Utica's Homegrown Renaissance
It began with a pub—always a good place to start. Then came a farm-to-table restaurant, a bakery, distillery, brewery and even a winery smack in the heart of a city known for its beer. All this has evolved in a section of Utica that has seen hard times.
Sometimes it takes a fresh eye to see possibility.
This is a story of homegrown entrepreneurs who saw—and seized—the opportunity to open a business, practice their craft, offer a place and a product that filled a gap, and invest in their city. Utica’s downtown renaissance has it all: vision, risk, commitment and success. And really tasty results.
NAIL CREEK PUB
A few paces from the Saranac Brewery stood a decrepit brick house surrounded by empty storefronts and smoky bars. Chris and Tracey Talgo bought the structure for a song in 2005 and rescued it from razing.
Talgo knew he could create a market for craft, so he quit his job as a GIS analyst to focus exclusively on the building’s renovation and business development. Nail Creek Pub opened in May 2008, breathing new life into the West End. Patrons now stand several deep at the bar exploring the 12 beers on tap, or they relax on the outside porch and deck. The food? Local with a gourmet twist. Shrimp po’ boys, bánh mì, poutine with Stoltzfus cheese curds. Grass-fed burgers on brioche rolls baked a mile away. This is the home of the Utica Club side: Swap out fries for a U.C. draft.
“I wanted to have a place where people could enjoy great food, beer and conversation,” Talgo says. “Visitors from all over wander in and feel welcome. It’s safe in this neighborhood even at night. Our Sunday brunch has become ridiculously popular. And during the summer, Saranac has outdoor concerts so we tag onto that with a pre- and post-show here on the back patio.”
Best news of all? The pub will start brewing again this summer adding their lineup to the taps.
THE TAILOR AND THE COOK
A few years into Nail Creek, Talgo brought Tim Hardiman, his best friend since sixth grade, to see a vacant 19th-century building on lower Genesee Street. Hardiman thought Talgo was out of his mind—no one would come to that part of downtown at night. “But Chris got my wife, Melissa, on board, and we bought the building in July 2011. The Tailor and the Cook opened seven months later.”
Talgo and Hardiman’s business mantra is simple: Find spaces that have character, source high-quality products, and don’t play with either too much. Everything is local, from the ingredients to the reclaimed barn wood and brick interior, salvaged wine barrels converted to chandeliers, and bottles as pendant lights.
“I’m a seasonal chef and love to create, so my menu evolves. Why have standbys when I have so many options?” Hardiman works magic with the best of central New York farms: house-pickled or roasted veggies, fresh harvested greens, wild mushrooms and farmstead dairy. Beef, lamb, pork, goat and chicken all grazed happily on local pastures. Moreover, Tailor and Cook offers a deep list of exceptional New York wines by the glass or bottle, reflecting Hardiman and Talgo’s commitment to the Empire State.
Hardiman earned his culinary degree from Paul Smith’s and then worked in Boston and the Adirondacks before returning home. These experiences infuse his acclaimed restaurant, a place where tweed coats mingle comfortably with leather motorcycle jackets. “The city has rallied around what we’ve done,” Hardiman notes, “and the locals keep us in business. We’re now open six nights a week because that’s what people asked for.”
Our culinary heroes Hardiman and Talgo recognized the city’s next need, so the entrepreneurs opened Utica Bread in July 2015. Located just two doors up from Tailor and Cook, the bakery specializes in hearth-baked European-style breads and pastries, entirely shaped by hand. A team of bakers and pastry chefs crank out baguettes, ciabatta, brioche, dinner rolls and at least six styles of crusty breads. Affcionados of butter and flake swoon over the pain au chocolat, cinnamon snails and savory croissants. Although the well-stocked retail store is open daily, 60% of the business is wholesale to other area restaurants and delis. Which means almost anywhere you nosh, you can be assured of a locally baked slice or roll.
ADIRONDACK DISTILLING COMPANY
Great minds drink alike. A political consultant, lawyer and doctor conceived this haven of hooch in 2010. Jordan Karp was working on a local politician’s campaign and pitched the idea to Steve Cox, a lawyer, and Bruce Elwell, a doctor. Karp and Cox took a weeklong distilling course at Cornell and then attended whiskey school in the Catskills. At every point during their education, the men thought, “We can do this.”
The trio purchased a vacant 1920s bank on Varick Street in August 2011. Once the extensive renovation was complete, they brought on two distillers, Nick Mahaney and Luke Miller, both from New Hartford.
Adirondack spirits are authentically upstate, made entirely with corn grown within 100 miles of downtown Utica. The ground corn arrives once a week from the mill in Sangerfield, 20 miles away, then is transformed into neutral spirits.
By law, vodka must be filtered, so the distillery teamed up with the Herkimer Diamond Mine. “We chill the spirit to 29 degrees,” Karp explains, “and run it through quartz crystal diamonds and charcoal which leaves the liquid smooth, not harsh.” The distillery also produces one of the few corn-based gins in the world.
