Target. Macy's. The Limited. Brooks Brothers. Is this your Main Street? Certainly you have shopped in at least one of them. But have you ever considered how they may have transformed one small town's Main Street without ever opening doors there?
Main Streets across the nation are getting attention of late, with recognition that the once thriving centers of our small towns have fallen from grace and are needed to revive our nation's rural vibrancy. Bigger companies are getting in the game as are creative local leaders. Hobart, New York, has taken on a concentrated literary direction to save itself. Once nearly boarded up, now Hobart is one of 50 notable book towns across the globe with five bookstores -- some themed around old books, cookbooks, mysteries and some more general -- on the same street, on purpose. Mountain Dale, New York, has a committed local benefactor who bought up nearly dead Main Street real estate frontage and rented it out cheap to attract new business proprietors to give the town a new life.
Wal-mart, long credited with killing Main Street, has a new program -- Wal-Mart Reimagined -- to build "a carefully curated mix" of retail, food and entertainment businesses with wellness and green spaces thrown in that are intended to mimic the Main Streets of yore -- in Texas, Washington and Colorado -- but more closely resemble strip malls with a little added effort. And then there's Amazon, which I use with a bit of a guilty conscience even when I can't find what I need locally, that has really secured another nail in Main Street's coffin.
There's a big price to pay for killing Main Street because when each one dies, it takes residents and future homeowners with kids and dogs and 2 1/2 cars with them. And, once gone, Main Street is harder to revive than you think. Let's zoom in from Google Earth to Main Street in Livingston Manor, New York, a recent Catskills media darling with a lot of stories to tell. It's got everything: places to eat, places to shop, places to shop for good things to eat, inns, a florist, two wine shops, two gas stations, four hair salons/barbershops, some antique/junk shops, an automotive repair shop, a bakery, a hardware store, a microbrewery and another on the way, an outdoor supply store, a fly fishing gear and tackle shop... the list goes on. How it got here is a long, zigzagging story of trial and error, starts and re-starts, vision and dedication. One anchor on Main Street is not just a business, not just another good idea, but a quiet, stalwart visionary: Jon Westergreen.
Originally from Minnesota, Jon set out to work as a buyer for Target in the mid 1990s. His work took him from Minneapolis to San Francisco to Ohio and finally to New York and through some pretty big brands including Macy's, The Limited and ultimately to Brooks Brothers, a job that landed him at a co-worker's birthday party where he met his wife Elizabeth. He cut his teeth on the backs of these big establishments -- sourcing, buying, crunching numbers, building strategies that bridged their established practices and more entrepreneurial startup ideas to help them gain a better foothold in new markets. But love is love and shortly after meeting his future wife, Jon bought a cozy, little escape hatch near Amber Lake in 2002 and did the fixer-upper thing on the weekends. This kind of work can save your soul. It was sorely needed too, after years of the corporate grind, Jon was working too hard and had become a little bit bored.
All of that was about to change. Fixing up a place can make you pretty hungry. Jon zeroed in on what he wanted, figuring that other folks might want it too. He wanted better food. How could he be in the middle of farm country and not be able to get the fresh food he craved? He ignored other signs, like the preponderance of gangs on Main Street's short midsection and the fact that the locals here had long suffered from not seeing, feeling or participating in a vibrant economy, one that provides hope and a good example of how to get things moving. None of that mattered, at least not yet.
Jon bought the building at 49 Main Street, next to the gas station, and set out to create something special, something useful, a place to get some good food, some fresh vegetables and maybe a sandwich. Enter Main Street Farm. One May day, early on, Jon sat outside with his former corporate strategy hat on, thinking about his idea. He watched and counted a robust two passersby who might serve as future clients. Still he pushed on.
His corporate experience also gave Jon perspective. He had seen Macy's when it filed for Chapter 11 and if a giant like that can fall, then certainly a Main Street project where Main Street was barely holding on by a thread could too. "Start with an exit plan," was his strategy. Jon was cautious. He bought all of his equipment on eBay, no doubt from sellers whose similar businesses had failed.
Jon listened to stories and watched other businesses come and go. A Wall Street executive who vacationed near Livingston Manor as a kid returned with a big vision to build a world-class spa in a "go big or go home" approach to transforming the area. It was never realized. Others with local roots, swam back upstream to spawn as well, with varying degrees of success. With cheap real estate and a weakened economy, especially after the 2008 crash, Main Street was also vulnerable to attracting the wrong kind of people. Jon was threatened by one of them, but persisted, his even midwestern temperament keeping him steady.
