Gloria Griskowitz and Cathy Hamilton: The Sister Behind Putnam Market
We all have a vision for the perfect corner store we’re totally going to open one of these days. It will offer a fantastic array of local and exotic wares and be welcoming to all members of the community; it will have the ability to reflect the ever-shifting zeitgeist without imperiling the ethos of its founder (you!), while also managing to earn buckets of cash and the esteem of some of the world’s leading lifestyle mavens.
For many entrepreneurial Capital Region foodies, Gloria Griskowitz and Cathy Hamilton, the sisters behind Putnam Market, are the ultimate exemplars. Rachael Ray loves their stuff and has said so in print. The Food Network carries Putnam Market’s recipe for quiche. And the sisters sell millions of dollars worth of food and wine every year in a chic, brightly lit, well-laid-out store filled with happy-looking customers and staff.
Gloria and Cathy are more than happy to let foodies get a glimpse of the inner workings of their bustling business—and after a quick glance it’s clear that, nope, it’s not as easy as it looks. Under the effortless, sleek-looking surface, a veritable army of smart, hardworking people are collaborating to create what Ray has dubbed a “food-lover’s paradise of inventive sandwiches, tasty salads and fruity smoothies.”
Explosive laughter was the immediate response when asked if they were profitable from the start.
“It was a really hard slog for the first five years,” Cathy says seriously. But they knew they were onto something. They opened Putnam Market on Putnam Street in 1995.
“We had 11,000 square feet, and we did a little of everything, from meat to produce to pantry staples to fish,” she recalls. “Our niche at that point was high quality, which is a broad niche. We were basically a high-end grocery, before there was a Fresh Market or a Healthy Living here.”
Their vision was informed by Cathy’s travels across Europe and the States. “I went to business school in London, and I was introduced to all of these marvelous fresh markets,” she recalls. “Everything was the highest quality, and there were international options. There wasn’t anything like that in Saratoga, except for Roma’s, which was and is fantastic but is focused primarily on Italian gourmet foods.”
After five years in business, most start-ups have failed. In locations with distinct “seasons” like Saratoga Springs, the Hamptons or Cape Cod, flops pile up even faster. Putnam Market, while not in dire straits after five years, was not on easy street. They knew their formula needed to be tinkered with, and the first adjustment they made was to the space.
“In 2000, a food business in Saratoga Springs needed foot traffic to survive, especially outside of the busy track season,” Cathy says. They moved to their current home on Broadway, slashing their square footage in half but paying the same amount in rent for the primo location. With fewer shelves, and more pressure to carry only the highest-performing items, they decided to take a fierce and unforgiving look at their wares. They seem to be hardwired for canny, difficult business decisions.
Gloria, 52, and Cathy, 61, are two of eight children, all of whom are entrepreneurs. Their mother, now deceased, built a mini-empire of Scandinavian furniture stores in Pennsylvania, and their father, also deceased, ran a bricklaying business.
Do they have lofty ideals that inform and balance their hard-as-nails business philosophy? Absolutely.
“We’re mothers,” Gloria says. “I have four children and Cathy has two. We are a family-oriented business, and we want our business to reflect our values, which means having a diverse staff and welcoming people from all walks of life as our customers. Most of our departments are run by women, many of whom are young, single mothers, so we do everything we can to be flexible and accommodating.”
But first and foremost, they’re businesswomen. Cathy spent 12 years with GE in sales and marketing. She has degrees in chemistry and chemical engineering and an MBA from London Business School. Gloria spent seven years with Bristol-Myers Squibb and Clairol in New York City after graduating from Gettysburg College with a business degree. Hobby shop owners they are not.
“You have to be brutal when you decide what you want to sell,” Cathy says, taking a swig of coffee and leaning forward. “You can’t be nostalgic over that cute locally made salsa if it doesn’t sell. From the get-go, Gloria and I scanned everything through our registers and tracked sales. We knew what was moving and what wasn’t, and that’s how we decided to cut the meat and fish departments and reorient what we sold and why.”
Their niche got cozier. “There can’t be sacred cows in the product line,” Cathy says. “And you have to evolve. Don’t get me wrong. We love local products, and we carry as many as we can, but nonperishables have to come in lines for us to carry them, like Sundaes Best, Saratoga Peanut Butter Company and Lake Champlain Chocolate.”
These days, shoppers will also find, alongside those best-sellers, hipster gourmand must-haves like sriracha and Fever Tree tonic water, locally made coffee, potato chips, chocolate and beer.
As Cathy and Gloria say, change has been the key ingredient in their recipe for success. In 1998, they opened Putnam Wine with Cathy’s husband, William. An Englishman (they met in business school), he was a wine journalist before opening Putnam Wine. He runs the shop and offers occasional classes. Putnam Wines quickly became a favorite weekend afternoon destination for its frequent, generous, well-curated and free tastings of excellent wines.
In 2012, Cathy and Gloria revamped the store completely. They added a temperature- and humidity-controlled cheese room (brimming with mounds of Midnight Moon, Brie de Meaux, Parrano, seven-year-old cheddars….), and changed the emphasis from “future consumption” to “immediate consumption.”
While still carrying gourmet essentials (honey, olives, nuts), Gloria and Cathy explain they shifted to offer more from-scratch bakery and deli options with rotating, seasonal specials (strawberry rhubarb pie, gazpacho, tuna and cucumber sandwiches).
“Life is short,” Cathy says. “There are only so many meals. We want everything we give you to be delicious, and that means good butter, local eggs, the best chocolate and free-range turkey from Misty Knoll Farm in Vermont. We bring it here and roast it ourselves, even if it’s more expensive, and it is, believe me. But it’s worth it.”
Cathy and Gloria have every line item on their budget memorized, and while they wouldn’t let me peek at the spread, they did divulge that these days, a little more than one-third comes from their deli, one-third from prepared foods, one-fifth comes from wine and the balance comes from grocery.
As they navigate the increasingly crowded waters of the specialty food scene in Saratoga, they know that each choice—the more expensive but ecologically responsible, community-minded and tastier turkey—has a rippling set of consequences. And there are innumerable choices to make, every minute of the day.
“We are members of the community and we’re business people,” Gloria says. “We try to make every decision that we can with the human and the bottom line of our business in mind. Luckily, we’ve found that they almost always end up being intertwined.”
After finishing my coffee with Gloria and Cathy, an older woman pulled me aside as I walked out. She clearly thought I was applying for a job. “Young lady, you will learn from the best if you end up here,” she said. “Those two women are the best in the business.”
I think she may be right, actually. Besides, I can’t think of another place where I’d rather grab a delicious just-roasted turkey club, order a custom-made birthday cake, plan my next catered business lunch or grab a fabulous unpronounceable new wine varietal grown on Mt. Etna, why not?