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Restaurateurs ponder future of Schenectady dining scene

Restaurateurs ponder future of Schenectady dining scene

City's downtown is on the map, but is more growth possible?
Restaurateurs ponder future of Schenectady dining scene
Aneesa Waheed of Tara Kitchen on Liberty Street in Schenectady is shown Friday.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

Foodies agree: Schenectady is now on the map as a dining destination.

"It’s very eclectic,” said Tim Walton, a food blogger and self-described online influencer. “You can get just about everything.”

Local restaurateurs have marveled at the growth of new restaurants and other development in the past decade. 

Tara Kitchen co-owner Aneesa Waheed likened the city to a food desert when she opened her Moroccan restaurant in 2012. 

“It’s explosive, and Schenectady is now known as a food destination,” Waheed said. 

While data tracking growth is scant, some metrics are available. 

Downtown Schenectady Improvement Corporation’s (DSIC) first major visitor guide in 2012 listed 48 locations under its Dining & Nightlife section, a number that increased to 58 this year — not including long-established or newer locations in Little Italy or on Erie Boulevard, North Jay Street, Eastern Avenue and at other locations.

“It’s like a night and day,” said Jim Salengo, DSIC’s executive director. “It’s extremely diverse, from the price point and style to types of cuisines, and that’s something that makes Schenectady a real contender on the dining scene.”

But how is the city’s downtown restaurant landscape faring overall?

Interviews with more than a dozen business owners revealed that while everyone saw potential, there’s no consensus on how many restaurants are too many, the best way to attract more diners to downtown and how to address future challenges. 

SATURATED MARKET?

Are there too many restaurants in Schenectady and is the growth sustainable?

It depends on whom you ask. 

“There are too many restaurants for a city of 66,000 people,” said Marc Renson, owner of Ambition Coffee & Eatery on Jay Street. 

Nico’s Pizzeria manager Ryan Cardin agreed. 

“It’s just a saturated market,” he said. “There’s too many restaurants and not enough [customers] to go around.”

Nico’s has been a downtown mainstay for 25 years and has largely been insulated from industry trends, Cardin said, because they cater to a working-class crowd with affordable lunch deals.

“It’s lunchtime for dinner [tradeoff], pretty much, and we make money doing it,” Cardin said. 

Walton,the local food blogger, agreed that saturation may be looming. 

“I think we need to look out for overpopulation of eateries,” he said.

Mexican Radio co-owner Mark Young dismissed the notion as “absurd.” 

“If you become a dining destination, people can come and decide where they want to eat,” he said. 

Others said they’re not seeing any changes despite the mushrooming of new options.

"Even with additional restaurants opening up, we’re not seeing any slowdown in numbers, so we’re feeling fortunate,” said Bobby Mallozzi, owner of Johnny’s, the downtown American-Italian mainstay. 

The Whistling Kettle is downtown’s latest addition. The tea shop and cafe moved into a long-vacant storefront on the Jay Street pedestrian walkway in mid-July, marking their third location after Troy and Ballston Spa. 

Business is keeping up with their predictions, said co-owner Kevin Borowsky, who expects to be “fully optimized” once granted a state liquor license. 

Whether or not a market has reached a saturation point is complex, he said. 

“A certain genre can be saturated, but another may not be,” Borowsky said. “We kind of consider ourselves a destination. We have our own little niche, and we felt like it was a good opportunity for growth with everything that’s going on in Schenectady.”

Waheed, the Tara Kitchen co-owner, said she is a big supporter of the city’s economic development strategy, and is positive and confident about the city’s future. She's concerned, however, that there's simply not enough data available to interpret the trends shaping the downtown restaurant industry.

“I’m curious to know how big investments are impacting downtown businesses,” Waheed said. “How will the new growth and the new businesses at Mohawk Harbor and Rivers Casino impact downtown?”

Tara Kitchen has been a success story. Buoyed by several high-profile television appearances — including on the Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” in March — the Liberty Street eatery has seen 15 percent growth this year, which Waheed called “phenomenal.”

But she added that data would be useful so that business owners could analyze, strategize and plan, which is critical for a city that has fought back after being on the ropes for so long, she said, and is now emerging. 

“I think as a community, we should do that,” Waheed said.

Salengo acknowledged that DSIC doesn’t have a wide data-collection operation, but does gather metrics during large-scale events such as Schenectady Restaurant Week.

“It’s more anecdotal,” he said. “We talk to restaurants on a regular basis.”

Young, the Mexican Radio co-owner, said the restaurant industry has an inherent set of challenges, including labor issues.

Young and his team know all too well about those challenges. He cited an ongoing immigration crackdown, in part, for reasons behind the shuttering of Mexican Radio's Hudson operation in August, leaving Schenectady as the sole remaining location. 

“The nature of the business is tough,” said Young. “It’s sort of feast or famine.” 

David Brough, dean of the School of Hotel, Culinary Arts and Tourism at SUNY Schenectady County Community College, pointed at local tea leaves that portend promise: Mexican Radio kept the Schenectady location when downsizing, he said, and the former Apertivo’s space was quickly snapped up by the team behind Armondo's Villa Tuscan Grill in Rotterdam, and reopened as Grano. 

“For both of them to invest in Schenectady says a lot about what’s going on in Schenectady,” Brough said. 

