How to Stay in Business

Starting and sustaining a small business in Westchester is a monumental task. Yet some merchants thrive for decades — or even more than a century. Here’s how.



On Route 100, in the town of New Castle, stands Rocky’s Millwood Deli — a 24-hour sandwich shop that might be Millwood’s best-known landmark. Its unassuming exterior (a one-story building with a modest sign above the door) belies much acclaim: People drive from across Westchester for Rocky’s sandwiches, hot meals, and even t-shirts.

Inside, on a recent weekday evening, a small army of Rocky’s employees stand behind the counter, ready to sling specials like the Hashtag (a chicken cutlet with bacon, eggs, cheese, and hash browns) or the Lutherburger (a cheeseburger on a glazed doughnut).

The deli’s regulars likely have these specials committed to memory. But fewer probably know this impressive fact: Rocky’s hasn’t shut its doors in more than two decades — literally. Ever since making the decision to go 24/7 on December 6, 1991, the deli has literally never been closed to customers.


Photo by Ken Gabrielsen

 

“We haven’t locked the door once in 27 years.... Brownouts, blackouts, floods, snowstorms — with the help of all my great people, I’ve stayed open.”

—Rocky's Milwood Deli


“We haven’t locked the door once in 27 years,” says Greg Santone, Rocky’s owner. “Brownouts, blackouts, floods, snowstorms — with the help of all my great people, I’ve stayed open.”

What could be more impressive than Rocky’s always-open streak? Perhaps this: The deli has been weathering competition and changing tastes since John F. Kennedy was in office. Rocky’s opened in 1961 and has since had only a handful of owners. The first was its founder and namesake, Rocco Cambariere. Santone began working for Cambariere in 1970 — “as a kid,” he says — and purchased the deli in 1980, operating it with Tom Cambariere, Rocky’s son. Tom (who has since passed away) sold the business to Greg, who has been running Rocky’s ever since.

There are varying statistics about how likely it is for a business to succeed, but this much is true: The odds are certainly dismal. Rocky’s is the exception, not the rule.

The Small Business Administration uses the harsh term “survival rate” on its website, estimating that by five years in, more than half of new businesses will have been shuttered. The perils of launching a business are well documented every day: “Here’s why small businesses fail,” reads a recent headline from Business Insider. “Top 6 Reasons New Businesses Fail,” reads another headline, on Investopedia.

Neglected houseplants and marriages officiated in Las Vegas seem to fare better. This is especially true here in Westchester, where competition is fierce and rival hubs (e.g., Stamford, Rockland, Manhattan) are just a short drive away. Yet some businesses persist — past that first year, past the second, past the 10th, past the 50th.

In Westchester, more than a few 50-year-old (and older) businesses dot the landscape. In Ossining, there’s a restaurant with recipes older than most customers. In White Plains, there’s an insurance agency about as old as the Model T. And in Eastchester, there’s a neighborhood hardware shop with roots in the 19th century. These are businesses that have muscled through recessions, depressions, World Wars, devastating fires, and more.

They may occupy different industries and towns, but all of them note there’s a special alchemy behind their longevity. Chiefly: the right blend of impeccable service and an authentic sense of community.

 

 

“People want to deal with an expert in the field, want advice on things, want to get some questions answered and actually talk to someone....If you go to an app, you’re not going to get that kind of service.”

—Wm. E. Morrell

 

Service, service, service

Rick McClatchie is president of Wm. E. Morrell, a White Plains-based insurance agency with a 109-year pedigree. McClatchie runs the business with his brother, Bruce — they’re the fourth generation in their family to operate the shop. Their great-grandparents started the agency around the same time the first Ford Model T rolled out of Detroit.

These days — as in decades past — the agency sells a range of policies from their Court Street headquarters: life insurance, flood insurance and homeowners’ insurance, auto insurance, and building insurance. “The products have pretty much [remained] the same,” McClatchie says. What has evolved, though, is the complexity of a policy: “I remember being told by my grandmother back in the day [that] insurance policies were basically written on a handshake,” McClatchie recalls. Policies were “drawn up on the back of a napkin.”

McClatchie says today’s customers are enchanted by the agency’s century-long track record: “Today, I fielded a phone call from someone who found us on the Internet. They saw we’ve been around for as long as we have.”

It’s no surprise that a 100-year history is a selling point. But how do you get there? Especially in recent years, as national insurance chains have made buying a policy as simple as a few clicks online? McClatchie has a one-word answer: service.

“We’re insuring your most valuable assets,” he elaborates. “People want to deal with an expert in the field, want advice on things, want to get some questions answered and actually talk to someone.” McClatchie notes he and his brother will have lengthy conversations with clients to find the policy that best suits them. “If you go to an app, you’re not going to get that kind of service,” he says.

Kelloggs & Lawrence — a hardware store in Katonah — has a lot in common with Wm. E. Morrell. The shop also has a family history, and it’s known for outstanding service.

 

“What’s kept us alive is adoring and respecting the customer. We help solve a lot of problems. ”

—Kelloggs & Lawrence


Kelloggs & Lawrence got its start in the 19th century. “We’ve been in the same spot for [more than 100] years,” says Diana Tyler, who owns the shop with her husband, Bart, and business partner, Jeff Kellogg. In that time, the hardware store has weathered several challenges: in the late 19th century, Kelloggs & Lawrence — along with the rest of Katonah — had to pick up and move locations to make room for the Cross River Reservoir, and years later, one Lawrence died while helping the local fire department battle a blaze.

