Restaurant owner Mike Cioffi talks food, pandemic adaptations, and running (two) successful restaurants in the Catskills –– Phoenicia's landmark Phoenicia Diner, and Woodstock's Dixon Roadside.
Thanks to Mike, Courtney, Bella, and everyone behind the scenes who made our Phoenicia Diner lunch possible. And thank you to our local sponsors: the Phoenicia Playhouse, and the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce.
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Transcribed by Jerome Kazlauskas via otter.ai
Caroline, your order's ready; Nancy, your order's ready; and Jerry, your order's ready.
Brett Barry 0:06
Can I have a spicy chicken sandwich please? Welcome back to Kaatscast, the biweekly podcast featuring history interviews, arts and culture, sustainability and the outdoors in the Catskill Mountains and Hudson Valley. This week, we enjoyed a Phoenicia Diner lunch with Mike Cioffi, owner of the Phoenicia Diner in Phoenicia and Dixon Roadside in Woodstock. We talked about these ever popular spots for tourists and locals alike ... adaptations for keeping diners on staff safe during the pandemic. Plus, recommendations from the owner himself for delicious dishes and the quietest day to order them. All that and more ... right after this. Kaatscast is supported by the Phoenicia Playhouse. A historic 150-seat community playhouse that's home to community theater, film screenings, local community events, road productions, and corporate meetings. The playhouse is located in the beautiful hamlet of Phoenicia, New York (convenient to main street shops, local eateries, and outdoor activities). More at phoeniciaplayhouse.com and on Facebook and Instagram; and by the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce. Providing services to businesses, community organizations, and local governments in the Central Catskills region. Follow the Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook and sign up for a weekly email of local events at centralcatskills.org.
Mike Cioffi 1:38
Brett Barry 1:39
Thank you. I interviewed you (almost eight years ago) for the original Catskill Mountains audio driving tour and I think you were still under the impression that you are going to be running a sleepy country diner, but it was busy then and it seems to get busier and busier every week. In fact, every time we drive past, someone in the car says, "Oh my god, look at the crowd at the diner today, it always seems bigger." So how's business?
Mike Cioffi 2:05
Interestingly (by saying that), I remember having that thought that my second career would be sitting behind the cashier's desk, you know, collecting money from somebody from a cup of coffee and just having a nice chat and ... and very leisurely coming in and out of this place; and eight years later, it's ... it's a frenetic busy place (much busier than I ever anticipated) and that I could have ever dreamed of. It's been an incredible journey and ... and like you said, every year, we've been increasing the volume that comes through here ... pre-COVID, we were at about 120,000 guests a year and I think we're probably well past that by now.
Brett Barry 2:58
How have you managed to do that? What kind of adaptations have you had to put in place?
Mike Cioffi 3:02
So you mean for COVID?
Brett Barry 3:04
Yeah, you're busier than ever.
Mike Cioffi 3:06
Brett Barry 3:07
And we're obviously not out of the woods on this. So what ... what have you had to do to make that happen?
Mike Cioffi 3:12
We pivoted to all takeout (outdoor space); and being in the Catskills (luckily) has allowed us to do that. We have ... we had additional parking space that was kind of overflow that we immediately took over and we already had a small outdoor pavilion, so we didn't have to do much to convert that other than it was our waiting area for the diner (pre-COVID). And now, it's a place where you can sit down and eat and we've adapted to a menu where we have a food truck that used to cook the food, but in this scenario, you just place your order at the food truck outside and the order gets fulfilled in the kitchen and then brought out to you. So there's no reason for anyone to come into the building. We have porta-potties outside. We try to keep a separation for our staff and everybody and we're all eating outside. So it's less likely there. There would have been a problem during COVID. Takeout containers are now one of our bigger expenses because, you know, some of the ... some of the downsides to being a to-go place is that our costs have risen in some sectors and one of them is ... is compostable takeout containers; some things that we had never dreamed of. So we have those, and then (about a month later), I'm realizing that our garbage and our recycling has increased threefold. So those costs have gone up before we would wash a plate and it would be less than a cent to wash a plate rather than to have this container which is, you know, somewhere between 20 and 30 cents a pop. While we're not serving inside, there are some costs that have ... have gone up exponentially.