And the growth, he added, has been good for his students, who have work-experience requirements tied to their graduation.

“We look at is as a great opportunity for our students,” Brough said. 

APARTMENT OPTIMISM

With major Mohawk Harbor projects in the rearview, restaurateurs agree that driving more people downtown is the secret sauce to boosting the number of diners. 

And while all credited Proctors for providing a supersize dose of firepower — an accelerant that went into overdrive after the theater began offering Broadway shows in 2006, Walton noted — they differ on exact strategies.

Renson believes a grocery store and more retail are needed. 

“It’s not a livable downtown,” he said. 

Mitch Ramsey, owner of the Jay Street Pub, didn’t think retail would move the needle on driving visitation unless a major anchor opened shop.

“Retail is dead,” Ramsey said. “We need a concert venue — a Schenectady Performing Arts Center.”

Beyond Proctors, there are few reasons for outsiders to spend time downtown, Young said.

But DSIC events, including the Soup Stroll and last weekend’s Wing Walk, are critical in generating traffic, he said. 

Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority’s downtown strategy has been to attract arts, entertainment and tech to downtown, said Chairman Ray Gillen.

The authority played a major role with Proctors and Bow Tie Cinemas, and in recruiting employers like Golub and Transfinder, as well as the Mohawk Harbor project, which Gillen said creates positive energy and regular downtown visitation. 

The next step is building out residential and mixed-use developments.

Nine-hundred new apartment units have recently gone online downtown, according to the authority — not including 74 units at the Mill Artisan District project. 

Restaurateurs said the influx is a game-changer. 

“The more people who live downtown the better,” Young said. “Not a lot of people live down here, but that’s changing slightly.”

Jim Pettit, co-owner of Daley's on Yates, said Schenectady is well ahead of cities like Albany when it comes to developing downtown housing stock. 

"The housing is unbelievable, and that's what's going to generate dollars for restaurants,” Pettit said. "Where there are more, you do better.”

Business has been steady since they renovated a former taxicab garage and launched the contemporary restaurant in June of 2018, Pettit said. But as a hedge against an inherently unpredictable industry, they’re operating on a compressed schedule of four days per week. 

"We could struggle if we were open seven days per week,” said co-owner Steph Pettit. 

Restaurateurs interviewed for this story who were open before Rivers Casino & Resort and Mohawk Harbor launched said the new complex had few, if any, impacts on their businesses.

“It’s self-contained, so there’s no reason for people to stray,” Young said. 

Overall, the developments have been positive, Jim Pettit said, because they’ve generated increased buzz around the city largely by creating a sense of optimism for investment opportunities — driving up property values in the process. 

"All the markers are there for success,” Pettit said. “You've got to tap into it.”

Mallozzi said the growth is a good problem to have, but acknowledged that downtown parking will pose a mounting challenge. 

"They're doing a great job addressing those challenges and they're going to continue to do a good job,” Mallozzi said.

CONCENTRATED STRATEGY

Several old-school survivors — those holding down the fort in times when, officials like to joke, it was unnecessary to look both ways before crossing the street — are critical of the city’s economic development strategy.

Renson, the Ambition owner, opened in 2000, well before the resurgence. 

While he acknowledged that downtown looks “fantastic” and welcomed the attention, he disagreed with Metroplex reallocating tax dollars to offer financial incentives to businesses that ultimately become his direct competitors. 

“I’m out competing against myself,” Renson said. “That’s my big disadvantage.”

And when tax credits run out, businesses may leave, he said.

Ron Suriano II, owner of Moisture Salon on Barrett Street, cited flops like Quirky, a tech startup that received nearly $1 million in subsidies but ran out of money within a year of their much-feted opening at a prominent downtown office building. 

Suriano wondered if Metroplex does enough to help existing small businesses. 

“They’re not sustaining the people already here,” Suriano said. 

Gillen said that in the case of Quirky, the agency’s $300,000 in grant funds did not go toward the company, but rather toward renovating a vacant space.

“None of the funding went to the company,” he said. “It went to the space.”

Metroplex also previously provided $200,000 for preliminary renovation work at Mexican Radio’s State Street space. 

And, he said, while Metroplex “primed the pump” early on for small grants and loans for restaurants, the authority no longer offers incentives to food and beverage industry upstarts.

“We don’t incentivize restaurants,” Gillen said. 

All downtown business owners, however, are eligible for facade grants, including Whistling Kettle, which received a standard 50 percent matching grant for its long-neglected storefront.

“We look at every facade on a case-by-case basis,” Gillen said.

Several new business owners hailed the city for running a streamlined operation for permitting.

"There was never any pushback,” said Steph Pettit, describing the run-up to launching Daley's on Yates.

Ramsey, the Jay Street Pub owner, said the current wave of development is unlike anything he’s seen. 

“I think anything [Metroplex] does is for the betterment of Schenectady,” Ramsey said. “Schenectady wouldn’t be what it is without cooperation between them, the city and ultimately, the mayor.”

Ramsey welcomed the city’s business-friendly environment, which includes assistance from City Hall. 

“Schenectady is just getting started,” Ramsey said. “Although there’s some turnover in downtown Schenectady, that shouldn’t scare people away from investing.

“If you’re not here yet, what are you waiting for?”

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