By Ed Staskus
It is a tough road to hoe starting up a new business. More than 30% fail within two years, 50% within five years, and less than a third survive ten years, according to the Small Business Administration. The numbers for restaurants are even worse.
Within three years of opening 60% of new restaurants close, says Randy White of the White Hutchinson Leisure Group. Business Insider calculates that 80% of New York restaurant start-ups fail within five years while American Express puts the number at a scary 90%.
It’s a wonder anyone ever opens a new restaurant at all.
When Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar, an edgy gastropub, opened five years ago across the street from the Lamb Lumber Yard on the quiet side of Lake Placid in the Adirondacks, in northern New York, the odds were stacked even higher.
Tim Loomis and Keegan Konkoski, co-restaurateurs and owners, had never been in business for themselves, had no marketing or financial experience, and were an ex-romantic-couple-to-be.
They had almost no capital to get their restaurant off the ground, either. “Our financial backing was family members,” said Keegan.
“We bare-boned it. Every time we made a dollar, we put it back into the restaurant. We couldn’t even afford to buy bar stools with backs.”
“We lost some customers who said the stools didn’t have backs,” added Tim. “Nothing about the food and drink, just the stools.”
Anyone stumbling into Liquids and Solids its first year had to locate the stools first.
“We only had two floor lamps, so nobody could see,” said Keegan. “It was funny, but frustrating, so every time we made another dollar, we bought a new lamp.”
Their building at the bottom of the curve on Sentinal Road across from the Chubb River for which they had signed a seven-year lease was also a problem. Several previous restaurants had already failed in the same space.
“We knew it was tiny and needed a lot of love,” said Keegan.
“Really, it was a total piece of crap.”
Mr. Loomis and Ms. Konkoski plowed ahead and opened in June 2010 on Tim Loomis’s birthday.
“We were young and dumb and didn’t know what we were doing,” said Keegan. ”But when we talked about it we thought, let’s just try it.”
Their first special was grilled chicken thigh with tarragon, creamed spinach, goat cheese, arugula salad, garbanzo beans, baby beets, and preserved lemon, followed by what they called their painkiller dessert, caramelized pineapple, orange scented coconut ice cream, nutmeg tuile, and dark rum sauce.
It was a taste of things to come, but then the roof fell in. The New York State Liquor Authority held up their liquor license for two months.
Gross profit margins on food are usually 32 to 38 percent, according to John Nessel of the Restaurant Resource Group, while gross margins on liquor are usually 60 to 80 percent. No one sat on the backless bar stools for the first part of the summer even if they had wanted to.
“When we finally got liquor that helped,” said Keegan. “But Lake Placid is a tough place to open something like this.”
What she meant was a place whose menu is printed on reused paper, but which features avant-garde small-plate finesse. A place which is often crazy creative, combining ingredients like oranges, ‘chic’ peas, and licorice on the same plate, but which sources almost all of its ingredients locally, most of them from the off-the-beaten-path town of Keeseville in an off-the-beaten-path corner of the Adirondacks. And a place whose plates would stand out at any restaurant anywhere, but whose food wizard, Tim Loomis, keeps understated and, in his own words, modest.
“I use very simple ingredients,” said Tim.
Although the name suggests the basics of food and drink, solids and liquids, it is with artless grace anything but basic.
“Don’t be fooled by its dive-bar façade and no-frills interior,” wrote Lionel Beehner in the New York Times in December 2011. “This recently opened gastropub boasts an inventive ‘solids’ menu, combining farm-to table dishes like Utica-style chard and rabbit confit gnocchi.”
“What we offer is the kind of cuisine we like ourselves,” said Keegan. “When the Spotted Pig in New York City came on our radar way back when I thought, gosh, that’s more our style, more our speed.”
The Spotted Pig in Greenwich Village, which like Liquids and Solids is small, doesn’t take reservations, and serves what has been described as “heroically satisfying” food, was one of the first upscale gastropubs, opening in 2004, and setting the standard since.
“I did a short stint at the Lake Placid Lodge and that was the undoing of fine dining for me,” said Tim. “I just wanted no part of it. It wasn’t fun. It should be a celebration, not just sit there stuffy with linens.”