Brett Barry 5:09
But you are ... you are serving inside now at least for the time.
Mike Cioffi 5:12
Yeah, so we just opened up the inside about two weeks ago (for the first time in 16 months) and that was weird because I was ... I stood in there that ... that Monday when we opened and trying to ... to remember what it was like and I couldn't. I was like ... this is all strange. It still felt strange. It still feels strange now; and we also are struggling right now because we have the inside open and we have the outside open as well; and in terms of business, we potentially can be adding much more capacity. In this scenario that we have right now and we are lacking in labor right now (like we're suffering that like everyone else's), there is not enough staffing right now to go around.
Brett Barry 6:07
I want to come back to that in just a minute because that seems like a universal issue here. But to get back to your packaging for a second, I'm noticing that you went with something that's a little bit more eco-friendly and (when probably add) a little bit to the expense?
Mike Cioffi 6:21
Brett Barry 6:21
But these are great. So you have paper clamshells rather than styrofoam?
Mike Cioffi 6:25
Brett Barry 6:26
You have straws that are compostable (made from plants)?
Mike Cioffi 6:32
Show them ... some of those?
Brett Barry 6:33
Some of the utensils?
Mike Cioffi 6:35
They're ... they're corn-based?
Brett Barry 6:37
Wow! At first glance, they look like plastic utensils, but they're not.
Mike Cioffi 6:41
Brett Barry 6:41
So that's really.
Mike Cioffi 6:42
And by the way, you know, all those things (again) come with a little bit of a ... they're also have their own downsides. Like I said, they take up more space and garbage. They're not as sturdy as some as you would like sometimes when people use them.
Brett Barry 6:57
Yeah, but it looks like you've gone about it.
Mike Cioffi 7:00
Brett Barry 7:00
And there's a way that you could, but that's great.
Mike Cioffi 7:02
As best as they could and ... and one of the interesting things about the ... about supply chain on this (too) is that they ... these are in popular demand as well. So they don't necessarily show up when we order them either. So we order from multiple different places right now (when), before we'd call ... make a phone call and get one supplier. Now we need a few to find stuff.
Brett Barry 7:25
What do you attribute these shortages to both supplies and staff?
Mike Cioffi 7:30
On the supply side (from what all the vendors have been telling us that they've been), they're having trouble getting the shipments in because of the supply chain and I've taken that to me that there's less truck drivers and also that demographics have changed and delivering less stuff into the city, but their infrastructure is set up to deliver to the city. So that just hasn't caught up yet with what's happening, and then I think on the ... on the labor side, it's really a hard question. I don't know the answer to it. When we look for people, there isn't a lot of phone calls coming in for that. If I asked the people that are here working, they all seem to be happy to be out of the house and to be working. But I also believe that ... that there is some comfort in having people that have (families or kids) their home more without having to come into work and ... and potentially having a supplement. So it's a really hard question and I think people get a chance at this point in time to look deeper into how they're living or how they were living and thinking about making a change.
Brett Barry 8:46
And the staffing issue seems like it's always been a problem in the Catskills, which has gotten worse.
Mike Cioffi 8:50
Correct. I agree with that. The main people at the diner at least right now had been like ... like dishwashers, which in the city, I remember talking to somebody like if one leaves, there's six more to follow here. If ... if that person leaves that, you know, we could be out weeks without having somebody there and that creates a slowdown in the kitchen because everybody in the kitchen now has to go into that role for a certain period of time, which takes away from our productivity. So that's been a ... that's been a big, big issue as well.
Brett Barry 9:24
I finished this bite of chicken. I got my next question for you. So you open Dixon in Woodstock (what) two years ago?
Mike Cioffi 9:32
Yeah, about three months prior to the COVID.
Brett Barry 9:36
So you didn't have a lot of times really experienced what that restaurant would be in a normal time?
