sibol was able to keep White Rose afloat thanks to a competitive energy he also exhibits on the basketball court and golf course, according to his colleagues.
"As far as competitiveness goes, put (Tom) in any situation ... he's going to win," said Jeremiah Anderson, partner and general manager of White Rose. "Losing is just not in his DNA. Something needs to be done, he'll do it."
Expanding: That competitive nature came to the fore in 1997, when a parcel of land next door to White Rose — housing a parking lot, hat shop and beauty shop — became available.
"I thought (that parcel) was very important to give us visibility on East Philadelphia Street," Sibol said.
Matt Jackson, a city consultant at the time and later the city's economic development director, remembers speaking frequently with Sibol, who would go back and forth on whether to expand.
"That was quite a leap of faith for (Tom) because, (back then), York was a sleepy nightlife type of town, and I remember eating (at White Rose) several times ... where I was (almost) the only one there," Jackson said. "So for him to take a leap of faith on York took some courage."
Eric Menzer, president of the York Revolution and the city's economic development director at the time, praised Sibol for that courage.
"There's no one in downtown York I admire more," Menzer said. "He's not the kind of guy that gets awards or runs for office; he just puts his money where his mouth is. When Tom first expanded, there was no ballpark, no revitalization."
For Jackson, who was working on incubating a small arts district on North Beaver and East Philadelphia streets, White Rose became the "epicenter" of that plan after expansion, and Sibol's open-mindedness helped move the project along, Jackson said.
"One of the great things about Tom is he's never defensive about ideas, which isn't always the case with some small business owners," Jackson said. "Instead of being threatened by other people's ideas and energy, he seems to feed off of it."
Several expansions later, White Rose is synonymous with the growth York City is experiencing, Jackson said.
"I don't think it would be hyperbole to say it's inconceivable to think about downtown York today without the White Rose," he said. "I don't think you can see York's upward trajectory, its gradual momentum begetting more momentum, without White Rose."
Sonia Huntzinger, executive director of Downtown Inc, said White Rose has been "a true anchor business in every sense of the word," pointing to efforts to drive surrounding business. The restaurant's remote buzzers that alert patrons when their tables are ready work from a significant distance away, allowing people to browse nearby stores, she said.
Sibol hired Anderson in 2008 to oversee White Rose, which now has 105 employees, but Sibol said he has trouble staying away from the place.
"That's the tough part, because I'm a people person, and I still love coming in and saying 'hello' to everybody and know that I know everyone's name," Sibol said. "That's very important to me."
In the immediate future, Sibol — currently living in Dover — said he's been working on projects — which he plans to announce in the coming weeks — to increase the efficiency of White Rose.
He wants to open a second location within the next five to 10 years, he said.
Long-term, he wants to travel with his wife, play golf and potentially make White Rose a fourth-generation family-owned business, as his two daughters and son currently work at the restaurant.
"It's always been a dream of mine to have it go to a fourth generation, but it's not something that needs to be done," he said.
— Reach David Weissman at email@example.com.