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Entrepreneurial flurry on Schenectady's lower Union Street

Entrepreneurial flurry on Schenectady's lower Union Street

Three adjacent buildings will hold two restaurants and Schenectady-themed artisan/grocery shop
Entrepreneurial flurry on Schenectady's lower Union Street
From left, Rick Greminger, Doug Davis and Caroline Bardwell. Each is opening a new business on Union Street in Schenectady.
Photographer: Peter Barber

SCHENECTADY — Three entrepreneurs are filling three adjacent storefronts on Union Street with two restaurants and a Schenectady-themed retail shop.

Longtime area chef Doug Davis is doing a gut renovation and expansion of neighborhood favorite Manhattan Exchange at 607 Union St.

Artist Caroline Bardwell is moving her Schenectady Trading Company out of the Clinton Street Mercantile into a full-size space of her own at 609 Union.

Rick Greminger is embarking on a second career with his new restaurant, which he named 611 Union.

Greminger had soft opening with limited offerings in April and began full operations at the end of May. Bardwell is aiming for late September. Davis, who must undertake the most ambitious overhaul of the three, is hoping to be ready to open by mid-October.

BACK TO THE KITCHEN

Greminger is a longtime Niskayuna resident and long-ago restaurant employee, having worked at eateries in high school and college. Right out of college, he was hired as a regional troubleshooter for the TGI Fridays chain.

“It was a great education, because all I did was sit there and fix restaurants,” he said. “I got out of the restaurant business because I wanted a family — it’s just not conducive.”

Over the years, he ran small businesses and did some consulting work. Then a friend who owns 611 Union St. reached out to Greminger when Rare Craft Steak and Cocktail House closed and suggested he open his own restaurant in its place, then asked again after Greminger declined.

Now in his mid-50s, with his youngest child nearly done with his college studies, Greminger decided to take his shot.

“I wasn’t looking for [the opportunity] but it came to me. I finally said yes, because my two big loves are music and food, so I did both.”

The second floor at 611 Union includes a stage for live music, and it contributes to the atmosphere Greminger is shaping: A friendly, comfortable place with a good but not intimidating or expensive menu and wine/beer list.

The large words above the entrance sum it up: "Good food, close friends, great times."

Greminger said he’s looking for the sweet spot between bar food and fine dining — “a little bit of everything for everybody.”

It’s not a huge menu — offering everything to everybody incurs a high cost for ingredients and prep, the two most expensive parts of running a restaurant, and makes it harder to keep ingredients fresh.

Meats, pastas and thin-crust pizza fired in the stone oven have prominent places on the menu, with gluten-free and vegan options available. The audience favorite so far: “Everybody loves the avocado egg rolls,” Greminger said.

He said it was exciting to get new neighbors so soon after opening.

“That’s really what I want. That’s why I welcome anyone opening up here — I want people to be able to say, Hey, “let’s go over to Union, restaurant row, that couple of blocks of choices.”

Within a four-block stretch of Union Street, there are five other eateries, not counting the temporarily shuttered Manhattan Exchange. Five more are sprinkled on side streets a short distance north or south of Union Street.

Greminger said his neighbor up the block — Malcolm’s, with its farm-to-table fine dining — is doing something entirely different from him and the two are a good example of the variety of choices that exist on Union Street.

“I know he’s sent people over to me, and I’ve sent people over to him.”

JUMP INTO RETAIL

Bardwell, a Schenectady resident since age 5, rediscovered her love for photography and began to write poetry after years working as a geologist.

“There were some really interesting things happening in Schenectady that I got plugged into at the same time,” she recalled, “and hatched this idea for my own store.”

That store is Schenectady Trading Company, which currently occupies a corner of Clinton Street Mercantile, a collective space off State Street that serves as an incubator for artisans looking to move into commerce.

Bardwell began with items such as magnets that feature her own photographs and has expanded to carry other people’s work. In the much-larger space she’ll move into on Union Street, she plans to expand further into a hybrid souvenir shop-general store focused exclusively on Schenectady and the immediately surrounding towns.

