Soul food: Facing a space crunch, Tivoli café moved to a church across the street

(Photo by Cynthia Delconte)

Jake Stortini and Jesse Feldmus met in 2009, when they were both students at Bard College. Stortini, majoring in the Classics, planned to continue his studies with a graduate degree. Feldmus was in the Environmental/Urban Studies program and taking Art History courses. By the time they were juniors, both had taken enough extra classes to take a semester off and still graduate on time. But rather than backpacking around Europe or seeking an internship with an eye to starting a career, they turned their attention to the fact that Tivoli had no coffeeshop or café. They decided to rent a small storefront on Broadway and began to serve coffee.

With little more fuel than that – along with what Feldmus calls “an entrepreneurial strain that I get from my dad and my mom,” and Stortini’s experience with family-owned restaurants outside of Seattle in Tacoma – “We quickly built up relationships in Tivoli. That was six years ago,” says Feldmus. “We spent four years at our first location, until we had to move because we were bursting out of the space.”

The large church building across the street – another opportunity – was staring them in the face. Though the building had once housed offices upstairs, it sat empty and boarded-up. Church services hadn’t been held there since the 1950s. A conversation with the landlord in the spring of 2015 evolved into a collaborative plan about how to use and revitalize the neglected building.

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Feldmus and Stortini wanted to rearrange the downstairs and transform the upstairs sanctuary into a space for community and private events. “It’s not officially registered as a historic building, but it is; and so, when we wanted to repair a stained-glass window, for example, we hired an expert. It took more than three months to take all the pieces out and put them back in properly,” says Feldmus. Other changes included sandblasting 125 years’ worth of paint off the brick walls and raising the ceiling on the main floor to bring in more light to an area that had been more like a basement. They also transformed the upper-level nave into a gorgeous – and distinctive – space for events.

(Photo by Ryo Kenjo)

On August 1, 2015, the couple reopened Murray’s in the renovated church. The café seats about 50 people indoors (with capacity for 75 to 100 during warmer weather when the patio is open), and the 3,000-square-foot open-floor nave upstairs can handle more than 150 people. “On Saturday and Sunday at the café, there’s always a wait,” says Feldmus. “We’re like the lobby of Tivoli: Everyone enters or exits [the village] through us. We have a totally mixed crowd, and we encourage that. We’re not just a Bard hangout; though students are a huge part of our business when school is in session, our busiest time is summer when they’re not here.”

Aside from its tastefully appointed and welcoming interior, Murray’s attracts a mix of regulars and newcomers because of its delicious and inventive menu emphasizing local products. Head chef Amy Lawton happened into the café when it first opened at its former location, seeking a job behind the counter. Feldmus says, “Amy has been with us almost six years, and we learned right away that food was much more a part of what we’d do than we anticipated. Amy has this ability to write menus, and she’s learned our customers so well that she can excite them with new dishes – like Crispy Pig Ears, and I’m a vegetarian – while keeping it approachable,” he continues. “There’s never a dull moment here. 2017 is all about getting people to try things they’ve never tried before.”

The menu features new specials every week, and changes on a somewhat seasonal basis to reflect what’s available from an impressive list of local food purveyors. “In the summer, the menu changes every two weeks because Amy can’t help herself. There’s so much good food and she’s exploding with excitement,” Feldmus adds.

Since starting Murray’s with Jake Stortini when he was just 19 years old Bard student, Jesse Feldmus (above) says, “I’ve learned you can’t plan your life and that it’s foolish to put all your eggs into one or two baskets. We didn’t finish college – that was six years ago now – but Tivoli needed a community space.” This Saturday evening, February 11 at 7 p.m., the Porch will present the art of storytelling at Murray’s. (photo by Katarina Batina)

Ten or 20 years from now, it’s anyone’s guess where this young couple (both will be 26 when Feldmus’ birthday arrives in a few weeks) will be or what they’ll be doing. “You have to love what you’re doing,” Feldmus says, “and it has taken some time to establish a relationship where we can easily balance work and having a personal life. But when you love what you’re doing, it’s not hard. The events business is just starting to get going, and the space is amazing. It’s so flexible and unique to the area. We’re really excited about it.”

In addition to birthday parties, weddings, bridal showers, rehearsal dinners, cocktail parties and other private special events held in the former sanctuary, Murray’s also hosts selective community events. It has held dance parties; the Tivoli Talent Show (upcoming on Friday, March 31); concerts (violinist/songwriter Eszter Balint performs on Saturday, March 18, and Contemporaneous, an orchestra group from Bard, returns on Saturday, April 15); and this Saturday evening at 7 p.m., the Porch will present the art of storytelling. “The Porch started a few years ago in Rhinecliff and was at Spiegeltent last year. We want people to experience our space.”

This past weekend, Murray’s participated in a fundraiser sponsored by Sprudge, a clearinghouse for all things coffee, along with more than 600 cafés and coffeeshops nationwide, who contributed ten percent of their profits to the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s a totally brilliant concept, because it gives cafés an opportunity to engage customers by making contributions for a daily action” (buying a cup of coffee). Murray’s already had a close relationship with the Red Hook Democratic Party, and has hosted some meetups as well as a pre-election meet-and-greet with Zephyr Teachout. “But now people are trying to pull themselves out of a fantasy alternative universe. They’re asking, ‘How do we galvanize and focus on grassroots?’ We play a more important role than we realized before the current climate, and wouldn’t hesitate to do something more if it’s good for customers and good for us,” says Feldmus. “We’re a small business with very small margins, so it has to make sense; but with so much at stake now, none of us can afford to do nothing.”

Since starting Murray’s with Stortini when he was just 19 years old, Feldmus says, “I’ve learned you can’t plan your life and that it’s foolish to put all your eggs into one or two baskets. We didn’t finish college – that was six years ago now – but Tivoli needed a community space… You have to be able to roll with the tide, to make changes, adapt and learn from trial-and-error. We’re constantly trying to refine, and now our events business is just starting to get going. We’re having fun, we’re happy and we’re not finished.”

 

Murray’s, located at 73 Broadway in Tivoli, is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with brunch served until 4 p.m. (closed on Wednesdays); events are held periodically in the upstairs sanctuary. Please call (845) 757-6003 or visit www.murraystivoli.com for more information.

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