Mike Cioffi 9:40
Brett Barry 9:41
How are things going there?
Mike Cioffi 9:43
If we look at apples to apples, so the same time period for that place opening versus the diner. It's actually on a better trajectory, so I really have no complaints about that. One and two ... it was designed to operate with less labor. For a lot of reasons (pre-COVID and knowing what), the labor situation was appear prior. So that has a takeout window built into the architecture that has garage doors that open up to make airflow amazingly good. So we've been very successful over there in terms of keeping busy and not having to close the inside because we had the outdoor available and there's a lot of air exchange in there.
Brett Barry 10:29
And that space was designed with an outdoor area and the original plan.
Mike Cioffi 10:32
Yeah, all the things learned from here, I tried to (kind of) incorporate there, so like our takeout here (prior to COVID) was ... was not a happy situation like we would be the first thing we would shut down. If we were busy on the inside, we were like we can't do takeout because the set-up's different. All those ... all those things would conspire and we would like immediately shut that down. Now it's been our lifeblood here at Dixon. It's built to accommodate takeout.
Brett Barry 11:04
Now you're ... you're back and forth, you ... you split your time between the Catskills and Brooklyn.
Mike Cioffi 11:09
Brett Barry 11:09
How does that balance work out for you and how involved are you in the daily operations of the restaurants here?
Mike Cioffi 11:16
So (two things) that works out great for me because I think I'm able to (kind of) have a foot in both places and ... and both places have a client base that come up from the city; not ... not all of them, but a lot of them do. So (I think) I feel like it's a good way for me to kind of see what's happening there and (kind of) make some adaptations here; and also, it gives me an opportunity to ask people back in the city why they're ... why they've been coming up.
Brett Barry 11:46
For an example, what's one of the things that they tell you that they love about?
Mike Cioffi 11:50
Oh, being outside. Like so (I mean), the ... the immediate thought when we ... when this'll hit was like we need ... we need to triple our outdoor space and there was a lot of concern because we were taking over parking space, but everything superseded that we needed, we needed to have this outdoor space. So that was a number one.
Brett Barry 12:09
When you're not here or even when you are, who do you lean on to keep things running smoothly at both of these restaurants?
Mike Cioffi 12:16
So we have a general manager for both places. Courtney who is up here full-time and she's the key to managing both places and being able to ... to troubleshoot issues that ... that arise like literally on a daily basis and it used to be me when we first started and one of the things that I learned from my previous business and also just by mere fact of being older and wiser (I guess) to some extent that if you're in the thick of things like if I was dishwashing because the disher was out or ... or in the front of the house that I'm not thinking about growth and how to build the business or the next business and that trickles down to like if we're not thinking about growth and we're not thinking about the people that work here and how they can grow as well. So one of the things about having a second location, one of the ... one of the main reasons was that we were creating more space for people that worked here to kind of move up ... up ... up the ladder and not be kind of stuck in one place. I've now created assistant manager positions, manager positions. I learned from my own business that when people were leaving, they're like I love it here, but I'm not growing any further. So I thought that ... that was a main way to do that.
Brett Barry 13:35
Do you know how many people are employed at both of these places?
Mike Cioffi 13:39
I learned these things. Usually at Christmas time (here in the diner), we hang stockings and I count those usually every winter, and then be an ... I'm amazed by it, but we roughly between both places around 60 people.
Brett Barry 13:54
Mike Cioffi 13:55
That's ... that's full- and part-time. So it's pretty substantial and that's a lot of responsibility for me because I take that seriously like they have jobs and lives and families to support, so I'm part of that ecosystem.
Brett Barry 14:10
Who's your head chef now in both places and what are some of the best meals that they're making in your ... on your palate?