There are places that sell Schenectady goods, she said, but none that focus exclusively on the city.

“Placemaking — that’s a trendy word now, but for good reason,” Bardwell said. “We’re a disconnected society or a global society, and we’ve kind of lost that sense of place. You can tell people are looking for it, they can sense it’s gone.”

One of her favorite things is the Schenectady Greenmarket, in part because it’s rooted in a sense of place. But it's an event, rather than a place.

The business plan for Schenectady Trading Company has evolved and grown since Bardwell came up with it, and now includes fresh food from local growers and producers, coffee from Electric City Roasters, cold drinks from Adirondack Beverages, books and CDs from local artists, readings and acoustic performances, along with the Schenectady-themed items and “traditional touristy” merchandise.

The porch and fenced front yard at 609 Union St. will lend themselves to performances, exhibits and just relaxing.

Inside, the century-old building is loaded with architectural details.

“I love the building,” Bardwell said. “I think it’s absolutely perfect for what I’m trying to do. It beautiful when you walk in, a lovely place.”

She also likes the location: “I have the people who [already] are there and then I have the people that are coming to the restaurants. When they’re in full swing, that’s a great block to be part of.” And the two new neighbors on either side: "I guess what I like is we are all local. I find a lot of pride in that."

LOCAL FAVORITE

Davis is just 30 years old but has been working in restaurants for 15 years — most recently the City Squire off Upper Union Street, previously at various Mazzone and Mallozzi properties in and around his native Schenectady. Manhattan Exchange will be the first restaurant of his own.

The restaurant was opened in 1983 by Angelo Mazzone and most recently owned by Deb LaMalfa, who retired in May after 16 years running it and 24 years working there. 

Manhattan Exchange developed a following over the decades and Davis plans to stick with what works. His changes are designed to create a brighter, more open space. He’ll bump out the walls on the first and second floors, expand the patio on the Union Street side and add LED lighting.

“This building, the exterior, will not change at all,” he said. “Once you get inside, it will be a completely different feel.”

He’ll design his own menu, but it will look familiar.

“We’re definitely keeping the roots, the same feel. It’s the local downtown bar.”

He added: “We’re going to keep the same pub fare concept. This place was built on simple food — burgers, sandwiches. Everybody I tell I bought it, they go, ‘You keeping Burger Night?’ I’m like, ‘Burger Night will be here, don’t worry.’”

There will be one notable addition to the kitchen — a pizza oven. The classic summer combination of pizza, beer and an outdoor patio will be featured, but not until next summer.

Of the three new neighbors, Davis has had perhaps the longest journey with his project. He rejected other locations during his search for his own restaurant, then went through city review and approvals for the changes he wanted to make to 607 Union St., which is part of the Union Street Corridor Historic District. The actual work will take even longer.

There have been the usual challenges with old buildings, such as wiring in unexpected places, but some nice surprises, too.

“We found this cool brick wall,” Davis said, pointing to a doorway that had been buried beneath plaster. “It was the old entrance to an apartment.”

They’ve got the old arched Manhattan Exchange sign set aside for reinstallation when the work is done.

“We’re just bringing life back to a staple of this city,” Davis said. “It’s been around forever for a reason.”

Davis, now a Niskayuna resident, is gaining help from his brother, also a chef; his in-laws; and his wife, Elizabeth, who’ll be joining the operation later. The couple has toddler and newborn sons.

Bardwell is receiving assistance from the Community Loan Fund and Small Business Development Center. None of the three is gaining financial help from the Schenectady County Metroplex Development Authority. 

In fact, Davis is paying Metroplex $300 for an easement and $2,035 for a tiny sliver of the adjacent parking lot, which Metroplex owns.

Metroplex Chairman Ray Gillen said it’s a rare coincidence to have the three adjacent businesses open in rapid succession: “It’s great to see three businesses open up on lower Union Street, adding to the strong momentum that we’re seeing all over downtown.”

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