by Jay Blotcher
Sure, you could spend your paycheck in the malls that mar the Hudson Valley countryside and enjoy the bargains. But those bargains come at a high price. The sucking sound you hear are your dollars going out of this area, away from local improvements and into the pockets of the chain stores. Happily, there are options that keep much-needed capital in your own neighborhood. Local business people offer a wide array of locally created products and services. While they can’t compete with the slashed prices at the malls, they can offer more personalized service and higher-quality items.
This issue, VISITvortex magazine initiates a new series of local and regional business profiles. This helps readers to select more wisely the next time they go shopping. It’s actually very simple logic in a downturn economy: When you support local businesses, you are helping your neighbor and helping your community. And that means helping yourself.
Whether your taste buds lean toward traditional snacking or adventurous savoring, a visit to The Cheese Barrel in Margaretville will be a memorable experience.
The brimming shelves offer a foodie paradise: brandied cherries sit next to marzipan fruits next to spiced apple chai tea. Shitake mushrooms share space with oysters, Russian caviar and calamari. Giant lollipops, organic coffee beans, premium marmalades and vegetable juices are in one corner; gourmet prepared soups, handmade pastas, pickled olives and specialty oils reside in another.
And if the sensory overload is simply too much, soothe yourself with one of the many hand-scooped ice creams available.
Owner Sue Ihlo arrived in Margaretville 29 years ago, her job history including working for friends as a bartender, counter help at a deli, and as a snack bar worker at a bingo hall back in Queens, New York. “You can say I just like working with public,” she said.
This small rural town in the Catskills was light years away from Queens, but Ihlo was intrigued. She knew she wanted to start her own business, but wasn’t sure what it would be. The decision was made for her. The owner of The Cheese Barrel, in business for nine years, was ready to sell.
Ihlo, who has a knack for operating on instinct, jumped in with both feet.
There were some caveats to consider before reopening the doors: The Cheese Barrel’s business had suffered in recent months, with traffic dipping even after moving to a new location. But Ihlo was not deterred. “I knew there was more to become of this store.”
As soon as the emporium traded hands in October 1989, the new owner began augmenting store inventory beyond cheeses, adding a selection of imported gourmet items and coffee beans to the food offerings, and introducing Jelly Belly Beans and more offbeat candy choices.
“I knew that bigger would be better, so I added more stock and goodies,” Ihlo said. “It was a lot of stuff to try to fit in a small space, but I did it, and customers are still surprised on how I fit everything in one small store.”
As more weekenders from metropolitan areas found their way to Delaware County and craved finer items for their rural retreats, Ihlo complied with the increasing demand. She began reading about trendy comestibles and attending food shows. Her shelves soon offered items rarely seen in these here parts: caviar, smoked salmon and imported olive oils to complement the wide array of domestic and foreign cheeses that gave the store its namesake.
But The Cheese Barrel was about more than just fancy foods. To lure more mainstream palates, Ihlo added an ice cream parlor. As store traffic grew and more people wanted to sit, nibble and chat, she created extra dining space in the room next door.
Ihlo says that expecting the unexpected is the philosophy that guides her business. “Everyday is a new day and you never know what an open door brings in,” she said, quoting Tone Locasto, a neighboring jeweler who passed away in January at age 96.
But nothing could have prepared Ihlo for last August. Tropical storm Irene pounded Delaware County with unexpected fury, flooding Main Street and destroying numerous businesses. The water rose three feet in The Cheese Barrel, causing extensive damage to its ceilings, walls and floors.
But neighborhood solidarity responded to the devastation: fellow business people and student volunteers from Margaretville school and Delhi college pitched in to speed the cleanup. The store reopened October 1. “We had to give the community hope that if The Cheese Barrel was coming back,” Ihlo says, “then so would the rest of Main Street businesses.” Although the store is now bustling in a temporary location, Ihlo plans to reopen the larger location across the street by late spring.
798 Main Street, Margaretville, NY
Compact in stature, but exuberant in personality and mellifluous of voice, George Cole was born to be an auctioneer. It’s no surprise that his acumen for the trade surfaced as early as age eight.
That year, young George pocketed the sum of five dollars, got on his bicycle and rode over to a local auction. The boy was enthused by the noises around him: the auctioneer’s lively voice, the staccato of bids by adjacent attendees, and the definitive smack of the gavel upon the block, announcing the winning bid. Still, George kept his head that day, coolly and shrewdly bidding.
By day’s end, he had filled his mother’s car with his winning lots three times over—and still had two dollars in his pocket.
But George was not content to rest on his winnings.
He headed over to a local antique peddler with his booty and bargained with the man. The eight-year-old returned home that day beaming, having turned his $3 investment into an eye-popping $45.
It is safe to say that George Cole was decisively hooked on auctions. While there were some early career detours into waiting tables and retail sales, Cole would eventually return to the career that was his destiny. That was three and a half decades ago.
His business, George Cole Auctions, located on North Broadway in Red Hook, holds three auctions a month, drawing bidders from the region, the Metro New York area and, thanks to technology, across the globe. GCA specializes in estate liquidation, and the sale of real estate and antiques. (In fact, Cole operates a real estate business on the premises as well.)
From the start, Cole strove to set himself apart from many fellow auctioneers in this area. He committed to giving customers realistic estimates on their goods and paying them quickly after an auction was completed. “It’s about treating customers fairly, so they come back again to George Cole Auctions,” he said.
