Troy Kitchen: Paying It Forward
As shopping malls decline, curated food halls rise. Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich set the mold with the Italian-themed Eataly in 2010, and every iteration since bears remnants of their audacious vision.
They all seem to have their own focus or angle; in Troy, it’s opportunity.
Troy Kitchen is housed in the 7,000-square-foot former Pioneer Food Co-op space. Founder Cory Nelson opened its doors in February 2016, single-handedly delivering a real opening for young, hungry, broke chefs with a dream to own their own business, a one-stop foodie shop for office workers during the week, a space for musicians and poets to create and entertain new audiences, and a sparkling dose of cultural razzle-dazzle in a city with too-few nightlife options.
And when I say “single-handedly,” I mean that quite literally.
“I’m my only employee,” Cory jokes. In addition to coming up with the concept, securing short-term and long-term loans and investors, doing much of the construction and build-out himself, he acts as all-around daddy and camp counselor to the business-owners-in-training he brings in, masterminds the space’s robust and colorful social media presence and directs its bar program (even though he doesn’t drink alcohol).
Not that there haven’t been some serious setbacks.
“There have been days that I’ve thought ‘what am I doing?’ but I just press on,” he says. Essentially, Troy Kitchen functions as a high-end food court and small-business incubator. But it’s more than the sum of its parts. “Businesses apply to come here for one year. This gives them an opportunity to completely flesh out their concept, see what works and what doesn’t, all without the pressure of capital investment. I have a chef’s kitchen, sprinklers, insurance, garbage service, walk-in coolers. With a few small fees, you can own your own business in a week with minimal risk.”
That was Cory’s concept from the get-go, and it still is. But about a year in, Cory realized for his business to not just survive, but thrive, a few line items in his master plan needed to be edited.
“Of the 10 million things I learned in the first year open, the most important was that our prices needed to change,” Cory explains. “People who live and work in Troy—our customers—make about $50,000 a year. They don’t want to spend $10 on lunch. So I talked to the vendors and we adjusted our menus so they could produce food of the same quality for a cheaper price.”
So now, there’s a $5 turmeric-scented roasted lamb gyro luxuriating in a tart lemony-yogurt sauce and wrapped in soft, warm pita at Halal Palace, and $6 salty fried chicken wings on pillow-y waffles at Grandma G’s Soul Food, instead of fancy $10 sandwiches with arugula.
Currently, there are multiple restaurants in place that turn over and are replaced on a semi-annual basis, in addition to the bar/lounge that Cory masterminds and tends himself. Each vendor cranks through 200+ plates a day. The bar—especially on Monday’s poetry slam nights and Wednesday’s jazz nights—is hopping, and the specials ($5 mojitos, $4 beers) flow like wine.
Last year’s revelation brought the space in line with what the community wanted from a food court. And the reception from the community has been qualified rapture. Daniel Berman, of Fussy Little Blog and Yelp fame, says Troy Kitchen is a “fabulous place” worthy of both date night and a hearty lunch hour with the kidlets—a rare combo. (He does call out some logistical issues, though, namely a lack of trays and accessible tap water.)
After tweaking the menu to suit the city’s palate, Cory made some financial adjustments as well. He worked with the Troy Local Development Corporation to change the terms of its $50,000 loan, spreading the remaining balance of roughly $40,000 over four years, instead of the original two.
Now, Cory says he can focus his attention on more fully supporting the needs of the fledgling businesses he’s taken under his wing.
“I’ve started to realize that I may actually be doing too much, too silently for the businesses,” Cory explains. “Any new business in the real world is hit with all kinds of issues, from failing equipment to garbage issues to marketing problems, on an almost daily basis. But I handled all of the overhead and back-end issues, and I didn’t really discuss it with them. I just let them run their shops. I’ve started talking them through the realities of the obstacles they’ll face so they don’t get out in the real world and go into shock.”
Pushing past obstacles is something he’s had to do his whole life, and something that he has to remind himself doesn’t always come naturally to the rest of us. Cory is African-American and was born and raised in East New York, a tough area of Brooklyn. He went to Howard College in Washington, DC, and studied industrial chemistry.
“Sure I faced obstacles just because of who I am and where I came from. But you know what? I didn’t think about it,” Cory says. “I set it aside. You have two choices in life: You either jump over the barriers people put up in front of you or you let them stop you. Get you down. Me? I like to dig in and get around them, build my own community and network to get where I see myself needing to go.”
When Cory moved to Troy four years ago to work as an independent consultant for New York State, opening a restaurant was the last thing on his mind. On one of his first nights in Troy, he hit the Lucas Confectionery Wine Bar for a (nonalcoholic) drink and got to talking with the guy behind the bar.
“It just happened to be Vic Christopher, the king of Troy,” he laughs. (Christopher and partner Heather LaVine have been credited with the resurgence of Troy’s nightlife and culinary scene, drawing accolades from national critics for their work at the wine bar and Peck’s Arcade.) “He became my best friend and showed me Troy and its potential. I ate my way through every restaurant here with him.”
He loved every morsel but was left hungering for the potential of Troy to finally be realized. As Cory began to understand the ins and outs of development and the often impossible task of securing money for an untried restaurant venture, and as he fell in love with a city filled with brilliant ideas and inspiring concepts but very little capital, he decided to bridge the gap between notions and reality for dreamers himself.
Two restaurants from the first round of tenants—Bespoki Bowl and K-Plate Korean BBQ—have opened their own places. Two more have deals in the works. One decided being an entrepreneur wasn’t for him (yet).
“Seeing these guys graduate from Troy Kitchen to their own businesses or finding that it’s just not for them makes me so proud,” Cory says. “In a way, Troy Kitchen is paying it forward for Troy as a whole, because every new business brings in new foot traffic, makes the quality of life in the city that much better overall.”
Cory isn’t finished. “I’m going to open a second location,” he says. “The details should be in place in the coming months. I’m in talks with people in Rochester, Syracuse and Schenectady. I really love Schenectady.”
Like sliced bread or peanut butter and chocolate, the Troy Kitchen concept seems painfully obvious, now that it’s been done. But it took someone who intimately understands the power of opportunity—given and refused—to figure out how to seamlessly give it to others. Can’t wait to see where he takes the concept next.
Troy Kitchen is at 77 Congress Street in Troy.