At first, Main Street Farm was a hobby. Jon never consciously planned for it to be a viable business. But subconsciously, he worked hard, sourced from local farmers who had never really had much of a local outlet before, hired locally and under the banner of "Eating is an Agricultural Act" in his shop, Main Street Farm began to take shape. I remember very clearly from the early years, that no matter when we drove upstate from the city, Jon would be there, open and ready for business. Often, we were the only ones in the store, optimistically buying a little bit of everything -- in addition to our delicious egg sandwiches with bright-orange yolks cooked over a tiny grill barely big enough for a single egg -- just to encourage him to be there the next time, open and waiting. In 2012, Jon bought 36 Main Street, renovated and expanded his operation there, adding a cafe in 2014 and a broader menu.
Today, Main Street Farm is a bustling hub. On the weekdays, you can overhear meetings between folks excited to bring their ideas to a new environment and laptops clickety-clicking with folks devising their next big plan. On the weekends, a line snakes through both sides of the store and the tables are full of weekenders, locals and folks just passing through. It's not always easy to keep it going. Although he has a few solid soldiers, Jon sees a revolving roster of staff and struggles to find the right recipe of skill, will and fit with his team. Sometimes the food comes out too slowly. And while he's working on it in his own way, it's also part of the charm. You're not supposed to be in a hurry here. And folks are nice if you take the time to meet them in line. It's easy to take for granted, this bustling store, that's got delicious treats and new items to try all the time, but I just like to remind myself and others, that before Main Street Farm we barely ventured on to Main Street unless we needed new hiking boots or a full tank of gas.
By the time 2015 rolled around, Jon was unhappy. He was still working at Brooks Brothers and grinding it out upstate to keep his hobby afloat. He needed to be in two places at once all the time and it just got old. He finally said his goodbyes to corporate life and committed himself to Main Street Farm full time, and then some. With his newfound free time, new ideas seeped in. Jon doubled down in Livingston Manor and opened The Kaatskeller, a brick oven pizza place with a couture cocktail menu, across from Main Street Farm in 2016 with support from a few weekender investors. If you've never been to The Kaat, you have surely seen it. It has become somewhat of a poster child for the current Catskills renaissance. With its downturned outdoor lights dangling romantically over a collection of long picnic tables, an outdoor fire pit with just enough Adirondack chairs to fit you and your BFFs, The Kaatskeller is the perfect hangout for a long summer evening. In the winter, a smaller group of stalwart weekenders and locals encircle an upstairs bar and with a clubhouse feel.
Jon married Elizabeth in a Sullivan County-sourced wedding just outside of Narrowsburg in 2006. Their daughter, now 11, followed a year later. Jon and Elizabeth's wedding was a labor of love that tipped its hat in the direction of another deep passion for Jon. Long before he gave up on his initial "exit strategy," Jon Westergreen married himself to the idea that this close to the farm, we should have delicious fresh food to eat. Local purveyors, too, who use the same farm resources to make delicious products -- like pasta, cheese, yogurt and bread -- deserve a place to be seen. Jon has given more than 30 farms a home, an outlet and a stage on which to display their best work.
Main Street Farm and its sister The Kaatskeller across the street, are at the heart of what makes Livingston Manor sing. They are not the only ones, Jon is quick to point out. Morgan Outdoors, Nest, Upstream Wine & Spirits, Willow & Brown, the Catskill Brewery and the various Foster Supply Hospitality properties down the road, to name a few -- all anchor the town and benefit from each other's collective success. More and more new places with big ideas are coming to town. The Smoke Joint, a Brooklyn-based ribs place is opening a nearby location. A sake mecca is taking over a farm down the road. Upward Brewery is coming soon too, with a kitchen-helmed by the former Rolling River team. A furniture store. A co-working space. A coffee roaster. Success begets success.
Make no mistake about it, success is hard-won here. It takes a vision and a blinding passion that makes you look the other way when you see trouble, deep-rooted challenges or an economic downturn. Slow and steady wins the race here. So far, Jon Westergreen has not tired of the day-in and day-out work. As a matter of fact, he is always thinking about what's next. Next for Jon is a taco joint (modeled a bit after Chelsea Market's crazy delicious Los Tacos No. 1) to open some time in the near future in a charming old Victorian on Pearl Street. And one thing's for sure, tacos are not the last next thing we will see out of Jon. Not by a long shot.
XOXO Farm Girl