Of course, business savvy alone does not make a successful auctioneer. George Cole has a trained eye for fine art and craftsmanship and can easily rattle off a compact history of 19th-century furniture or Hudson River School paintings. This fervor for artifacts does not venture into snobbery; Cole can sing the praises of Hepplewhites as much as vintage toys. His enthusiasm for all genres of treasures is infectious, graced by that signature Cole smile.
Small wonder that Cole has established intimate connections with area residents who are friends as well as customers. These people will ring Cole first when they are ready to sell off family heirlooms or simply piles of untouched goods. When a potential customer calls, unsure of what they have in that filled-to-the-brim attic or barn or cellar, Cole will immediately jump into his truck and zip over to see what dusty treasures await him.
The best season for auctions, Cole said, is springtime. Thanks to the annual ritual of spring cleaning, long-forgotten treasures are unearthed and hauled out. Both sellers and buyers prosper, he added. “Bidders who had cabin fever all winter long are eager to get out. They want to do something exciting and they also want to buy themselves a reward for surviving the winter doldrums.”
As a good neighbor, Cole frequently contributes his auctioneering talents gratis to charity events. One of his proudest moments was working on a benefit auction for former President Jimmy Carter’s Habitat for Humanity. The resulting auction, held in Mexico, raised more than $1 million for the home-building concern. In total, Cole estimates he has raised $5.3 million for local and regional charitable organizations.
While auctioneering is a centuries-old trade, Cole has eagerly taken advantage of technological advancements in the business. His upcoming auctions are advertised online and all items are photographed so that bidders beyond the Mid-Hudson Valley can take part.
In his 35 years in the business, Cole has seen fellow merchants come and go. He takes every success and failure seriously, learning from both sides.
Asked whether a particular philosophy drives his everyday business, George Cole responds, both in seriousness and jest: “Do right and fear not.”
George Cole Auctions & Realty, Inc.
7578 North Broadway
Red Hook, NY 12571
Auctioneers and appraisers George W. Cole, Robin B. Mizerak, Elmer LeSuer
A greater awareness of food additives has persuaded many consumers to vote with their pocketbooks, reaching for items that are locally grown, sustainable, all-natural, green-labeled or organic over heavily processed items.
But many people might not realize that wine should invite the same scrutiny. Many bottlers augment their fermented product with additives that include sugars, gelatins and even clays. They also spray their grapes regularly with pesticides.
Into this unsettling scenario comes Stoutridge Vineyard. An estate winery located in Marlboro, New York on land that first supported vineyards in the late 1700s, Stoutridge is pledged to utilizing traditional wine-producing practices that eschew the numerous additives used by other vintners. Owner Stephen Osborn began replanting the vineyards in 2001 and opened the winery in 2006. Many wines and spirits at Stoutridge are locally grown, and all are sourced from state fruits and grains.
Stoutridge was the culmination of a career that began in 1983 in winemaking and wine selling, which included vineyard work in the Finger Lakes region of this state and in Mendocino County, California, as well as retail work in New York and Massachusetts. Osborn’s vision for Stoutridge was a lofty one, he said, because there were no predecessors to build from.
“I wanted to make unprocessed wine in an energy sustainable way. There were no models; it was a completely new design. We are the only winery in North America making wholly unprocessed wine commercially.”
Stoutridge is a gravity winery, avoiding traditional pumps or filters in winemaking. In addition there is minimal chemical processing. Unlike other vintners, Osborn uses minimal sulfites in the wines and does not add sulfites or sorbates to wines after they are made. All wines are sold exclusively at the winery. By selling locally, Osborn does not have to create processed wines that are designed to withstand hundreds or thousands of miles of traveling. In addition, the wines retain higher levels of naturally occurring antioxidants.
The greatest challenge to starting the enterprise, Obsorn said, was to generate public demand for it. Only in recent years were consumers insistent on wine that was additive-free and sustainably created.
“Before 2002, this winery was not possible because the market for it didn't exist,” he said.
Even after people started taking interest in his product, Osborn had some concerns; the look and feel of his wine is more in line with wine made centuries ago before modern machinery. That is, it has an unrefined, natural quality. Once they were educated about his product, Osborn said, “people didn't care that it was a little hazy and threw sediments. I was very surprised.”
Regarding Stoutridge’s much-touted sustainable measures, the winery is built into a hillside and the wine cellars are underground to take advantage of the passive geothermal energy. Electricity is solar generated and Osborn utilizes waste heat from stills to heat the building in the winter through a radiant heating system built into the floor. A true measure of Osborn’s innovation is the existence of bat houses on the premises. The winged rodents control insects in the vineyard, obviating the need for spraying insecticides, traces of which end up in the typical glass of wine.
A promising rise in sales indicates to Osborn that consumers are catching on. The upswing in his fortunes has convinced the vintner to expand his operation to open a distillery in 2012. This will allow Stoutridge to serve five-year-old wines rather than the current inventory of three-and-a-half-year-old wines.
Osborn is currently thriving in a very uncrowded field. However, he welcomes the prospect of competitors who utilize his sustainable vineyard business model.
“The more, the merrier,” he said. “The more diversity of business models, the better. Support them.”
To those who may get industry resistance in following his green business model, Osborn offers a pep talk.
“Be authentic even if you get crazy looks,” he said. “Don't be afraid to be passionate. Create a good plan and stick to it. Do not second-guess in the heat of the moment.”
10 Ann Kaley Lane
Marlboro, NY 12542-5150