AOA is on summer break this week. So, like last summer, we'll have new follow-ups this week with people we've covered during the last few years.
Just about this time last year we talked with Silvia Lilly as she was preparing to take over ownership of the popular Wine Bar and Bistro on Lark from Kevin Everleth. As she told us back then:
I understand that I have a lot to learn about the back-of-the-house, day-to-day, running of a restaurant, but I also feel as if I have a lot of front of the house knowledge to share.
I don't define success by making tons of money. Never have. I want to be successful in terms of giving our guests a memorable and positive experience from the moment they walk in the door.
Lilly -- a teacher by day, who has also worked in restaurants for most of her adult life -- has now owned the business for about eight months. She's renamed it Lark + Lily and revamped the menu to include some more casual dining options -- but kept the beautiful courtyard and the knowledgable staff.
So how's it going? We checked in with her to find out.
So, how have things gone since you opened?
They've gone really well. People seem to understand what I'm trying to do -- focus on the neighborhood and being a place people come regularly, and comfortably. I don't want it to be a fancy special occasion place. I've been lucky to keep all my staff. I've hired one person.
What sorts of challenges have you encountered?
The building can be a challenge. In one week the dishwasher crapped out, the point-of-sales system wasn't working correctly, the cordless phone system didn't work, and two doors needed locks replaced. And that isn't even including the two times that we had backed up water that required the plumber to snake the line. Last Saturday at 5 pm I was supposed to be serving meals but I had a plumber snaking the drains. We had to open late.
We've gone back in time. We now have to have bathrooms designated men and women because people are flushing unmentionables in pipes that are 150 years old.
You have to put fires out constantly.
I've gotten to a place now when I feel I have sort of mastered it, but for a while just keeping track of what salesperson sold me this or that bottle of wine and how much we need so we are not running out of shit. There's been that too. And I'm spreading myself pretty thin. It's hard to do it all.
There is a certain awkwardness in making the transition from coworker to owner and striking the right balance between being a part of the team but also having to assert myself on occasion as the leader of the team. That has been challenging.
Some of the bureaucratic stuff has been hard. The cafe permit stuff in Albany is ridiculous. Each year when you apply it's as if you have never applied before. It takes them weeks and weeks to process the permit and they didn't make their own deadline. I don't know if it's because I'm a new business owner and I don't get it, but I don't understand why people don't try to change these systems or figure out a work around. People just say that is the way government is. Five or six different agencies have to review your application and it's the same one as last year.
And then parking. It's not an issue for me but it is for some of my customers. There is that lot on Washington Avenue that belongs to the county. The Lark BID offered to insure it for people to park there on weekends and nights. But nothing happens. I would never direct my patrons to park there right now. You can't tell if it's allowed or not -- it's so vague. Even the garage behind the Key Bank building. Why don't they open at night?
But it's been mostly really positive. We did a baby shower last weekend and people were really happy and that was gratifying. We have another private party, the new years day party, we did was really successful. In August if we can get a special permit we are planning to do a yoga brunch. My newest employee teaches yoga so she is going to do a yoga class in [Washington] park and we are going to do a continental brunch with a cash bar. I want to do things that make us accessible to people. I don't want to be an exclusive place. The only reason I want people not to come to my place is that we're already full.
Is there one particular frustration that you've faced that if you could just wipe that away, it would make a difference for you?
I guess it would be nice to have a great modern facility that had smokin' [fast] wifi and plumbing that was fantastic -- but that would erase all the charm. I really can't think of anything. I have good people that work with me and work for me. I think that I'm pretty lucky. It's probably just my nature to focus on the good things and not the bad. That's kind of how I just survive life in general.
What is something that you have learned that you wouldn't have expected to learn?
I learned that I really have to continually convey what my vision is for this project. Shaping the aspects -- whether it is the front of the house or the back of the house to represent what I want this to be is harder than I expected. Everyone has their own idea of what I want it to be. Even when we were decorating for Christmas. Getting people onboard with how I want my business represented.
A really positive thing I have learned came because we were struggling with how to participate in 1st Friday. We didn't want to hang art in the restaurant they way Kevin used to. So we found another way. We started a cocktail-of-the-month feature. I take three local organizations -- or at least organizations that were started by somebody local -- and we come up with a specialty cocktail and we sell the drink for $10 and donate $4 to one of the organizations. The people who buy the cocktail vote for which not-for-profit they want the money to go to. The one that wins the vote gets the money that month. We had the Damian Center, Capital Pride, and GLSEN last month, and we'll be making a donation of over $600 to one of these groups.
Is there something that's happened to you, or some development, that's felt like a win?
You know, it kind of happens everyday. When somebody is there and they express their admiration or their pleasure with something we are doing. I had someone email me with a reservation and say, 'We love Lark + Lily and we are so excited to come in.' There are days that I still don't really believe I own the place and I almost feel like I'm putting on a little bit when I say I own a restaurant in Albany.
I guess the win is that I really do feel that we have changed the atmosphere in that building. That it is definitely conceived as a more welcoming hospitable place than it may have been in the past. Changing a reputation is not an easy thing.
Lark Street has gotten some tough press lately. Are you feeling a lack of traffic?
It's hard for me to say because I know we are busier than were were a year ago. So our business has gone up. I notice when there are lots of people around and when there are very few people around. And it doesn't seem down. And there are so many more places. Having the Savoy [Taproom] is terrific. Now if we can just get the two [former] DeJohn places filled.
People ask if I'm threatened that a place like the Savoy is open. No! I'm thrilled. The more traffic on Lark Street the better. We all float up together is how I see it.
What's next for you?
I don't have a master plan. I figure I have another five years or so until I can retire comfortability enough from teaching so it will be continued balancing and juggling for the foreseeable future and as far as plans or initiatives for the restaurant.
I like doing these little pop-up kinds of things -- like the yoga brunch or this arrangement we have with Saint Anne's Institute. They have a greenhouse and they are trying to teach their residents some practical skills, so they are farming and growing produce for us and 15 Church and The Cheese Traveler. It's "This is what we have picked today and there you have it." We create things based on what they send. Then we make things like Saint Anne's Greens. We are helping them and they are providing us with good quality ingredients. I'd like to foster more of those relationships with different organizations and businesses.
This interview has been lightly edited.
+ Follow up: Nibble Inc
Lark and Lily
200 Lark Street,
Albany, NY 12210
We'd really like you to take part in the conversation here at All Over Albany. But we do have a few rules here. Don't worry, they're easy. The first: be kind. The second: treat everyone else with the same respect you'd like to see in return. Cool? Great, post away. Comments are moderated so it might take a little while for your comment to show up. Thanks for being patient.