SCHENECTADY — The Upper Union Street shopping district has been adding new merchants in a period of great challenge for storefront retailers.
A grand opening Thursday marked the arrival of the newest, a home furnishings store with an embedded coffee bar, but since May, a fish fry, hairdresser and smoothie/shake shop also have opened their doors.
A sushi restaurant has moved within the district and opened in new quarters last month, while a Korean-Cajun restaurant is nearing completion.
There is always some churn and some closures in the compact shopping strip, but it remains one of the busier storefront retail districts in the region, and one of the more diverse, with everything from hemp extracts (Upstate CBD) to overstuffed sandwiches (Gershon’s Deli), from engagement rings (Sondra’s Fine Jewelry) to wedding gowns (Ferri Formals and Bridals).
“You go up the street and there are some vacancies but they really don’t last long,” said Chris DiCocco, a local accountant and board chair of the Upper Union Street Business Improvement District.
Vacant storefronts continue to draw interest from potential merchants, he said, and the district continues to draw interest from shoppers.
“It’s a distinctive part of the community and we’re proud of it,” DiCocco said, adding that the familiar small businesses can be a welcome presence amid a crisis that keeps people apart.
Some of the departures are keenly felt — the Phillips Hardware store was a significant asset for the shopping district, he said — but in some cases, the merchants who replace them bring something entirely new to Upper Union Street.
New since the pandemic hit: Off The Hook Fish Fry (May), Fur Hairdressing (June), Sunny Nutrition (August) and b.Inspired/Storied Coffee (November). Mr. Wasabi relocated to the former hardware store in November and Union Bonchon Chicken & Cajun Seafood is still finishing renovations of its new space.
Molly Tremante, owner of Fur Hairdressing, signed the lease for her space at 1703 Union St. on March 1, which will be recalled as possibly the last normal day of this year in New York — the first known case of COVID in the state was confirmed March 1.
“I didn’t know, obviously, the severity of what was to come,” she said.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down hair salons and other non-essential businesses less than three weeks later, Tremante briefly thought about abandoning the project. But she’d already begun renovations, and decided to stick it out.
Fur couldn’t open its doors until June 29. In the interim she finished the overhaul of the space and connected with other people in the industry locally so that when they could open, available space already was rented to other hair stylists with a client base, and they wouldn’t need to rely on walk-ins when they did open.
About the name: It plays to the creative and inclusive atmosphere Tremante wants the studio to have. Potential clients might be unsure whether to bring themselves or their pets, however. “Fur has been confused for a groomer, which I’m not upset about,” she said.
After 20 years renting chairs at salons in Glenville and Troy, and two years looking in downtown Schenectady and Troy for the right space for her own salon, she liked Upper Union Street.
“It seems like it had a very tight-knit community of merchants and I love that,” she said. “Everybody kind of looks out for each other.”
Chris Deitz opened Sunnys Nutrition in August. He has long been involved in organized athletics but had never had time to research the options for going into a business centered on the nutrition he wanted as an athlete.
As a construction worker, he got that time this spring, when many construction projects were halted.
The result: His new shake shop.
Food establishments face a large array of regulations in the best of times, and a longer list during this public health crisis.
“It’s not easy,” Deitz said. During the planning process, “you overlook those kind of things going into it.”
The extra cleaning isn’t a burden, he said; he and his wife are both fastidious.
But business is just OK.
“Hopefully everything gets back to normal soon,” Deitz said. “When everything opens back up, maybe more people will be comfortable walking in.”
The lifelong Schenectady resident had liked the retail district long before he entered the business world in a storefront at 1625 Union St.
“I’m definitely glad we did it.”
B.INSPIRED & STORIED COFFEE
Anne Brenner’s new b.Inspired home furnishings/lifestyle store at 1671 Union St. and Rich and Christine Sarnacki’s Storied Coffee bar at the back are second ventures for both — a relocation out of Scotia for Brenner and an expansion to a second location in addition to Scotia for the Sarnackis.
Christine Sarnacki said it took Storied a few months to recover from the COVID shutdown in spring, but by summer, they were ready to think about expansion.
Upper Union, she said, was the perfect location.
Brenner recalled that after she had to shut down in March, she stayed home feeling sorry for herself, and baking, and watching TV. When she couldn’t bear to watch any more, she set about deciding how to move forward. One answer: advertising and selling her wares online, then putting them on the curb for pickup.
“I hate that word ‘pivot’ now,” she said. “But for those of us that did it, I felt there was a ray of sunshine in a very dark time.”
As the pandemic eased, she began to think of her next step, which would be a move across the river to a bigger space.
“For me, I guess sometimes you just have to have hope,” Brenner said. “Not only for yourself but for others, to give others a sense that a better day is coming.”
It wasn’t entirely a leap of faith, she said: Neither she nor the Sarnickis were starting from scratch — they both had experience running their shops and their shops both had name recognition.
Brenner opened the doors to her new location Nov. 11, a month before the official grand opening.
“It was crazy the amount of people coming in just with the soft opening,” she said.
After two decades living in Seattle, the concept of a coffee bar embedded in a non-food retailer is very familiar to Brenner, and she thinks it will be a good fit on Upper Union Street — especially when the restrictions ease, after the pandemic, and Sarnicki can expand the seating.
Look for some changes in the layout at b.Inspired and Storied Coffee next spring or summer.
“It’ll be a different day, I hope,” Brenner said.