The results? Vodka bears natural sweetness from the corn with notes of vanilla. The citrus-for- ward gin is infused with Alpine bilberries, native to the Adirondacks, and 11 botanicals. Bourbon carries a pleasant smokiness from the toasted oak barrel along with hints of butterscotch and dried fruits. Tastings are available seven days a week, and their products are sold in 300 stores throughout New York. Despite garnering multiple awards, the booze is accessibly priced around 20 dollars.
“Utica has become a cool city,” Karp observes, “with people supporting artisan products and local avors. ese newish businesses are captivating and sustaining those of us who actually live and work here.”
MOHAWK VALLEY WINERY
A winery in downtown Utica??
The owners of Mohawk Valley Winery looked around the state and knew that Utica was ripe for an urban boutique winery. Mitra May manages the operation and credits Ben Kernan, owner of the building, as essential to their success.
The winery sources grapes, wines and juices from New York and California, then blends, ferments, and bottles right on Varick Street. Wines are available by the glass and bottle in the taproom. “We make 14 varietals here and carry more than 50 wines,” May says. “Most popular are the Boilermaker 15K Riesling, which we make to celebrate that world-class road race, and the Symphony, a varietal using grapes from California’s Lodi region. It’s a delicious summer white and smells of tropical flowers.”
“Our goal is to expand people’s knowledge of wine and break stereotypes. We have something for everyone, from serious connoisseurs who appreciate fine reds and whites to Champagne cocktails and even wine slushies for kicks.” Tastings are available by appointment or just walk in. And don’t miss the impressive range of snacks and desserts to enjoy with your wine.
Carl Mierek grew up on a small dairy farm outside of Utica, studied conservation biology at St. Lawrence University, worked at environmental nonpro ts and nally returned to his roots in all senses of the word. He moved back in 2014 and started a veggie farm on his family land.
When a relative saw the chance to open a small restaurant in East Utica, Mierek jumped on board. He now runs the Local, located in a renovated former public library. “ e space itself is pretty spectacular and makes a great gathering place. We’ve had baby showers, birthday parties—including one for the former librarian of that branch—and even a yoga class dinner. e community loves it here because they came here when this was the East Utica library.”
Not surprisingly, the interior retains a cozy atmosphere with comfy couches, natural woods and stocked bookshelves. It feels like a friend’s living room ... that just happens to double as a café. Mierek’s menu is pleasantly simple with staples like French toast, burgers, salads, mac and cheese, seasonal fruits and produce. Of course, the ingredients are locally sourced, many from his own garden. And any leftover food waste goes right to Mierek’s animals back on the farm.
WOODLAND FARM BREWERY
Keith Redhead and Nick Natishak met while teaching high school and started brewing together six years ago, a collaboration that led to the Woodland Farm Brewery. Redhead’s degree in biology marries with the science of fermentation while Natishak, a physics teacher, gravitates toward the engineering and equipment end. Redhead has produced more than 60 different avors of beer. “I try to brew something new each time,” he reports. “Tweaking recipes keeps it creative for me.”
This wide variety rotates through the dozen taps along with English-style cask ales. Barrel-aged brews, aged in oak vessels made a few miles north in Remsen by Adirondack Barrel Cooperage, are available in bottles.
People enjoy the rural location, just five minutes from downtown Utica and Thruway Exit 31. And travelers heading to or from the Adirondacks can swing in for a pint and a bite to eat. Don’t be put off by the corrugated metal exterior. It’s what’s inside that matters. The founders wanted to create a community-oriented place that welcomes all ages, and the spotless white pine taproom offers live music, card games and trivia nights.
Although Woodland doesn’t have a food license, a rotation of food trucks sets up from Wednesday through Sunday. Patrons relax at picnic tables with their food, drink, live music and a beautiful view of the rolling hills. Rick’s Roaming BBQ has been a mainstay even through the winter, with thick grilled burgers, sweet sausages, pulled pork and chili infused with Woodland beer.
Amy Pawlusik, who has tended bar from the start, adds a nal note. “We collaborate with a commercial hops grower up the road. In the first week of June, we’re hosting a hops plant sale right outside the brewery. Educators from Cornell Cooperative Extension will be here to o er information geared toward home brewers interested in growing their own plants. It makes perfect sense for us as a farm brewery to host an event like this. We want to be a resource for the brewing community here in central New York.”
Keith Redhead, of Woodland Brewery, offers his assessment of the downtown renaissance: “Entrepreneurs in Utica are developing these creative businesses that attract tourism and sustain the locals, and younger people now have increased pride in their city with these tangible outlets.”
Or as Tim Hardiman, Tailor and Cook’s guru, puts it, “Chris and I are keeping more than 40 people employed. If we’re going to be away from our families working these crazy hours, we damn well better be doing something worthwhile.”