When the Levitas family was mulling a new business venture, they made a savvy decision to keep it simple.
Instead of branching a new dessert store off from Plum Dandy, their Broadway yogurt and toppings shop that expanded to locations in Troy and Malta, they decided to jump on a niche market: cookies and milk. Their new Railroad Place store, Plum Dandy Cookies and Milk, limits its menu to this simple comfort food pairing in an effort to stand out from the slew of traditional eateries dotting the downtown landscape.
“When it came down to it, I didn’t just want to be a bakery that offered everything because you don’t stand out,” said Philip Levitas, who runs the Railroad Place business.
The unique concept has worked so far. Plum Dandy Cookies and Milk has been doing robust business since it first opened in 2013, drawing from a nostalgic pool of customers who enjoy the age-old simplicity of a fresh-baked from-scratch cookie with a glass of milk.
And while the niche is fairly small, so is the competition. Focusing almost solely on cookies and milk allows Levitas to stand apart from what little competition he does have on the market.
“Although it’s a single item, there’s a lot of potential,” he said of the retail cookie business. “We’re always kind of inventing things to do with cookies.”
The product is matched by an atmosphere that invites customers to stick around for a while. With tables that seat up to 40 and a milk bar featuring more than a dozen different flavors, the shop distinguishes itself from the mall-model of cookie stores from bygone years.
“What I wanted to try to do is make a modern cookie experience that taps into old memories,” he said.
Such is the case with niche market eateries around the Spa City. They aim to corner untapped markets and then develop a top-notch product that can’t easily be duplicated by businesses lacking such a pinpoint focus.
Christel and Colin MacLean opened Saratoga Juice Bar in 2013 with the aim of capturing a niche market left untouched in the Capital Region: Cold-pressed juice. The process involves using a hydraulic press to squeeze every last drop of liquid out of up to 5 pounds of produce.
Because the presses don’t heat the juices through friction, the resulting beverage is extremely high in nutrients, explained Colin MacLean. Instead of powering through a stomach-filling pile of vegetables and fruit, customers can get a power-punch of nutrients in one 16-ounce bottle or cup.
“You’re basically getting all the benefits immediately into your system,” he said. “It’s instantaneous.”
But while the cold-pressed juice craze has swept through Manhattan, it’s still relatively new to upstate. The MacLeans — savvy restauranteurs who have owned four successful eateries around the city — saw the downstate trend and decided to bring it to Saratoga Springs when a retail space opened several doors down from their two restaurants on Broadway.
“People tend to think of a juice bar as something that’s been around for while,” he said. “But this type of juice bar is the fastest growing nonalcoholic segment in the beverage market.”
Saratoga Juice Bar sells roughly 100 bottles of its product per day and has been growing its clientele exponentially as word spreads. MacLean said many customers come almost religiously, sometimes buying up to 10 bottles at a time.
“People are adamant,” he said. “We have so many regulars that come in every day of the week.”
Not all of the Spa City’s niche eateries are new. Some, like Ravenous on Phila Street, have been doing a successful business for years.
Opened in 1999 by mother-and-son Tina Laino and Francesco D’Amico, the eatery is the only area restaurant dedicated almost solely to crepes. Dave Zuka and Julie Raymond purchased the business last year because they saw the value of occupying the unique spot among downtown’s restaurants.
“We saw the value of the niche,” he said.
For Zuka, a man with more that three decades in the hospitality industry, the crepe represents versatility. He can produce sweet or savory crepes, filling them with ingredients that reflect cuisine from around the globe.
“That’s the main pivot point that allows us to stay fresh with [culinary] trends,” he said.
Ravenous also prides itself on its hand-cut pomme frites — more commonly known as french fries. A favorite among customers, the frites give Zuka a one-two punch that isn’t easily matched around the city.
“This restaurant is very unique and one-of-a-kind,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it.”
GAZETTE COVERAGEEnsure access to everything we do, today and every day, check out our subscribe page at DailyGazette.com/Subscribe
More from The Daily Gazette: