Lori Selden and Mark Young have more than 26,000 square feet to fill, so they’ve gotten creative.
The owners of Mexican Radio have long dreamed of opening a Schenectady location of their popular restaurants in Hudson and New York City, and they always hoped to do so in the old Imperial building in the heart of downtown at 325 State St. Last fall, they made it official.
The thing is, it’s a big building for a restaurant.
When Mexican Radio started 18 years ago, it opened in a cramped, 600-square-foot New York City shoebox. The Imperial, though, is a three-story, brick monolith occupying half a city block. It’s technically three buildings and has had few renovations since it went up in 1910 as an upscale department store.
“This is a complete and total gut job,” said Selden. “Asbestos removal, tearing walls and floors out, stripping it to the bare bones. We’re working on framing and laying wires and pipes and things like that right now.”
Beginning at 6 a.m. Tuesday, a block of Broadway from State to Franklin streets will close to all vehicle and pedestrian traffic to allow a large crane to set up and remove old heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment from the roof of the building.
Traffic officials and city police will be on hand directing traffic, which will be allowed to travel north on Broadway from Franklin to Liberty, which is normally southbound-only. The street will reopen and traffic will return to normal at 2 p.m.
There is a lot of complex and daunting work left to do — like putting in new floors and walls, a balcony bar, a brand new facade and an outdoor patio, to name a few — but Selden said she and Young are expecting to open Mexican Radio by New Year’s Eve.
“Space is not a problem here,” she said. “We’ve been doing this for almost 20 years now, and this is certainly an enormous undertaking. So we’re going to ease into it.”
Already, she has a layout in mind that makes creative use of the building’s interior, which features a grand staircase in the center. To start, the second-floor ceiling/third-floor floor has been taken down in two-thirds of the building so diners can have a “gorgeous view of high ceilings and massive old trusses,” said Selden.
The remaining enclosed third-floor space will be leased out as office space.
On the first floor will be kitchen and dining space. On the second floor will be dining space, a bar with televisions and a private banquet room. A piece of land adjacent to the building by the railroad tracks may be transformed into an outdoor patio.
“The brick on that side of the building has been damaged, but you can see these old ghost ads still,” she said.
A 1997 fire ravaged two adjacent buildings, including the popular Baum’s Newsroom. They were eventually razed, leaving a “gaping hole in the street wall in an awkward location,” said Schenectady Heritage Foundation Chairwoman Gloria Kishton. Firefighters drenched the fire before it spread to the Imperial building, which at that point was being used by Capital District OTB.
But the side of 325 State St. closest to the tracks was left with severe water damage. Some of that damage remains to this day, prompting many to tell the Mexican Radio owners they would be better off demolishing part of the building.
“It was more expensive to save it than to demo it, but we decided to keep it,” said Selden. “We’re very into renovation, and we love history. We love the history of the Imperial building, and there are some beautiful aspects to it. We wanted to salvage as much of the real structure as possible.”
When all is said and done, it should be able to seat 200 people easily.
Selden said they don’t want to overextend themselves right out of the gate, though, adding that they will need time to learn the rhythms of downtown Schenectady.
“We want to see what we can handle,” she said. “Especially when Proctors does a show, I don’t want 300 people all saying I need to be out of here in 45 minutes.”
The Capital Region has anxiously awaited the arrival of Mexican Radio for years now, since the first speculation in 2010 that it might come to Schenectady.
“Our whole team has kept a relationship going with Mark and Lori for almost three years,” Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said at an October 2012 board meeting. “There are a ton of people from the Capital Region who make the pilgrimage to Hudson to dine there. They have a huge fan base. In Hudson, their average customer drives 30 minutes or more to get to the restaurant. They come with a built-in customer base who will follow them to this location.”
The Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority has provided $200,000 for preliminary renovation work at the building. Selden and Young are investing $3 million into the building.
They expect to hire upward of 35 employees to start. If any local residents are interested, they may need to commute to Hudson for a short time to begin training, said Selden.
Until the year-end opening, Selden is working on getting to know the local farmers and food scene, since she and Young plan to make use of the Schenectady Greenmarket to bring local food into their restaurant.
“It’s been really phenomenal just how supportive everyone has been,” she said.
“We have people coming into our restaurant in Hudson and even New York City asking, ‘When is Schenectady happening?’ We’ve been working on this for four years, so we’re very excited.”