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Local Business 2010

Quintessence

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Let the Good Times Roll, Again

2009 saw the grand reopening of Captial Region institutions

By Ali Hibbs

It was the 1st day of 2005 when I showed up at Quintessence to enjoy an annual New Year’s breakfast of eggs Florentine and mimosas with friends, only to find that the doors were locked. It was nothing short of tragedy.

Quintessence was an Albany institution for more than 20 years. Whether for Sunday brunch, the famous chicken teriyaki with green noodles, or the electronic music served up on the weekends, the chromed diner-restaurant-bar-club at 11 New Scotland Ave. was a local favorite from the time it opened in 1981. When James Scalzo closed the doors five years ago, many Albanians were directly affected.

Then, on Aug.10, 2009, Quintessence was back! Same look, same food, same entertainment, but with a reinvigorated energy and a brand new sign in front. In fact, 2009 was a banner year for the phoenix-like resurrection of fondly remembered haunts in the Capital Region: Bogie’s and the Van Dyck also returned last summer.

To be fair, Bogie’s never really closed. The grand reopening that they held in June wasn’t to celebrate new ownership or a new name; rather, it was to herald a philosophical return to the Bogie’s of yore—the Bogie’s you probably remember if you listened to hardcore in Albany during the ’80s and ’90s. The venue is a little fancier than it once was, thanks to compulsive redecorator and general manager, Tony Simeone. The ceilings and walls are now painted black and white to give the venue a punk-rock atmosphere. Simeone and booking agent Mike Valente say that they made the change for personal reasons. “We really wanted to do real music again,” says Simeone. “We both used to come to shows here.”

Valente agrees. “We’re musicians. This place is run by musicians for musicians. We don’t charge room fees like other venues in the area, we work things out so that everyone benefits and the good bands will want to keep coming back.” Currently, they are open only Thursday through Sunday and for specific shows, but Simeone says that he thinks that soon it will be a six-or seven-night-a-week operation.

If you aren’t into hip-hop or hardcore, the Van Dyck in Schenectady has also returned as the local standard for live jazz performances. Their much-lauded listening room still has all the same acoustical integrity and the music is familiar. “We kept a similar concept,” says owner Jeff McDonald. “But different. We knew that it was a landmark and we valued that.”

When they reopened on June 29, 2009, the McDonald family had invested more than $1 million in renovations and remodeling. The menu has changed considerably, and the interior has been redone. The woodwork is new, as are the floors and bathrooms. They’ve rebuilt the outside patio and attached a brewery. According to McDonald, they decided to purchase the building because “we think it fills a unique void. There are a lot of pubs around, but not a lot of mid-level pubs.”

And that’s the niche they’re endeavoring to fill. The new menu includes pub fare such as pizzas and paninis—the highest priced entrée is $20—but the luxury of the building and quality of the music provide an upscale atmosphere. “It’s supposed to be affordable and economical, but nicer,” says McDonald.

More than Bogie’s or the Van Dyck, Quintessence has gone with an extremely faithful representation of the original concept. The new owners even went so far as to enlist the help of the previous owner in re-creating the menu. “Jim Scalzo was definitely an inspiration to this project,” says Nick Riggione, partner and front-of-the-house manager. “He was kind enough to share all of his recipes and put us on the right track. We just kept going with his vision.”

It just made sense to do it that way, says Riggione. “The scene was fabulous. It was totally packed and the music was always great and the vibe in the place was outstanding. It wasn’t like any other location.”

“We went by this place a few times,” he says referring to himself, his brother and their business partners, Joe Zappone and Patrick Fiore. “And we knew how great it once was, and we wanted to bring back all the great memories and focus on some new ones.”

So far, Riggione says that it has been a success and he is looking forward to the completion of the new complex across the street. No. 16 New Scotland should be finished this summer, another of several new commercial buildings cropping up in the suddenly bustling New Scotland corridor. “It’s so inspiring to come into work every day and see these buildings going up. We’re happy with the timing.”

A recent survey released by Brother International Corporation revealed that more than half of small business owners are still reluctant to invest their money, preferring instead to stockpile cash against unforeseen economic upsets. Simeone, the McDonalds and the Riggiones may be in the minority, but they appear to be quite comfortable there. They are, after all, working with proven formulas and years of loyalty. Perhaps, in a lagging economy, the best business models are based in emotionally comfortable concepts that trigger familiarity, nostalgia and good stories.