Tim Loomis and Keegan Konkoski are both from the North Country. Tim is from the Northeast Kingdom area of Vermont and Keegan is from Tupper Lake in the Adirondacks, although they came to Liquids and Solids by different paths. Mr. Loomis trained in the culinary program at Paul Smith College and interned in France while Ms. Konkoski graduated from the school of hard knocks.
“Interning in France was pretty phenomenal,” said Tim. “I learned more there than I did at culinary school.”
Keegan plied her trade at the Foot Rest Café in Saranac Lake, a small town fronting on Lake Flower.
“I was always a cook there, since I was 16,” she said.
They met at the Wawbeek Lodge, a late19th-century Great Camp on the Upper Saranac Lake that is no longer there, which, until it closed in 2007, was renowned for its Adirondacks-style cuisine. The restaurant, with a stone chimney that split to let a double staircase pass through, was in a building perched on a bluff of boulders.
A large blank-faced moose shot and killed and beheaded by President Theodore Roosevelt looked down from a wall of the Moose and Bear Lounge upstairs from the restaurant. Craft beers were served there before there were craft beers.
“It always had a great reputation and chef,” Tim said. “I worked there the whole time I was in school. It was my first introduction to good food. It was at Wawbeek that they met. “I was dating one of Tim’s co-workers,” said Keegan. “When the Wawbeek closed everybody went to work at the Freestyle, which was opening in Lake Placid. I was at North Country College then, but I told them, hey, I don’t have a day job, do you want me to help paint, schlep chairs, whatever.”
Schlepping led to bussing tables to eventually becoming Freestyle’s bartender, while Tim worked on the line in the kitchen. “We dated for a long time,” said Keegan. “We were together romantically for eleven years. Tim says ten, but it was eleven.”
When the first incarnation of Freestyle closed Tim and Keegan moved on to Lisa G’s, a longstanding casual dining restaurant popular with both locals and out-of-towners. It was across the street from the Handlebar, which would become Liquids and Solids at the Handlebar.
“We knew we wanted to own a restaurant one day, and we loved the area,” said Keegan.
Lake Placid is one of the gateways to the High Peaks of the Adirondacks, a range of 46 mountains. Canoeing and kayaking in the innumerable rivers and lakes, hiking, and mountain biking are popular in the summer. “Mountain biking is my passion,” said Keegan.
Skiing and snowboarding are go-to’s in the cold-be-damned winter. It is the kind of cold that warps snowflake crystals so that they sparkle.
One week in 2013 when Liquids and Solids was having a bad week, they posted a notice on their Facebook page that they would be closed that day because of a broken sink.
“We did have a lot of broken stuff that week, but the sink wasn’t broken,” said Keegan. “It was just a great, beautiful day and we were, like, let’s go snowboarding. But we said to everyone, the only way we’re going is if everyone who works here goes to Whiteface. We all went to the mountain.”
By the spring of 2010 Tim and Keegan were ready to abandon their social lives, work harder than they ever had before in their lives, and be paid a salary starting at $0. They opened Liquids and Solids.
“When we left Lisa G’s we told Lisa we are not going to step on your feet,” said Tim. “It’s going to be completely different.”
It was completely different.
Liquids and Solids is a haven of craft beers and creative cocktails and an upscale, irreverent kitchen. ‘Put an egg on it for a dollar’ is one of the options on the menu.
“People would say, what, you don’t have Budweiser? You’re never going to make it,” said Keegan.
“Or meat and potatoes,” added Tim.
The Liquids and Solids menu reads as a list of items and ingredients.
“They would read the menu and say, just give me that, but without those things,” said Keegan.
“That’s when we decided we don’t show up for our 15-hour days for someone to change what we care about. We don’t do any substitutions, except if it’s an allergy.”
Their legs went slowly white the pasty repercussion of long hours working at the bar and in the kitchen. Their friends told them they had to get out more. They got out less.
A part of Aida Management’s ‘10 Ways How Restaurant Failure Can Be Avoided’ is the admonition to customize offerings to guests: “The restaurant menu should be adapted to the needs of your guests. It is not as simple as cooking what you love to cook.”
“Liquids and Solids was born whenever we went out of town and found cuisine we liked,” countered Keegan.
“I try to showcase everything that’s going on in Keeseville, everything I like, from the vegetables and now all the cheeses that are coming out of there,” said Tim.
A take it or leave it attitude can be the death knell for a business, except when it isn’t. Sometimes it’s better to have a hundred people get what you are doing than a million people who can take it or leave it.
