Article contributed by Miriam Rubin, Food Columnist and Cookbook Author
Nestled between the Catskill and Berkshire mountains in New York State’s Hudson Valley, Columbia County boasts expansive views, tucked-away homes and lush farmland. Its’ population numbers around 60,000; a number that increases during summer and weekends— and right now— as many second-home owners have fled New York City, 2 hours south.
The economy is based on the service industry but agriculture and agro-tourism are strong, too. Area farms raise high-quality meat, poultry and vegetables that are sold to residents and local businesses and trucked to fine New York City restaurants and farmers markets. Like many places, rural community restaurants here are closed except for takeout. Smaller food stores have reduced or eliminated customer traffic. Some restaurants offer their full menus for takeout, others are padlocked, hopefully for a short period. And other businesses have found new ways to operate. For those continuing to serve, how long can they remain open? Where will they source food?
We spoke with three operations, each attempting a different model to remain open and keep the food flowing: The Bartlett House, a bakery-restaurant in Ghent, Local 111, a small restaurant in Philmont and the Chatham Real! Food Market, a natural foods coop.
Specializing in seasonal, local ingredients, the Bartlett House is located in an historic railroad hotel. You’d go there for a farm-fresh breakfast, a super-popular brunch or for house-made breads and pastries.
These days the parking lot has plenty of empty spaces and the covered porch, where you could browse your laptop while sipping a latte is instead filled with bagged orders to go. They’re picked up a customer at a time, limiting person contact.
Bartlett House has morphed from a restaurant to a commissary. Instead of an a la carte menu, there’s a flexible list of cooked and chilled foods, such as beef and lamb chili or chicken and grains soup, sold by the quart. There are frozen house-made pasta noodles, with kale pesto or beef ragu for topping, plus sundry items to add to your online or phone order, like farm eggs, shredded cheese, pancake mix and wine. The transition happened fast, said Alina Roytberg, one of the principal owners.
“All of a sudden, literally, we turned into a phone-order business,” said Roytberg. Our kitchen had to change because we could not proceed to do orders and prepare food, so we quickly changed into a provision place. The idea was to completely eliminate personal contact between the team and the guest and still be able to produce food, still be able to employ to some people.”
They’d been about to open a boutique hotel, The Maker, in the once-bustling county seat of Hudson, now gone quiet. Over 37 people from the hotel were let go; a few at Bartlett, too. “That was really one of the toughest things,” she said.
So far, the new model is working, perhaps because Bartlett House was a bakery before it became a restaurant. “We all need bread,” said Roytberg. “We decided that we would focus on the bread and other things that would help people to build themselves a meal.”
Staying open, they’re able to retain employees and help area farmers. ”It’s breaking into spring now and it’s amazing to be in this area near the farms. Things are growing and farmers want to sell them,” she said, mentioning local sources such as Pigasso Farms and Letterbox Farms. Some vegetables and dry goods are delivered from Baldor.
We plan to continue to be there for the community, Roytberg said. “It isn’t just about making profits, it’s about keeping the family together and trying to move through it with the least possible human trauma. We don’t want the Bartlett House to go silent.”
Chef/owner Josephine Proul shuttered her well-regarded, farm-to-table restaurant Local 111 after the State mandate. Located in a small village, Proul has been the chef of the 38-seat eatery for 12 years; she now owns both the business and the building. Her thriving (not right now) catering company is what fuels the restaurant that serves both loyal local residents and second homeowners.
Once closed, she had to decide what was next. She laid off staff, mostly part-timers. “I did the first rational thing I could do,” said Proul. “I thought about how experienced we were in catering, and how to execute the food. If we prepare it all separately, cool it down immediately and then pack it, the quality of the product is there.” So she developed a cook and chill menu of entrees and sides that she could produce mainly by herself.
Her menu’s available only on Fridays. People drive up at appointed times for pickup, usually not leaving their cars. She created an e-commerce site for ordering. An order comes in, a confirmation email goes out. Some of her laid-off employees help prep and pack orders, to others, she provides sympathy and food.
The model’s done well the past four weeks. it’s keeping her afloat. She served about 47 orders the last Friday, selling out each time, with repeat customers. One dish is constant – braised short ribs — other comfort-food options are mac and cheese, fried chicken sandwiches and pimiento cheese bread. She’s begun a Tuesday night hot meal for pick-up as well.
Like others, Proul sources from local producers. Other goods come from Chef’s Warehouse and Baldor. “I’m not having ordering issues,” she said.
And the future? “I’m fine right now but I have a secondary catering company; all my contracts are protected by insurance, we’re just moving the dates There’s (some) reassurance that even if I’m not comfortable reopening the restaurant when it’s allowed, my catering contracts will allow my employees to come back to work.”
She paused: “My biggest concern is that just because everybody gets the green light to go out to eat again, are they going to go out to eat again?”
Natural foods coop, Chatham Real! Food Market, is out of a lot of things: bananas, pasta, all-purpose flour, tahini, sriracha, yeast, tortilla chips, olive oil and most canned goods. The store is open, but closed to foot traffic. Customers order by phone or email from the ever-expanding and contracting list on the store’s website.
We’re trying stay open and remain an alternative to the supermarket, explained Leandra Keefe, store manager with her husband, Chris Keefe. “I think people are appreciating our option. We have a lot more control over our environment in our store right now, we just have our employees in there and we’re taking necessary precautions.”
They had to transition quickly. “As soon as we realized we had to close the store to shoppers it became obvious, nobody knows what we have. We also had to focus our energy on (selling) the most perishable product first,” said Leandra. The store had a website, but an e-commerce site was created, adding photos so customers would know what was available. Chris mused that people were on-line shopping at two AM. However, orders aren’t filled until the store opens.
Customers wanted produce most of all. “For the first week, we didn’t have (produce) prices online, but people didn’t care,” said Chris. Their business has boomed due to the influx of second-homeowners.
The coop had a small café with a hot bar and soup station but now, that’s where the bagged orders go. There’s demand for prepared foods, so they added a limited changing array of entrees like turkey pot pie, zucchini Parmesan and a detox soup.
Other than dismantling the café, the store remains unchanged. Even the vegetables are put into the displays so employees packing orders can find them. “When we do reopen our doors everything will still be set up for customers. We won’t need to completely reset the store,” said Leandra.
They retained all their employees and are busy because it takes longer to pack an order than to simply ring one up. Generally, orders are ready for pickup within an hour.
While local foods are easy to source, and it supports local farmers, Chris struggles with his other suppliers, striving to provide the same wide variety of products as before. “We were working with UNFI (United Natural Foods) for 11 years. Two weeks before our buying frenzy they stopped coming.” He then called Kehe Distributors but the delivery was cancelled because workers were sick and their warehouse was being decontaminated. He again ordered from UNFI with no success. He’s optimistic that a new distributor, Ace Natural, will deliver.
They’re hoping for the best. “We still can’t be sure that if we order a product, we will get the product,” said Leandra. “So we’re trying to keep our orders diversified, order through different channels. Maybe one will bring it, or they’ll all bring it and then we’ll have a lot of canned beans.
“Then we’ll have a sale on beans,” said Chris.
For now, they’re just hoping the truck will deliver on Tuesday.