This January, the Mudd Puddle, a European-styled café/bistro located at the Water Street Market in downtown New Paltz, will celebrate its ten-year anniversary. Owned and operated by James and Michelle Walsh, both originally from New Jersey, the Mudd Puddle has grown over the years into a real community and family-oriented hub of warmth, freshly roasted coffees from all over the world, mouthwatering paninis and breakfast burritos, as well as a gathering place for friends, local fundraisers and now its 100th open-mic poetry reading.
While James cooks and Michelle roasts and their employees take orders and people stop in for coffee, tea and food and to chat, the two owners, who are now married with three young children, reflect on how they started, how they’ve grown and what’s next. “Owning a café was always a dream of mine,” says Michelle. “I’ve always worked in restaurants, and then I met James, who also had worked in restaurants and is an amazing cook, and it was something we both talked about a lot.”
When they decided to “just go for it,” Michelle first went to work in a coffeeshop “to get more specific experience,” while James worked in a small restaurant in New Hampshire with “an amazing chef who taught me so much, and where I also learned to cook great food in high volume in a small space,” he says, gesturing to the small kitchen from which they have to work at the Mudd Puddle. “The restaurant in New Hampshire was half the size of this kitchen, but we were able to learn how to manage it.”
As a child, James would vacation with his family in the Catskills, so he was familiar with the area and always loved it. Then he spent several summers living and working with his best friend, Kristop Brown, in Phoenicia. When he and Michelle were thinking of a place to open up a café, James suggested New Paltz because it was a college town and beautiful, and he thought that it was a perfect fit. “In one day, we literally drove up here, got a copy of the New Paltz Times, saw that a space was for rent at Water Street Market and signed the lease the same day!” recalls Michelle.
“It was like a ghost town then,” says James. “The café had been unrented for four months. People feared it had a curse, because there was such turnover and previous businesses did not succeed.”
The couple was undaunted by this, and says that they just started out small. “We had no employees; we began with good coffee, tea, espresso, hot sandwiches, paninis; and little by little began to have a following,” she says. Michelle also noted that the original concept of the market was “very high-end, which really didn’t fit New Paltz. After we came, little by little the owners changed the feel of the place and attracted more local retail: the Cheese Plate, Kiss My Face…now there’s a long waiting list to try and get space here!”
As the Water Street Market began to attract more local retail and artisanal shops, the Mudd Puddle served as a real anchor where those who were shopping could sit down for a hot beverage and a sandwich, or those walking the rail trail could stop and grab something to eat. Families with young children could go and have breakfast or lunch together without costing a fortune and feel relaxed, as it was and still is a kid-friendly café with lots of room outside to run around and enjoy the fountains, the sculptures, the courtyard. “We’ve literally watched children grow up here,” says Michelle, who starts to name kids whom she met when they were first born, or toddlers who are “now in middle school, some even in High School. It’s crazy and beautiful.”
As their business took off, they did begin to hire employees, many of whom still work there, or who worked there for years and “are part of our extended family,” says James. “They’re a loyal group, and always come in and visit even when they move on to other things. We have a big holiday party for our staff every year at our house, and almost all of our current and former employees come. They’re wonderful people.”
The Walshes started needing even more help as they began to have a family: Fiona, now 6, Quincy, 3 and James III, 2 years old. How do they manage? “We trade off,” says James. “Either I’m working and Michelle’s with the kids, or she’s working and I’m with the kids — which is probably good, because that way we don’t fight!” he says with a laugh.
They’ve had employees like Casey Erdman, recently profiled in the New Paltz Times, who not only worked at their café but also helped to babysit their children when they both needed to be at work. “We’ve been very fortunate to have such great help and employees, and our kids love coming here.” “They’d better,” jokes James, “because they’re going to be working here one day!”
Asked what they enjoy most about running the Mudd Puddle, Michelle says, “The biggest thing is that I don’t ever feel like I’m working. And isn’t that the ultimate goal: to not have to work a day in your life? It’s what I love to do, and when you love something, it doesn’t feel like work.”
“I love it that people feel like this is their second kitchen,” says James. “I enjoy all of our regular customers, look forward to seeing them, talking with them — particularly talking about food, because that’s my real passion. And these folks are the ones that allow us to keep doing what we love to do.”
In concert with that feeling is the way that the couple embraces the community, holding an annual “singalong” holiday fundraiser for Family of New Paltz, hosting poetry readings, open-mic events…whatever they’re asked to do by the community. “I’m so happy that we found New Paltz, because it’s so much different from where we grew up,” says Michelle. “It’s a true community, where people are authentic and truly care about one another. Just look at the Flood Aid that the community came together for. It was incredible. I feel so blessed that our kids get to grow up in a community like this, where there’s the beautiful outdoors, great education, culture awareness…”
Asked why the feel that their café has been such a success, James says, “because we know everyone by name, treat them all like friends and often family and they know that everything we cook here is made by me, with fresh, local ingredients, from scratch — and that really makes a difference.”
Now that their youngest is just about out of diapers and the Mudd Puddle is on solid ground, going into its 11th year, James and Michelle — mostly James — are working on a business that reflects his other “passion”: brewing. “Michelle got me a home-brew kit for Christmas one year, and after I made my first batch, I was completely hooked!” he says. Since then he began researching, playing, hitting up friends who had experience brewing beer, growing his knowledge of the craft and then attending a week-long course at the University of California at Davis, where “we were taught by two of the greatest scientists in the world who happen to teach there.”
Now he has teamed up with his friend Kristop Brown, and the two are renovating a building on James and Michelle’s property in Gardiner, where they’re slated to open up a “nanobrewery” this summer. “It will be a small, artisanal brewery, very much fashioned off the Belgian farmhouse breweries,” says James. They will sell the beer to various local restaurants and bars and will also be a CSB (Community Supported Brewery), whereby those who are members can pick up a weekly batch of artisanally brewed beer. The name of the nanobrewery is Yard Owl: Wisdom by the Pint.
To learn more about the Mudd Puddle, its menu and also the daily specials, which sell like hotcakes and change every day, or the forthcoming nanobrewery, call 255-3436 or just stop on by. ++