Mike Cioffi 14:17
Chris (who is here) is the head chef here. So he's creating dishes, but it's also ordering paperwork (cost analysis). So it's ... it's a much bigger job than you would think of just getting back there and cooking. I still love (like) the basics here. So like I'll have the pancakes here I think are great and there's an Arnold Bennett Skillet, which has a literary background to it. So I kind of enjoy that and Dixon (I think), we, you know, we've done a lot more elevated comfort foods, but I still ... I still get back to the base of fried chicken and there's a gentleman named Josh there (who is the equivalent of Chris), so (again) same thing creating dishes, but also the economics of the business kind of falls in their laps as well.
Brett Barry 15:07
Okay, so if I'm a local and I am ... and I don't want to necessarily elbow my way to try to compete for a table. Can you recommend any good times or days for ... for us locals to come grab a bite?
Mike Cioffi 15:22
So our ... our slowest day is Tuesday. So I would say anytime on Tuesday at ... at the diner would be great and our busiest time is Sunday at around noon-time. So like ... so those are like the two extremes.
Brett Barry 15:38
Dixon, the same?
Mike Cioffi 15:39
Dixon is pretty much the same. Although I will say, Dixon, you know, like at the diner, we're catching people leaving on Sunday (going back probably to the city). So it's ... it's a heightened thing in Woodstock is ... is ... is actually a different flow because Woodstock is basically the destination. So we have to figure out ways of pulling people in to that restaurant when they have a lot of ... there's a lot of choices there.
I think the trickier part for us now is like emerging from ... from COVID and investing in what it will be like in the next three months and it's almost impossible to do so like I think in general what we've ... what we feel like we've done a good job at pivoting. But as a business person, it's ... it's really incredibly frustrating to put money into areas here that I am not sure three months from now will be utilized.
Brett Barry 16:48
And he said that the windows/doors at the Dixon are designed to open, but here you're ... you're retrofitting that as well.
Mike Cioffi 16:54
Yeah, so these are getting retrofitted and one of the things that if you had asked me before the pandemic if I would ever change one iota of this restaurant, the answer would be absolutely not; anything you saw on there should be original. I don't like kitschy. I think everything needs to be authentic. But the one thing after this, I was like ... we need an open window because I watched graphics displaying the simple act of opening a window changing the entire dynamic inside the room in terms of airflow ... and so we're like this is what we're going to, you know, this is a must.
You know, talk to the local sometimes about ... about the area and why like the kids left like ... "Oh, my kids left in 1980 because there was nothing. There was nothing happening here, you know, there's no growth here," and I feel like, you know, flash forward to now like there's a lot of stuff happening that would keep people around, but then you get to like ... but now I can't afford a house to stay to live here, which is just ... there's like nothing's easy. Nothing is easy. We rented an apartment (a one bedroom apartment) for no other reason than to have it (just in case we need it), if we hire somebody who's come up here and can't find a place to live immediately because that's what's happening.
Brett Barry 17:44
A bridge apartment.
Mike Cioffi 18:15
Yeah, literally. Exactly. Hopefully, it'll be vacant, but right now we're just paying for something I may or may not need just an anticipation of this.
Brett Barry 18:42
Mike, when you're not working, what do you like to do?
Mike Cioffi 18:44
I hike but not often because ...
Brett Barry 18:49
You work a lot.
Mike Cioffi 18:51
No, I don't.
Brett Barry 18:51
You enjoy your work.
Mike Cioffi 18:52
I do and I think ... I think it's part of my problem. I have a lot of thoughts that I need to figure out how to slow them down like I love theater. I would, you know, if I had more time I'd be ... I'd be definitely seeing it trying to get it produced, but ... but I enjoy that a lot.
Brett Barry 19:12
Thank you, Mike. Always fun to chat and this was a delicious lunch.
Mike Cioffi 19:16
Oh, thank you. Thank you.
Brett Barry 19:23
Kaatscast is a production of Silver Hollow Audio. Please be sure to subscribe wherever podcasts are found for free and automatic delivery every two weeks. Until next time, you can find us on Instagram @kaatscast. Thanks again to our local sponsors and to you our listeners for your contributions to the show. If you'd like to contribute, just click "Support" at kaatscast.com. Until next time, I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening.