Albany Times Union

Upstate not always greener

NYC hospitalit­y groups find experience of moving north has unexpected challenges

- By Caitlin Raux Gunther

The pandemic accelerate­d a trend of new residents moving to upstate New York, but city residents are not the only ones seeking more space and cheaper rents. In recent years, a growing number of downstate restaurant and hospitalit­y groups have set up shop in rural towns across the Hudson Valley and Catskills to provide goods and services to a growing market and satisfy the cravings of changing demographi­cs.

It may seem like a prime time to launch an upstate business venture, but newer proprietor­s have found the experience is not without challenges.

“There is a perception that when people come from the city, everything is going to be easier and cheaper,” said Henry Rich, 42, co-owner of Accord Market and CEO of The Oberon Group, a New York City-based hospitalit­y business. “But it’s not.”

All roads lead north

In 2021, Rich opened Accord Market in eastern Ulster County with co-owners Emily Haas- Godsil and Ryan Mcree. Of their decision to roll out a 3,000-squarefoot grocery store in a tiny hamlet (population: 555 as of 2020), Rich said one of the goals was to breathe new life into downtown.

“It felt wrong that Main Street had only a couple of businesses,” he said. “Community leaders had been trying to figure out how to revitalize Accord. They were just looking for someone to do it. I open community-based projects, so this felt like a good fit.”

Others come to the Hudson Valley in search of the same quality-of-life factors their target clientele enjoy. Natalie Freihon, 43, founder of Strange Bird Hospitalit­y, a New York City restaurant group that includes Nat’s on Bank, Nat’s on

Bleecker and The Orchard Townhouse, will soon open her first upstate outpost: Nat’s Mountain House in Tannersvil­le.

“I felt fulfilled in my businesses in the city and wanted a reason to spend more time in nature,” Freihon said. “I also fell in love with the fact that (Tannersvil­le) wasn’t as bougie as some of the other towns like Hudson.”

Younger generation­s are also capitalizi­ng on vacancies left by boomers leaving the hospitalit­y industry, as key aspects like marketing become increasing­ly digital.

Noah Bernamoff, 40, has had a hand in many beloved New York City eateries and watering holes, among them Blackseed Bagels, Pebble Bar and Grand Army in Brooklyn.

“I’m a geriatric millennial — I didn’t even have a laptop (during college) — but imagine being our parents’ generation, struggling to use a cellphone,” Bernamoff said. “Not just in the Hudson Valley or New York City, but all over the country,

aging operators want to get out.”

That was the case with Swiss Hutte, a homey inn in Hillsdale. When the longtime proprietor­s put the property up for sale in 2020, Bernamoff and his partners jumped at the opportunit­y. After substantia­l renovation­s, they opened Little Cat Lodge — a country-modern hotel, tavern and restaurant — at the end of 2022.

The challenges of rural entreprene­urship

While relatively lower rents and property costs may seem attractive for upstate hospitalit­y ventures, many entreprene­urs have found the experience to be challengin­g — and in some cases, perhaps more challengin­g than opening downstate.

“The pressures of business are the same no matter where you are,” Bernamoff said. “I don’t think the margins are really any better upstate. There is a belief that things should be cheaper and the reality is that they’re not.”

For Bernamoff, the trick is managing customer expectatio­ns, which includes the notion that things are less expensive for upstate business owners.

“I’m not choosing to charge more money out of the blue,” he said. “I’m not doing this to squeeze more juice out of the orange. I’m doing it because I need to squeeze some juice out of the orange.”

Then there’s the issue of red tape.

“If anything, it’s more difficult to start something upstate,” Rich said. “Just from a planning and zoning perspectiv­e, it’s a lot more work and you need to know what you’re doing.”

The local control municipali­ties wield in deciding what gets built provides another layer of complicati­on, he said. “That’s probably for the better of these communitie­s in the long run because they have a lot of input in what does and doesn’t open.”

The logistical realities of rural property ownership can also prove to be a novel type of headache.

“I think the biggest challenge during the build-out is getting used to managing the entire property without being in a big building,” Freihon said. “Dealing with our own trash, septic systems, propane, plowing — that’s all very new to me.”

A community focus

As any homegrown upstater will note, there is often a disconnect between newer businesses and the long-standing community. There’s a suspicion that new developmen­t too often caters to recent arrivals and overlooks the wants and needs of people who have been there forever — like building a zoo inside a forest and only tending to the caged animals.

But one thing Accord Market, Little Cat Lodge and the forthcomin­g Nat’s Mountain House all proclaim to share is a genuine commitment to serving the community.

“Opening a grocery store in Accord, where there used to be three grocery stores and then there were none — well, there were none for a reason,” Rich said. “We knew we were swimming against the current. You have to be of actual value to the community.”

For Accord Market, that meant meeting residents’ everyday needs, from toilet paper and extension cords to eggs and extra virgin olive oil, as well as supporting causes locals care about.

“We do a lot of pop-ups and support different local projects,” Rich said. “People from the area have gotten involved in various charitable causes, whether it’s a coat drive, or sending supplies to Ukraine, or supporting Little League teams. I think people see we’re trying. We’re not from the area, so we have to try harder — but that’s OK.”

When it comes to filling shelves, Accord Market relies on regional suppliers as much as possible. Haas- Godsil said the store works with more than 100 local makers, and also tries to “prioritize local farmers — whether it’s produce, dairy, meat, a lot of it comes from Ulster County and New York at large.”

“The business wouldn’t be sustainabl­e without the support of the community,” she said “It’s the mutual dependence that gets us through.”

At Nat’s Mountain House, in addition to offering special prices for locals and sourcing products from the region, Freihon plans to offer year-round programmin­g.

“A large part of what we do will be community-based events,” Freihon said. “We want to be a home-away-from-home when you need to get out for a few hours.”

 ?? Provided by The Oberon Group ?? Accord Market, which The Oberon Group opened in 2021, is the Ulster County hamlet’s only grocery store.
Provided by The Oberon Group Accord Market, which The Oberon Group opened in 2021, is the Ulster County hamlet’s only grocery store.
 ?? Stephen Schoenfeld / Stonehouse Properties ?? Noah Bernamoff and his business partner, Matt Kliegman, purchased the Swiss Hutte in 2020 from Cindy and Gert Alper, who operated the restaurant and inn for 35 years.
Stephen Schoenfeld / Stonehouse Properties Noah Bernamoff and his business partner, Matt Kliegman, purchased the Swiss Hutte in 2020 from Cindy and Gert Alper, who operated the restaurant and inn for 35 years.

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