Foodie hub

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It isn’t true that a thousand of the 11,140,800 people in the country employed as of September 2015 in food service and drinking places work in uptown Kingston, but it sometimes feels that way. And several hundred actually are working here, with, it appears, more soon to come.

Reliable census figures for Kingston alone aren’t available. According to the 2013 County Business Patterns, however, the 488 food and beverage places in Ulster County employed 4950 persons. Corresponding 2003 figures had shown 430 establishments employing 4123 persons. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, then, 58 additional Ulster County places resulted in the employment of 827 more people. In terms of number of people employed, food and beverage has been one of Ulster County’s more successful industries.

According to the National Restaurant Association, this $700-billion-dollar industry accounts for one in ten persons on the U.S. workforce. Median pay in the industry was $8.78 an hour nationally in 2014. Restaurant cooks averaged $10.67 an hour and waitstaff $8.98 (including declared gratuites).

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Average weekly hours were 26.3 this past August. The median annual wage for all workers in the industry was $18,260, or about $351 a week.

The New Windsor-based Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation identified food and beverage businesses as one of its first industrial clusters. That organization recognized the industry as one of the few offering job growth in the Hudson Valley.

“The Hudson Valley Food & Beverage Alliance brings organizations within the food and beverage industries together, helping area businesses forge strong partnerships,” says the HVEDC website. “The alliance provides access to economic guidance and marketing resources to businesses throughout the region.” By branding the Hudson Valley as “another Napa Valley,” local marketers are putting down a marker for a future upscale identity. It’s how they would like to see the region defined.

Eighty-three additional jobs per year over a ten-year period for Ulster County, even if the jobs are relatively ill-paying and often part-time, are nothing to sneeze at. A  look at the industry in uptown Kingston can provide a sense of the tug of war between the positives and the negatives of this economic category.

 

I counted 33 eating or drinking places within a quarter-mile of our offices on Wall Street between North Front and John streets in Kingston, plus at least three more presently under interior construction. The uptown neighborhood, a lunch destination for the numerous office workers in the city, is home to one out of every 14 eating and drinking places in Ulster County. I think New Paltz’s Main Street area is the only other location in Ulster County with a similar concentration of eating and drinking places.

With such a critical mass, many uptown businesses in this industry have tried to expand their clientele by attracting other kinds of customers. A few fold their tents at the end of the lunch hour, and a few others don’t open until late in the afternoon.

Some uptown places cater almost around the clock to locals. Others specialize in weekenders or tourists. Some places are upscale, others resolutely otherwise. Dunkin Donuts on Wall Street is the sole national chain.

Is the supply of seats and stools in this industry limited by the number of hungry people in the area? Or might it be more like the antiques industry, which clusters together because more places mean more potential customers from further distances are likely to visit.

Uptown Kingston may be about to find out.

A young New York City real-estate developer who recently moved to New Paltz says he intends to spend five or six million dollars to transform a 17,700-square-foot space on Wall Street once occupied by Woolworth’s into a food court occupied by a variety of food vendors and a grocery store. The basement, 28-year-old Zachary Lewis says, will become a food incubator kitchen, where a variety of food businesses, including the building owner’s, can cook, package and distribute food.

BBG Ventures, LLC bought the building, formerly owned by Mike Spada, for $475,000. Lewis says he has partnered in the Kingston enterprise with two New Paltz friends, Ben Giardullo and Bradford Beckerman. The regional economic development council has put the project on its list of priority projects, and BBG Ventures is applying for $1.58 million in state grants for its Wall Street enterprise. It also expects to be applying soon to the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency for tax relief.

 

Uptown Kingston is a strange and wondrous place. At 317 Wall Street, next door to the future food hall that Zach Lewis and his friends intend to create, the words Pearson Education are etched into a storefront of glazed glass. The building, formerly Yallum’s department store, has been without a tenant since Pearson moved out 18 years ago.

Directly across the street, at 316 Wall, a protective plywood wall has just come off the front of the building, and a piece of paper advertises that a new restaurant, the Two Ravens Tavern, with Czech food and a bar, will very soon be opening. An autumn menu is listed. Considerable attention has recently been lavished on the renovation of the interior of the former Kimms Oriental grocery, very briefly after that an unsuccessful restaurant called Gabriel’s.

A number of food entrepreneurs and wannabes seem to have come to the simultaneous conclusion that this small part of uptown Kingston is well on its way to becoming a significant hub of the growing local foodie world. Like most such aggregations, this hub intends to gain strength from the fact that many of its products will be sourced from local and regional food producers. It hopes to become part of the fabric of the Hudson Valley.

Investors seem to have been willing to buy into this entrepreneurial vision. Only time will tell whether the newly coined but very convenient American adage will hold true: Build it, and they will come.

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