ON THE SCENE: Growing a business in hard times
Three local businesses, reinvigorated by two sets of owners, have emerged over the past couple of years: the Adirondack Store in Lake Placid by Christopher English and Stephen Dori Shin and Baxter Mountain Tavern and the Outpost Wine & Spirits by Dylan Cohen.
Neither path has been easy, made far harder by COVID-19. The secret sauce? Tenacity coupled with creativity, hard work and paying attention to each business’s core focus.
In common, English and Cohen spent summers in the Adirondacks during their youth, and all were seeking change in their lives.
Cohen had been working at Bloomberg Media for 17 years and found himself without a job as a result of a corporate restructuring. All told, he then had 25 years of working in business media spread between London and New York. But after a job interview, he realized that though the firm was eager to hire him, his heart wasn’t into it or the daily commutes from Jersey City.
“After five minutes, I knew I was done,” said Cohen. “So, I thought about what else I could do. We had a house up here, and I’d been coming up since I was a little kid. We have a family place at the Underwood Club, so I thought I’d look at businesses in the area.”
Cohen checked out over a dozen businesses for sale. While he had no experience as a chef or working in the restaurant business, he loved cooking for friends and family gatherings. Thus, taking over the Baxter Mountain Tavern caught his eye. In hindsight, he feels that he would have been wise to have drilled into all the aspects of running a restaurant before taking it on. On the plus side, he knew that critical would be retaining the chef and staff as they had good reputations and community connections.
“I thought it would be fun to run a restaurant,” said Cohen. “I had some ideas as I’ve eaten all over the world at lots of good places and throughout New York City. I talked with Davey (the owner) and felt of all the businesses we looked at, it was the most turnkey. They had a good, solid core staff. It had an established clientele. Plus Davey was accommodating with his insights, how he kept it going, what people liked. It was a good price, so it seemed like a good thing.”
As Cohen was in the process of closing on Baxter, the Outpost Wine & Spirits came up for sale. While it seemed crazy to take on two businesses at once, Cohen saw a synergy between owning a restaurant and a wine store. He closed on Baxter in December 2017 and spent the spring working on Outpost, which had lots of paperwork as part of the process because of liquor licenses. He closed this purchase in May 2018.
As there was no data trail on what Baxter menu items were least or most popular, Cohen decided to leave the menu unchanged. Instead, he concentrated on eliminating premix products such as dressings and sauces, shifting to making them by scratch, using as many local products as possible. As customer choices emerged, Cohen began dropping the least popular and adding more organic vegetarian dishes. Then he started introducing themed specialty menus, such as Chinese, Indian and Mediterranean.
His first two years of operation, income remained steady and then started to grow the second half of 2019. Through the winter, it was up 20%. Then COVID hit, and business dropped. Cohen quickly shifted to takeout, which he marketed through social media. While he didn’t equal his pre-COVID numbers, it enabled him to retain the staff, make payments and keep the business going. All the while, he took a crash course on learning everything he could about wines, focusing the Outpost product line on good, affordable wines and spirits.
Great news for Cohen was his younger daughter Harley taking a liking to baking (apple crisp especially) and helping out any way she could in the Baxter kitchen.
“It’s nice,” she said. “All the staff members are very close with each other. It’s like one big family. It’s also a great way to spend time with my dad.”
Before opening a Lake Placid business, Christopher English lived and worked in the antique trade in West Palm Beach, Florida, for 18 years with his partner Stephen Dori Shin. Having grown up summering in the Adirondacks, English always dreamed of having a business here.
“I said to Stephen we may not make a good living, but we’ll have a very good quality of life,” English said.
They started by buying the small log cabin from Greg Peacock, naming the business Antediluvian Antiques and Curiosities, a moniker designed to pique people’s interest, as it did. English realized the antique business was changing as increasingly items were being sold online or through auction houses, so he added interior design as part of their offerings, keeping an eye open for further diversification. Five years later, the Adirondack Store became available. English had been at a cocktail party that Jon Prime attended and learned that Prime and his mother Ruth had decided to sell. The next morning, English was at the real estate office making a bid.
“The Adirondack Store was an iconic business that had been around for 60 years or more,” said English. “Stephen said, ‘Are you sure we should do this?’ I said it’s our future. It’s an incredible business. We can make it sing with the types of things we do.”
A vision they had, money they didn’t. English and Shin put every dime they had on the line, borrowing more from friends to close the deal. Good news is that Jon Prime worked closely with them over the next year, sharing every contact and insight he and Ruth had or learned. Another was Mary Grady staying on who had been with the business for 40 years and knew every customer. Third was friends such as Lex Dashnaw, Doug March and George Pappastavrou, who helped them expand their web of connections.
“Taking on the Adirondack Store was an adventure, to say the least,” said English. “We are workaholics because we love what we do. We realized that the computers weren’t modern, the roof was shot and the building needed work.”
They knew that Lake Placid had a constant influx of visitors. From their long experience in retail, they knew if you have a good product that’s unique and good customer service, the chances are you’ll do well. They also knew that any business has to change, has to keep up with the times. Thus, they knew the needed to sell new and old, expand their interior design business, and ultimately open a branch in Tupper Lake and then a store in New Canaan, Connecticut.
“The first thing you have to understand is the area,” said Shin. “If you are lucky enough to come from here, you do. If you don’t, you have to understand what the North Country is, what the Adirondacks are, how much people love it, and why people come, live or visit here. You have to understand what they love and what they need and the history of the place. It’s important to talk to people and listen.”
“It was important to us not to change the store too much,” said English. “We see ourselves as stewards of this store. We’re basically building it, protecting it and hopefully growing for the next generation.”