New York’s century-old businesses offer lessons in survival
What is reliable in New York is change.
It’s what many borough businesses have been adapting to — and counting on — for at least a century, even before the Empire State and Chrysler buildings were built.
These companies have weathered the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression, through the 2008 financial crisis and the pandemic, so far – even if a spike in COVID-19 cases means they are facing additional uncertainty.
Over the decades, these mostly family-owned businesses have balanced respect for tradition and pivoting when needed. They have maintained roots in local communities even as their customer base has grown.
The longevity and resilience of these businesses shows “the commitment to New York City and the commitment to their community and to the customers they have,” said Clinton Blume, president of the Hundred Year Association. even not being yet 100 years old, having started in 1927.
“A lot of companies come and go, but these are the ones that survived and kept their culture.”
Five businesses in the city can teach what it takes to keep going.
“We weathered the storm”
William Poll Gourmet Foods sells groceries and provides catering from its Upper East Side storefront on Lexington Avenue. According to chairman Stanley Poll, whose parents founded the company in 1921, the shop values tradition, relying on “tried and true” family recipes and premium foods imported from Europe.
“Because it bears the family name, I kept it with my life,” Poll, 82, said. “Revenues have weathered the storm. We weathered the storm.
The shop initially offered mainly tea sandwiches and appetizers, evolving into a wider range of foods, including elaborate gingerbread houses, and later embracing e-commerce to ship its treats worldwide. the whole world.
Even though the pandemic has changed his customers’ shopping habits in recent years, Poll said they “always wanted quality”: the comforting chicken pot pie, the popular watercress dip, French chocolates and apples of baked earth in small batches – the kind of stuff that has kept actors like Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall and Yul Brynner coming back.
The company hit its 100-year milestone last year, but Poll didn’t mark it. Instead, it will “celebrate the launch of the second 100” with a store renovation that will begin in the summer and is expected to be completed in the fall. Yet he plans for the future by looking to the past. For example, he tries to get a pie from Saint-Tropez that he discovered in the 1980s.
“We bring back a lot of the old because it may fade from sight, but it never fades from your memory,” Poll said.
Getting through tough times
Perseverance in the face of difficulties helped Watercress Flower Decorators survive in different iterations since 1903, when it took the form of a handcart in Manhattan.
“You take a deep breath and do what you have to do,” said Lori Cress, who runs the florist with her husband Tom, whose grandfather founded the business, which provides floral decor for weddings and events. .
During the economic recession of the early 1980s, Cress had to close a previously thriving Long Island City storefront. The family also moved their Woodside location to Little Neck, the site ever since.
They went through a similar wave after the 2008 crash, when Cress and her husband refinanced their home, and she got a job at Bloomingdale’s to make ends meet.
Hurricane Sandy resulted in many canceled weddings — a big disruption considering Cress’ planning process begins about two years before the blessed date.
But the pandemic was “a whole different story,” Cress said. The couples postponed their wedding several times and the business closed for three months. Weddings started up again in March 2021. But by June, Cress had only had as many weddings in the month as she typically had in a single weekend.
The pandemic has had an emotional impact beyond the financial toll. When clients called Cress to cancel weddings or request funeral flowers, they spoke of their struggles and worries.
Now she has “tons and tons and tons” of weddings planned for 2022, while booking them for 2023.
What drives her forward? “When my bride hugs and kisses me and moms tell me how beautiful everything is,” Cress said as she shed a few tears.
Loyalty works both ways
Defonte Sandwich Shop in Red Hook will be 100 years old this year. For Nick Defonte, who is part of the third generation to run the store, loyalty is the secret sauce.
“My dad always told me, ‘Treat everyone right, treat everyone with respect, and they’ll always come back,'” he said.
After Hurricane Sandy and severe snowstorms, customers returned within four days, he said.
Some customers come five days a week and others have been ordering the same sandwich for 70 years. Some remember buying a foil-wrapped sandwich for 10 cents to take on field trips in elementary school. Defonte has known clients since he was a child. He worries if the days go by and his regulars don’t show up.
He carries on his grandfather’s tradition of giving sandwiches to people who cannot afford them.
“No one ever leaves here hungry,” he said. “When you treat people like that, when they get back on their feet, they remember you.”
Loyalty also extends to workers and suppliers. Its most senior employees have worked in the shop for decades, enjoying the hours that end relatively early compared to most jobs in the food industry.
And in the wake of supply chain issues, Defonte is relying on longstanding relationships to get what it needs.
“Thank goodness we have guys we’ve been dealing with for years, so we’re kind of the first, in a lot of ways,” Defonte said, citing Kings Highway Bakery, which supplies the store’s bread, as an example. . “We are almost a family.”
Like Frank’s Sports Shop in the Bronx completes a century this year, being on the cutting edge has made the store indispensable. Sure, it still sells live bait, uniforms for essential workers like paramedics and postal workers, and authentic jerseys, but Frank’s was also one of the first to sell brands like Canada Goose, Carhart, Under Armour. and Timberland before they “became fashionable”.
That’s according to Ron Stein, the general merchandise manager and third generation to run the store, which works with 30 Major League Baseball teams, supplied merchandise for the “Saturday Night Live” segments and sold beds in hospitals during the pandemic.
Stein finds it satisfying when, through word of mouth or visiting trade shows, he finds something new and sees customers embracing it. He soon wants to offer jackets with integrated heating and baseball bats designed with Bill Nye, the scientist.
Supply chain issues, however, still pose a problem. Some orders placed a year ago have not yet arrived.
“I’m looking for merchandise right now,” Stein said.
He’s had to get creative with sourcing items, negotiating with companies and swapping goods with friends in the industry, but still expects limited shoe options and sizes in the spring.
Beyond that, he says he’ll “see what happens.” I’ll let you know in five or ten years.
Back to the roots
Staten Island baker Jill Holtermann Bowers and her team of nine employees have returned to her great-grandfather’s roots to better serve their most vulnerable customers during the pandemic.
In 1878, Holtermann Bakery delivered custom orders to customers’ homes via horse and buggy. In the decades that followed, customers typically lined up outside the South Shore bakery to receive their orders.
But in early 2020, Holtermann Bowers noticed some seniors started calling and adding essential grocery items, like eggs and milk, to their regular orders. She therefore sent employees to deliver the orders directly to their doorstep.
“We’ve also tried to help people in need, because that’s what it’s all about when things like this happen. That’s what community businesses do,” said Holtermann Bowers, who started working in the bakery right out of high school. “For older customers who were afraid of going to supermarkets and all that – we had bread and eggs etc – we helped them as much as we could.”
The holidays from Halloween to Easter are the owner’s favorite because each attracts different long-time customers.
While speaking with THE CITY, Holtermann Bowers was approached by an elderly customer who told the baker she used to work in the shop when she was a young teenager but was made redundant when they found out she was underage. Another customer stopped by to remind her that they had gone to high school together.
“And you know all of your customers, so we also take that personally,” Holtermann Bowers said. “We have to take care of them. They take care of our business, we have to take care of them. This is how it works. They are there for us all the time. Some of these customers have also been with us for 50 years.
Holtermann Bowers’ family own the building in which the store is located – a privilege, his mother reminded him, that allowed them to weather the pandemic. It has bolstered their support for small businesses, especially seeing other moms and pops not succeeding.
“My heart is with them. I try to help them as much as possible. Every time we go out, we go to a restaurant or a restaurant to support them,” said Holtermann Bowers. they are: small business. My dad will tell you. You are a small business owner, you also respect small business.