On November 30, Mama’s Boy Café, in the center of Phoenicia, sat closed, the espresso machine already sold, bottles of flavored syrup on the tables, along with iced tea and juice emptied out of the coolers. After five and a half years of operation, proprietor Michael Koegel is sad to see his popular business winding down, but he will be able to focus more energy on Mama’s Boy Burgers, the restaurant he opened in Tannersville this past spring.
He’s already been spending most of his time up in Tannersville, having turned over management of the café to Gillian Johnson. With the lease running out on December 1, Johnson and Koegel were trying to negotiate a five-year renewal with property owner Declan Feehan. Their hope was for an arrangement that would eventually allow Johnson to buy the business so that Koegel could step out after a year or two, but they could not reach an agreement that would make financial sense to all the parties involved.
The café will be missed. “It’s a total bummer,” said frequent customer Francesca Warnes. “It’s so great to have another place to get coffee and muffins. Every place is great in Phoenicia, but Mama’s Boy was special — and they had the best coffee in town.”
Peekamoose Restaurant owner Marybeth Mills stopped by to say farewell to the café, regretting the loss of “a nice hub for the community.”
Koegel reminisced about the start of his venture into café ownership, pointing to a corner where he slept on a cot for several months during the initial renovations. “When the deli case was delivered,” he recalled, “I finally moved out.” Originally from Syracuse, he had worked as a TV producer for 20 years at Nickelodeon and other networks, later running commercial construction for a chain of boutique gyms. When he lost his job in New York City in 2010, he decided it was time to reinvent himself. He had visited Phoenicia many times with his former boyfriend and always felt the town needed a coffee shop, a central place to hang out. But there were no storefronts available for such a venture.
In 2007, the Phoenicia Hotel had burned down just when it was being purchased by Declan Feehan, who owns Phoenicia Wines and Liquors as well as several other local properties. Feehan was hoping to build a new hotel on the site once the town installed a sewer system, but meanwhile the land was unoccupied. One day, when Koegel was sitting at Brio’s, he looked across the street and saw the For Rent sign on the one-bedroom house at the back of the hotel property. He called Feehan, who remembers being impressed with Koegel and agreed to a rental at a rate that just covered taxes and insurance for the site.
Koegel converted the little house into a shop, built a deck to connect it to the former hotel’s gazebo, painted, and landscaped, doing much of the work himself while living in the back. For the first year, he and one young employee worked “crazy long hours,” making about $25 a day in profits. He has always hired young people to wait on customers and can now say, “I provided college tuition and cars for a handful of kids. A couple of people got their life together.”
Early on he realized that his business success would depend on how involved he became with the community. He offered the space for library fundraisers and served free hot chocolate and cider around an outdoor Christmas tree when the choir had its annual caroling night. After Hurricane Irene, the lawn and café served as a command center for the Phoenicia Rotary to organize volunteer clean-up efforts. The deck was used for live music, film showings, and spoken word readings, all at no charge.
Even as the café became more popular, “I knew it was never going to turn a huge profit,” said Koegel. “It’s not really doable unless it’s owner-run, and the owner is willing to put in long hours. It also has kind of a cult of personality. The person behind the counter sets the tone.” He enjoyed the work, but after a few years outgrew it and wanted a new project.
No sewer, no growth
Mama’s Boy Burgers opened in Tannersville on Memorial Day weekend, five years to the day from the date of the café’s opening. The lease in Phoenicia was expiring, and Feehan agreed to extend it through the busy summer months, at a considerably higher rent.
“I have in excess of $500,000 in that property,” noted Feehan, “I have to start making some money from it.” His plans for building a hotel fell through, at least temporarily, when the sewer funding was withdrawn in 2012 after many years of negotiation between the town and New York City, which included a referendum in which Phoenicia residents voted against accepting the free system.
“I’m another example of what’s going on in this town because there’s no sewer,” said Koegel. “When I moved in, Declan put in the lease that if we ever got sewers, he’d give me six months to get out so he could build a hotel. But I was still pro-sewer. This town can’t grow without it. There’s no place in this town I can move this business to because the bathroom and septic system are always issues.”
With Sweet Sue’s, Mama’s Boy, and Ricciardella’s closed, the only Main Street eateries left are Brio’s, the Alamo Cantina, and The Phoenician, all owned by Mike Ricciardella. Business is moving out to the fringes of town. Tavern 214, a couple blocks north of Main Street, and the Phoenicia Diner, on Route 28, are both booming.
Since the news of the café’s closing broke, Feehan has received several inquiries from people interested in renting the property. “If I don’t get the right tenant,” he said, “I will try to do something there myself. Maybe something like what Mike’s been doing — or maybe something else.”
“The bottom line for me,” said Koegel, “is that I’m sad I have to close, I have really good memories, and I’m proud of what I did, but I’m in a good place. I have a happening burger place in Tannersville, and I’m getting married next year. My five-year plan worked out better than I expected it to. I have no regrets.”