“The irreverence so clearly in evidence at this restaurant is the irreverence of an artist who with passion and integrity offers his voice for the sake of the art itself,” was how Pete Nelson described Liquids and Solids in the Adirondack Almanack. “They have a deep understanding of excellent cooking, of the ingredients they use, of balance.”
In 2013 Tim Loomis was a semi-finalist for the prestigious James Beard Best Chef in the Northeast award. The New York Times in 1954 characterized James Beard, a pioneer foodie, author, and teacher at his own cooking school, as the ‘Dean of American Cookery’.
“Wow!” the staff at Liquids and Solids posted on their Facebook page. “Tim’s always telling us he’s awesome, we always believed him, but just never told him.”
By then, their 4th summer, the bar stools had backs, the pool table next to the bar had been removed to add more tables, and the word was out.
“World-class innovative cuisine and drinks,” said Jon Deutsch of Philadelphia. “Seriously, I hope you don’t go because I don’t want a longer wait.”
By their 5th year Liquids and Solids had not only survived, but was prospering on its own terms. It’s when you’ve beaten the odds that the odds don’t matter anymore, not that they ever seemed to matter much at Liquids and Solids.
For all that, Tim Loomis and Keegan Konkoski had transitioned from doing all the dirty work to doing all the dirty work. It continued to consume most of their waking life.
“When it’s 10 o’clock and it’s non-stop, and people are still coming in the door, sometimes you lose it,” said Keegan.
“The board will be full for four hours, and I’m just trying to whack the food out, but sometimes you can’t get a pan hot enough to sear a scallop properly, there’s no time,” said Tim. “That’s when I get frustrated. “But, when you’re having a good night and it’s just that perfect amount of busy and you can get that pan hot enough, I mean it’s nice.”
“I like the groaning,” Keegan laughed.
“When you ask people how everything is and they can’t even tell you in words and they’re just saying yummmmm, I like that a lot.”
There are many different kinds of success. Sometimes the best success is being able to spend your life your own way, even though it may preclude monetary gain. Although everyone wants to get ahead, it can be difficult finding success working just for money.
“Success is having to worry about every damn thing in this world, except money,” said the country singer-songwriter Johnny Cash.
“When we started this, we said we wanted to hopefully become thousandaires,” said Keegan. “With our size and low budget, we’re still trying to get there.”
One of the reasons they are still wannabe thousandaires is the large inventory they maintain of craft beers and complex array of specialty drinks, as well as the integrity of their food.
“At the bar I try to make my drinks as delicious as possible and as big as I can,” said Keegan.
Although their suppliers are largely local, from the Sugar House Creamery in Upper Jay to Kilcoyne Farms in the St. Lawrence Valley, Liquids and Solids chooses its suppliers carefully. From the crème fraiche to the Brussels sprouts, the duck prosciutto to the ham, quality is of paramount importance in the kitchen.
“Taste is the first thing I look for, absolutely,” said Tim. “It’s the fundamentals of everything.”
They don’t 86 anything when they’re running on empty, either, at the bar or in the kitchen. “Nine times out of ten nobody would even notice,” said Keegan. “It’s just me being me. I would know I cheated.”
Having reached the high-water five-year mark, in the meantime setting standards for plain deliciousness in Lake Placid, Tim and Keegan are less certain about Liquids and Solids’s future than its present. Their lease expires in 2017 and they have talked about downsizing.
“When we talk about the future, we definitely use the word small a lot,” said Keegan.“One of my favorite places I’ve been to is LePigeon in Portland,” said Tim. “With the entire bar, and every seat filled, there are 36 seats. The bar is around the line and food comes plated right to you. You get to see everything, it’s a little more intimate, and I really enjoy that.”
“When we talk about leaving, the lease, not the area, I get a pit in my stomach,” said Keegan.
Whatever the future bodes for the making or unmaking of Liquids and Solids, Tim Loomis and Keegan Konkoski, who remain good friends as well as business partners, will be a part of that future, which is not any more uncertain than the present.
“We get to do amazing things because we want to do them. Nothing is set in stone. It might be a different story,” said Keegan.
From the Foot Rest Café to the Wawbeek Great Camp to Liquids and Solids, on foot bike car, white legs and all, food and drink never change until they do.
Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.