For six years, I poured everything I had – physically, financially, emotionally – into Café Devine and the property at 33 Lower Main St in Callicoon, New York. It was a wild ride with many unexpected twists and turns during those six years.
I discovered Callicoon for the first time in 2006, when I was doing some consulting work for Dow Jones Local Media group, which owns the Times-Herald Record and whose offices were based in Middletown, NY, about an hour from Callicoon. I saw stories of the horrible flooding happening that year on the front page of the paper, but had never heard of Sullivan County or really considered what existed north of NYC and Westchester and Rockland Counties.
Living and working in 500 square feet was getting tiresome (I owned a co-op on 16th and 3rd in Manhattan), and a neighbor who had a house in Rhinebeck turned me on to the world outside of Manhattan. A friend had a house in Callicoon, in Sullivan County, and was looking for a group of friends to share it and maintain it after he moved to Los Angeles. Turned out I was the only one really using it, and the owner just wanted to get out of the mortgage, and was willing to take a much lower price than ask. It seemed like a great deal, and I wouldn’t have to spend a lot of time finding the right house, I already had it! I closed on the house in August 2007.
My work as a consultant allowed me to spend a good portion of my time in Callicoon, and I fell in love with the rural lifestyle and landscape. But it was lonely there up on the hill, and city friends did not make the trip as much as I had hoped. I started hanging out on Main Street for the free wifi and conversation. The Callicoon Wine Merchant was just opening, although the wine license wouldn’t come for another eight months. Once it did, I worked on weekends from late summer 2008 to late spring 2009 and got to meet lots of great folks, many who would ask “where can I get a good cup of coffee, or a sandwich?” We would send them to the local grocery store or gas station or Matthew’s on Main. But there was no place in town that was family-friendly where you could get a casual lunch or fancy coffee and sit with your laptop.
The crash in the fall of 2008 hit the media business hard, and I lost major clients and had no prospects of new ones. By January, I had decided to find a space and create a “community gathering place that served food”. I didn’t want to call it a restaurant, since I’d heard over and over again about restaurant failures. The building at 33 Lower Main had been vacant for almost a year and half, and it was a great opportunity to turn this eyesore into a hub for wholesome food and drink. The original plan also incorporated a fitness center, but there wasn’t much interest from the local population and the second homeowners and tourists.
In January, I started planning and found a young local woman with years of service experience who helped me with research and the local culture. She was to be my manager, while I continued consulting and teaching to get us through the lean early years of the business.
I closed on the property at 33 Lower Main St on “odd day” 5-7-09 and began a flurry of renovation. The building had originally been two storefronts, but had been combined into one restaurant space and operated as one entity for almost 30 years by the previous owner. A fire in the 70s had eliminated the upstairs apartments which had not been replaced. The barn behind the building had been renovated into a three bedroom, two bath apartment when Dorrer Drive was built behind town in the 90s, and it became my home.
We missed our first goal of opening mid-June for tractor parade, but started selling coffee, iced tea and lemonade from an outdoor bar to get some exposure, experience and cash flow. Finally, we opened for real on July 3, 2009. The young manager brought me to opening day, and then moved on. Staffing was always a huge challenge, and my plans of having someone else manage while I earned other income never cam to fruition. I juggled managing and working at the café, consulting and teaching and fell asleep on a stranger’s shoulder more than once on the bus back and forth to NYC.
Cafe Devine was the winner of “Best Sandwiches” in 2010 and “Best Lunch” in 2011 and 2012 and “Best Vegetarian Food” in the 2013 River Reporter Readers’ Choice Awards. Between 2011 and 2013, I applied for, received, matched and managed a $50,000 grant from the New York Main Streets program intended to promote tourism in the Upper Delaware Region. The grant was used to renovate and restore the historic building – creating an event and fitness space, updating aging infrastructure, and building an outdoor deck overlooking the Delaware River.
In the space that I had first envisioned as a fitness space, I took a tenant who signed a three year lease, (The Good Earth Health Food Store) about six weeks after opening the Café. When the tenant’s lease expired, I and a business partner who had formerly managed the store formed Callicoon Health Food LLC and Callicoon Natural Foods opened on Labor Day weekend 2012.
The Café had been growing steadily, made a profit that year, and the grant renovation work was complete. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to add another complimentary business, which came along with an experienced manager who had worked for the previous owner. We formed a partnership, wrote a business plan, and got a low-interest loan from the Department of Agriculture through the Sullivan County IDA. We stocked the shelves with items that had proven to be popular among the local community, updated the bulk section and added organic produce and an organic juice bar to our offerings.
Sales, however did not come close to our expectations, and needing an infusion of capital to continue operating, I severed my partnership and funded the struggling business with my own money and income from the Café. After struggling for almost two years, I realized in Summer 2014 that the store was not going to be able to survive another winter. I closed both businesses for 5 weeks, from Labor Day to Columbus Day, to combine the two spaces and business and figure out how to get out of the ever-widening financial hole.
In fall 2014, the health food store space was renovated to be a large dining room, with handmade tables of reclaimed local wood, pottery and crafts from local artists on the shelves, and art from local artists on the walls. Some of the better selling items and the bulk section were moved to the Café side to continue to serve the needs of the community. The juicer was moved into the kitchen and juices were added to the Café menu.
With the expanded seating, menu, and later hours, the Café thrived. Average ticket increased 50%, sales increased 28% during our big summer months, and many people who had passed it by before thinking it was “health food” came in and loved the food and returned often. Gluten-free options were added to the menu and customers came from near and far to enjoy the soups made with farmer’s market ingredients, our wide selection of vegetarian food, and great coffee, breakfast, fresh salads and and sandwiches. We had art openings and poetry readings and live music and dinner specials – it was our best year.
So many wonderful things happened over the six years that I owned the property at 33 Lower Main and operated Cafe Devine and Callicoon Health food. But the strain of maintaining an historic building, the small population and the lack of tourist traffic in the off season was too much. Cafe Devine closed at the end of October 2015 and the property and contents were sold on December 31, 2015. I now have a small one bedroom rental apartment in Beacon, so I am closer to NYC for my teaching job and consulting business. I am working on using all of the experience I gained running the Café and developing the menu and recipes. My plan is to develop a line of dressings, sauces and soups under the Café Devine brand. While I don’t think there were ever be another physical space like I created for Café Devine in Callicoon, I hope that the food philosophy and recipes will continue to live on through this blog and the products.