Updated: May 19, 2020
What Ignites the Small Business Spirit in Kingston?
There’s a lingering revolutionary spirit in Kingston, NY. Being burned by the British during the Revolutionary War didn’t destroy it. Its decimation when IBM, the city’s major employer, closed its local plant wasn’t permanent. And today, its historic Stockade, artful Midtown and creek-side Waterfront Districts hum with an energy that, 15 years ago, would have seemed improbable.
A fierce determination to succeed on its own terms defines this city, and that determination lives within the many small-business owners who now claim Kingston as their own. With its ever-changing landscape of art shows, burgeoning culinary options, and diverse collection of storefronts, folks with dreams and determination are turning to this Hudson Valley city in the hopes of adding their own story to its colorful pages.
What does it take to run a successful business in Kingston, and why do so many business owners find success here? Aaron Quint, owner of the pop-up, bread-baking phenomenon Kingston Bread Lab, Karen Clark Adin, owner of eclectic uptown stalwart Bop to Tottom, and Amanda and Anthony Stromoski, owners of the beloved coffee/bar/bookshop Rough Draft, talk about their experience as business owners in Kingston, what they’ve learned along the way and how it’s the community here that makes them all successful.
“I have always been obsessed with breads,” Aaron says, noting that even as he pursued a career in the tech world he has never stopped dreaming of opening a sandwich shop. Aaron has teamed with Rough Draft to build a wildly popular weekend pop-up of bagels and bread, with the occasional pizza and pita night thrown in to keep things exciting. “My relationship with Rough Draft has been the greatest coincidence of my life.” Aaron notes that the partnership blossomed from inquisitive visits while Anthony and Amanda were renovating what was to become Rough Draft. As a neighbor, Aaron’s curiosity brought him to the site and simple conversations with Anthony and Amanda eventually lead to the birth of Kingston Bread Lab’s residence with the bookstore.
Ironically, it was simple conversation that helped cement the success of Rough Draft, too. “If you want a successful business, you need to talk about it and believe it,” Anthony maintains. Amanda agrees, adding, “Verbalizing it was scary because all of a sudden it was real.” But both note how critical it was for them to become a part of the Kingston community before the doors even opened. Wanting to avoid simply dropping into the historic Stockade district, Anthony and Amanda were committed to integrating themselves into the community.
“Communication and transparency have been our biggest helpers,” Anthony says, and he believes that inviting the Kingston community into their plans laid the foundation on which Rough Draft’s success was built. The community became a part of the plan, integral in the process and thus wasn’t surprised by what lay behind the old wooden doors when the business opened.
Karen agrees with the importance to any business owner of becoming a part of Kingston. “You really need to learn the community before you forge ahead and just open,” she says as she recalls the days she spent simply sitting uptown watching how people shopped, where they walked, and what was missing. Her shop, Bop to Tottom, has survived two decades in a city that has transformed mightily since she opened, and she credits her willingness to listen to her customers as part of her success. “When I first opened, it was nothing like it was today. I had more furniture, tabletop items, gifts, kid’s items. But I listened to my customers. I would ask them what they were looking for.”
Knowing what the community wants helps local business owners determine what they will supply. Anthony and Amanda support Karen’s assertion: “Some of our most successful events have been those suggested by our customers.” “We said yes to everything in the beginning,” Amanda adds, and doing so helped them learn what worked and what didn’t work. Marrying the desires and ideas of a spirited community while also staying true to one’s passions and goals as a business owner isn’t always the easiest task, but doing so means these Kingston businesses curate an experience that supports both the demands of the local community and their individual visions.
“I had spent 18-19 years in wholesale retail so I knew what I was getting into, but I was naive about what the local population wanted and that took a while to figure out. I’m still sometimes surprised by what moves people,” notes Karen. The process is indeed ongoing, as desires shift and morph. “We’re still figuring out how to market certain events and to whom,” says Amanda, but the idea is to always be open, flexible and constantly learning from what works…and what doesn’t.
“I am very well-versed in failure,” Aaron admits with a good-natured laugh. From crazy summer temperatures to losing an entire week’s worth of bread when a walk-in cooler broke, he’s faced his fair share of challenges. And in those moments, it’s individual passion and devotion to the Kingston community that keeps him going. “I have the most supportive group of friends and partners,” says Aaron, “and they’re the reason I’m doing this.” Creating a shared community space, where bar-goers sit alongside reading guests, is not without its challenges for Amanda and Anthony, either. “Open space can be a challenge when we’re having readings or events and there are people at the bar socializing,” Amanda notes, adding that she and Anthony built their business plan around two space layouts to reflect the impact of hosting an event.
Running a small business requires both planning and adaptability. “We came up with 5 or 6 core events that we knew we wanted,” says Amanda, and she and Anthony built other events around that plan. “Some ideas are more successful than others.” Aaron, on the other hand, faces the weekly challenge of uncertainty. “Trying to predict what will happen each weekend is impossible. I start the process on Wednesday basically not knowing exactly what we’ll need” to prepare for his weekly pop-up shop at Rough Draft. And of course, customers’ wants may not always mesh with what owners had hoped they would be. “You have to make decisions based on something other than your ego,” Karen maintains. “If you listen to your customers, they will tell you what they want. But you have to act on it.”
Karen, Aaron, Anthony and Amanda all agree on just what kind of customers Kingstonians are. “They are so flexible,” Aaron explains. “They’re just open to different things and have a general appreciation of people doing weird, creative things.” “My business has remained relevant because my intention was truly to improve my community,” adds Karen. “My customers have come to see the shop as their happy place. They come in and these wonderful, organic meetings happen and they’re always good.” Anthony praises the Kingston community for how warmly Rough Draft has been embraced. “Our neighborhood has been so welcoming and the people coming in every day keep us alive.”
Much like the city’s historic revolutionary figures, Kingston’s small business owners are finding power in its people: the power to build their dreams, to continuously create, and to succeed together.
Support the spirit. Visit Rough Draft, Bop to Tottom and Kingston Bread Lab.
Rough Draft Instagram @roughdraftny
Bop to Tottom Instagram @boptotottom
Kingston Bread Lab Instagram @kingstonbread