The Right Ingredients for Success
Family ties and a sense of community drew Nick and Jenna Thayer to settle into their life in the tiny village of Watkins Glen, New York, home to just 1,900 year-round residents. Five years later, they continue to demonstrate their commitment to neighbors, friends and family, launching a second business of their own, and taking on daily operations for two of the most popular businesses in the area—the iconic Wildflower Crooked Rooster Brewpub and Rooster Fish Brewery, both established by Doug Thayer, Nick’s dad.
From table to tap and beer to barbeque, Nick and Jenna have a knack for finding creative ways to showcase what the region has to offer. These serial entrepreneurs are passionate about food and hospitality, bringing the right ingredients together for proven growth and success.
The couple married in September, mere weeks after hosting a grand opening for their newest business—Local 62—a wine, beer, and spirits store carrying products made only in New York. Most days, the newlyweds don’t give their busy life a second thought.
“Work-life balance is always a challenge,” says Nick. “With four businesses now, including Nickel’s Pit Barbecue [more on that in a moment], it can be tiring, but we have an amazing staff and support structure in place. For us, having our dog Eli is important; he keeps us grounded and home as much as possible. Spending time together will always be our first priority.”
Another challenge is in understanding the “seasonality of Watkins Glen” as Nick puts it, key to being successful. Seasonal tourism drives the economy for many businesses in the Finger Lakes region. In the areas around Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga lakes are more than one hundred wineries, plus dozens of craft beer, spirits, and cider businesses. Watkins Glen sits at the southern tip of Seneca Lake, its beauty epitomized in Watkins Glen State Park with its gorge, nineteen waterfalls, and pristine campgrounds. In 2015, the park earned national acclaim, taking third place in the USA Today Reader’s Choice Poll for Best State Park in The United States (from among 6,000 entries). It’s also home to the Watkins Glen International, one of the premier auto racing tracks in the country. The couple navigates the busy months, May through November, which bring in about 90 percent of their annual sales, with their team of nearly one hundred full and part-time employees. Business peaks in July and August. Quiet months allow for planning, revisiting the business plan, and hosting special events.
“Our off-season months focus on events—theme nights and live music. Every November, we host Harvest Schuyler, connecting local restaurant owners with local farmers. It’s a great cause. Local 62 sources everything we sell from New York,” explains Nick.
But the love of community and the beginning of Nick and Jenna’s story begins decades earlier—in 1990, with Doug. While part of a road crew working to repave NY-14, (North Franklin Street, which runs through the heart of the village) Doug spied the building which would become home to the Wildflower Café. Thinking the spot would be a great place for a restaurant—and with no previous restaurant experience—Doug jumped in and opened the café, which was an immediate success. The café grew to include The Crooked Rooster Pub, which opened in 1998 (literally next door). The two heralded eating establishments are different in décor and ambiance. Patrons enjoy food made from locally sourced ingredients, selecting from one creative and eclectic menu. It’s all made in one kitchen and served by one staff. Today, they operate under one name—The Wildflower Crooked Rooster Brewpub. A mouthful, yes, but wait...there’s more.
“That’s how my dad usually does things—he comes up with ideas and runs with them. Opening the Café was a big one. He was a visionary in this area; the Wildflower is turning twenty-eight in March and he has employed hundreds of people since then,” says Nick. Still, Doug had more ideas, and began experimenting with home brews in the Café’s kitchen in 2002. Just like that, another venture was enthusiastically received by the locals, craft beer lovers, and tourists. With planning and perseverance, Rooster Fish Brewing opened in 2012, with enough of a following to warrant significant production space. Soon, Nick was partnering with his dad, providing the grub to go with the brew.
Both Nick and Jenna are from western New York, having spent time together in Buffalo after college. A self-proclaimed home chef and cook, Nick is comfortable in the kitchen. Jenna has enjoyed working in food and customer service positions. Together, the transition seemed natural. “After grad school, I got a job working for a big insurance company, traveling across the country assessing damage and helping clients; I was away for months at a time,” Nick recalls. “I traveled through the Midwest and loved the food. One thing led to another and I left the company, moving to Watkins Glen. I opened Nickel’s Pit BBQ and started working with my Dad.” Jenna notes, “It’s a very different area than I’m used to, but I’ve recently realized how tight-knit the community can be. The local families and businesses take care of each other, and that’s really special and something you don’t usually get in a bigger city.”
“When I opened Nickel’s, the community was an important part of my vision,” adds Nick. “We focus on sourcing many of our ingredients and materials locally, supporting neighboring farms and producers. Not only do they make amazing products, but I firmly believe that reinvesting in the community is good for everyone. There is a special connection between businesses and the communities they belong to. We give locals and tourists a glimpse of incredible New York products. The name “Local 62” sounds like a union shop—and in a way, it is. There are sixty-two counties in New York, and we try to bring them all together in one place.”
Today, Doug is in semi-retirement, enjoying time with his wife, and has turned the reins for the café and brewery over to Nick and Jenna. He’s still around for help and guidance, as is the team he created over the years. When asked what he hopes for the future of Watkins Glen, Nick reflects, “I want to see the community continue to grow and think progressively—welcome new ideas, businesses, and people. For local supporters and tourists, try to think about the community when going out to eat, buying a bottle of wine, or having a beer. Your choice matters to a lot of people that depend on the ‘little guys.’ I feel really good about our contribution to the local economy.”