 

(l-r) Sandra Sweeny and Elizabeth Young

Photo: Kathryn Geurin

Reduce, Reuse, Reenvision

In trying times, two Troy business owners continue to thrive through flexibilty and collaboration

By Kathryn Geurin

Everything must go at Sandra Sweeny’s River Street shop. “30%-70% off the entire store!” reads a sign in the Troy shop window. But unlike so many small business owners who have been doused by the current economic storm, the graphic designer cum business owner is not battening the hatches, she’s simply adjusting the sails.

Sweeny first opened the Spinning Seed in a basement shop in downtown Troy in July 2008, a few months after the Capital Region branch of Chronogram, where she was the production designer, closed its doors. She got a good deal on a small space where she could do freelance design work and launched the Spinning Seed from there—an eco-friendly gift shop, specializing in sustainable, natural, recycled and repurposed products. The venture took off, and last summer she moved into a large storefront next to Elizabeth Young’s well-established shop, Living Room.

Both women found their store offerings shifting in response to both the changing market and the interests of the proprietors. “Both my parents are antique dealers,” says Young. “I think it was safe for me to do what they did, because that’s what I knew. But as I’ve become more sure of myself and of my own tastes, it’s shaped my business.” Living Room began as a fine-antiques store, but Young found that her customers were more drawn to exciting, vintage furniture than investment pieces.

“I’m selling more funky, interesting interior finds, instead of, you know, an 18th-century chest of drawers,” says Young. “I was selling fewer things with higher price tags, now I’m selling more things with lower price tags. . . . I’m also selling more things that I find and put my own personal spin on.” In addition to hunting down exciting vintage pieces, Young, who also offers interior-design services, often invigorates unremarkable finds by painting, refinishing or reupholstering items with an eye for bold design. A set of petite wicker chairs—freshly painted in vivid raspberry—pops out against the troves of fabrics and furniture in her shop, an antique settee takes an unabashed contemporary twist with bright floral upholstery. “I’m giving new life to things that may have seemed like something forgettable,” says Young. “It’s more fun for me, actually.”

Sweeny also found the market guiding her shop in unexpected directions. She had always carried a small selection of secondhand dishware and furniture. When she moved into the larger space, she started brining in larger pieces, and they quickly sold. Then someone suggested she sell clothing.

“It was November. The economy was bad, sales were really low. It became hard to sell something people didn’t really need,” recalls Sweeny. “I brought in secondhand clothes on a whim, and now they make up 50 percent of my business.”

Sweeny unearths designer duds from thrift stores and vintage shops, filling her racks with distinctive clothes at attainable prices. “I really think that people are driven to look at retail currently and want a sale,” she says. “They want to see something that’s not outlandish. They want to be able to afford it—to make their dollars count.”

This new direction fits intrinsically with Sweeny’s original goal of offering consumers smart, sustainable, quality products. “There is a huge amount of waste created in textiles,” says Sweeny, but she is committed to making responsible options available. She sells a line of paper gift bags made from damaged cotton T-shirts. Her second-hand merchandise is the ultimate in recycling. “It’s ironic that I’m in retail,” she says, “because a big part of the shop for me has been teaching people about consuming.”

As the two businesses settled into their own, Sweeny and Young realized that their stores complemented each other in both their aesthetic and ideals. “I was a great customer of hers,” says Young, “and she was a great customer of mine.”

Now the two young entrepreneurs have formed a partnership. The Spinning Seed and Living Room are both closing their doors at the end of the month, but the pair are opening a new shop down the street that will sustain their individual visions, while building on their shared ambitions. “Rust and Reason,” they finally commited to name the venture, delighted.

They believe that remaining flexible in their business concepts and pooling their resources will help them thrive in the trying economy. “Being in an improvement district here, being a sole proprietor, paying for the business out of my pocket, cutting my overhead was a necessity,” says Sweeny. “We have very similar visions, for ourselves independently, for the businesses themselves, and for making a foothold in Troy.”

So, in a feat of musical storefronts, Rust and Reason will take over the current Times Union offices on River Street, and the Times Union will move into the smaller space the Spinning Seed currently occupies. “It’s really a creative way for everyone to stay downtown,” adds Young, who also serves as director for the Troy Downtown Collaborative.

“We both became business owners, not only because we were passionate about what we were selling or the business we were in,” says Young. “We were passionate about being entrepreneurs. I think when you’re an entrepreneur, especially in a climate like this, you have to be adaptable. Otherwise you’ll go out of business.”

The collaborative approach to business extends beyond the pair’s Rust and Reason partnership. Sweeny and Young enthusiastically celebrate downtown Troy as a community of retailers, more friends than competitors—particularly the rare cluster of diverse and successful female-owned and operated businesses on the historic stretch.

They take turns rattling off blocks of female-owned shops: Market Block Books, Troy Bookmakers, Paper Sparrow, Broken Mold, Trojan Horse, Pigment Arts, their list goes on. “It’s kind of crazy,” Young says. “It’s kind of fabulous. We’ve become friends, and we want to root everyone on.”

The businesses build on each others’ success, and in hard economic times, the support network can be what keeps them going. “When you know you’re part of a community,” says Young, “that makes all the difference.”

 

The Old-Fashioned Way to Borrow

The Berkshires’ successful, cutting-edge currency program is set to expand into lending

By Chet Hardin

Susan Witt says that the collapse of global financial institutions might have changed some people’s views of banking and economies, but not hers. “It just so happens,” she says, “that it has brought us a lot more attention.”

Witt is the executive director of the E. F. Schumacher Society, which was founded in 1980 “to promote the building of strong local economies that link people, land, and community.” In 2006, Witt founded the Society’s most famous program, BerkShares, a currency that can be used in place of federal dollars at hundreds of businesses throughout Berkshire County in Massachusetts. The goal is to keep wealth local and, to that end, there is a built-in advantage to using them: Ninety federal dollars buys you 100 BerkShares. If you can and do use them instead of dollars, you are basically giving yourself a 10-percent discount on whatever you buy.

BerkShares is a sophisticated tool for encouraging citizens to shop locally, Witt says. “It is to keep money recirculating in the region.”

But now, she and her organization are looking to expand their rare local-currency initiative into the realm of lending. “To act as a full-fledged local currency, the goal would be to begin making loans for productive businesses,” she says. “This is BerkShares’ next step, to actually make loans for new import-replacement businesses. What are we now importing into this region that we might produce locally and in a centralized way?”

What kinds of local businesses could replace imports? For instance, she says, the Berkshires region is flush with hardwood, but there are no furniture manufacturers. There are a number of apple orchards, but there are no apple-sauce canneries. “It would take that kind of investigation into what would be the appropriate import-replacement business, and not your normal economic development pattern, which is to try to lure a branch of a big corporation. Instead, create an inventory of what is sourced locally, and what we might source locally if that business were there. And then through lending create the financing for it.”

The loans would focus on productive businesses, with the criteria being import-replacement focusing on the necessities of food, clothing, shelter and energy. The loans could be a blend of federal dollars and BerkShares, she says, depending on what needs to be purchased. And they would entertain the microlending opportunities that banks tend to avoid.

Yet, like the BerkShares currency, the lending program would work in concert with the banks and not in opposition. “We’re extremely fortunate here in the Northeast to still have a network of community banks,” Witt says. “Those are the ones that are working with us on the current application of the BerkShares program, so we wouldn’t be stepping outside and creating a new banking structure. We don’t need to. We need to work with our existing banks.”

BerkShares likely will make loans to people who the banks would consider “high risk.” But “high risk might be high risk when crunched into a computer at a bank,” Witt says. “Community notions of risk are different.” She points to an example from the early days of the Schumacher Society, when they were operating a microcredit program called Share.

Essentially a microloan and collatorization program, Share allowed people to invest their money in specific savings accounts at a local bank. These savings accounts were then pooled to collateralize small loans that banks wouldn’t normally make.

This was in the early ’80s, when interest rates were topping at 17 percent for small loans. “We could offer 10 percent loans through the banks,” she says.

It was an extremely useful model for small business people, to help them secure funds and build their credit. She points to one woman in particular. “She would knit sweaters in her home. She would order wool, knit her sweaters, order another bunch of skeins of wool, and that wasn’t giving her the best price on wool because she wasn’t buying in bulk.” So she borrowed $500. “That got her credit with the bulk wool supplier, who then began selling her yarn at a better price.” Her business grew and she needed a new knitting machine. The bank wouldn’t take a knitting machine as collateral, “but we would,” Witt says. Eventually her credit was so bolstered by this program, the bank began to give her loans directly, for the first time in her life.

As interest rates dropped and banks began to see that small business loans were good investments, Share began to become less a necessity. “We didn’t want to compete with the bank; we wanted to augment.”

“The economic diversity of this country was created on a system of diversified currencies,” Witt points out. “In the 1800s, every commercial bank issued its own currency, and every region had available to it the appropriate financial vehicle for developing the resources—labor skills, natural resources—that were unique to that region. We gave it up for the convenience of a centralized system, and now we are paying the price of going that route and not keeping the local diversified system vibrant.”

“People are looking for what they can do without waiting for government, without waiting for reform, without going to big banks. For what can they do as citizens,” Witt says.

They are currently doing interviews for pilot loans. “Certainly by the end of the year we will have a loan or a couple loans in place, and then see about reaching out more broadly.”


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