Yet Kelloggs & Lawrence persisted. “People come in who are in their 70s and say their family brought them here when they were little,” Tyler notes. “People love the fact that it’s the same old building.”

It’s in this old building that Tyler is committed to excellent service. “What’s kept us alive is adoring and respecting the customer,” she says. “We help solve a lot of problems.” That commitment to troubleshooting was on full display during a recent phone call, when Tyler wasn’t shy about placing a reporter on hold to assist a curious shopper.

“Is someone helping you?” she asked, cutting an anecdote short and covering her phone’s microphone. “Do you need help?”

Markhoff & Mittman — a law firm in White Plains — is another long-standing business that prioritizes service. Specifically, by infusing it with a mission.

“We were hired by our first client in February of 1933,” says Brian Mittman, managing partner and owner. (Mittman’s father-in-law, Paul Markhoff, and his father, Abraham Markhoff, ran the firm before him.) “The most important strategy for staying in business is to know why you wake up in the morning to go to work — really and truly knowing your purpose.”

At Markhoff & Mittman, that purpose is to help people get back on their feet by obtaining workers’ compensation benefits. The firm’s slogan is “The Disability Guys.” “Everything we do is geared to this purpose,” Mittman says. “We look at everything from hiring, training, client interaction, marketing, and so on, through the lens of helping people get back on their feet.”

As a result, Markhoff & Mittman is older than most Westchester residents. The firm has seen its industry transform mightily, both for better and worse. “We have been in existence for almost every major [industry] change both legally, societally, and socially,” Mittman explains. Over the decades, workers’ compensation coverage has expanded greatly, and workers’ benefits have improved, Mittman says. But Mittman and his family have also “seen the change to data and metrics and bottom lines and profits at the expense of workers.”

 

“We’ve had opportunities over the years to potentially expand, buy a second location, or go somewhere else. It didn’t seem to be in our blood. I need to own a store where I know the town.”

—Cornell’s True Value Hardware

 

More than commerce — community

Transcending commerce and stepping into the role of community hub can fuel longevity, too. Just ask the team behind Cornell’s True Value Hardware in Eastchester, a neighborhood staple with more than 60,000 items in stock. The aptly named John Fix III is the president of Cornell’s and runs the business alongside his cousin, his sister, and his wife.

Cornell’s is so old, its genesis is shadowed in mystery. The shop has been in business “over 100 years,” Fix says. “We know the business goes back to the late 1800s, but the records are tougher to track older than that.” Indeed, the store is older than its village (Tuckahoe was incorporated in 1903), so “there weren’t any real-property records,” Fix explains. The store’s original owner, William Rubly, went on to become one of the village’s first mayors. Rubly sold the store to the Cornell brothers in the early 1900s; the brothers then sold the store to Fix’s grandfather in 1932.

These were a challenging couple decades for the shop. In the 1930s, during the Depression, staff had to endure salary reductions. During World War II, material shortages made business difficult. And in 1946, a fire ripped through the store, destroying almost everything.

Throughout the good times and bad, the store has had a credo: “Our customers are our friends and neighbors,” Fix says. “They’re people who live in town.

“Part of our longevity is because of our community,” Fix adds. “We’ve had opportunities over the years to potentially expand, buy a second location, or go somewhere else. It didn’t seem to be in our blood. I need to own a store where I know
the town.”

Fix says the industry has changed over the years: businesses like Cornell’s once functioned as general stores and carried major appliances like stoves and washing machines. “At some point, we went more to the hardware store side,” Fix explains. And of course, new inventory makes its way to shelves, too — HDMI cables weren’t a hot commodity in the 19th century.


Photo by Gary Lupton

 

“I think that our customers feel great doing business with us knowing we give back so much.”

—Pepe Auto Group


Westchester consumers may shop for a new car less frequently than they shop for new tools. But when residents are in the market for an automobile, Pepe Auto Group can provide that same community feel. Shoppers might first associate Pepe with a local charity event, and not a car dealership.

“We give back to our communities through charity events, sponsorships, golf outings, donations, and local community events,” explains Jimmy Macagna, Pepe’s director of marketing and business development.

Pepe has had a footprint in Westchester for 50 years — they opened their first dealership in 1968. Today, Pepe Auto Group has six locations, including Mercedes-Benz of White Plains and Porsche of Larchmont. The business has been run by the Pepe family since the start and still is today.

“I think that our customers feel great doing business with us knowing we give back so much,” Macagna adds.

Travelers Rest, a historic restaurant in Ossining, also prizes community — and family. The German-American restaurant has been in the Langner family since 1961, when Gerhard Langner first purchased the property. Even before then, in the 1880s, the building that houses Travelers Rest was a popular watering hole — patrons would disembark from their stagecoaches for a spell during treks to New York City.

Today, Gerhard’s son, Gary, and Gary’s wife, Tina, run the restaurant. On a recent Saturday evening, Gary Langner momentarily escaped the dinner crowd for a brief conversation. When discussing the key to longevity, Langner is concise: “We serve good quality food at a good price,” he says. As a result, these customers have made the restaurant part of their families’ own history: Travelers Rest serves people (and their kids, and their parents) who have been coming in for generations, Langner explains.

You can sense Travelers Rest’s age shortly after stepping through the door: A suit of armor greets customers, followed by oil paintings and antique-looking sconces. On a recent visit, a bar customer clad in khakis and a polo chatted with the bartender about the day’s news (a car crash). It’s not hard to imagine a similar scene from the 1880s: a bar customer, clad in trousers and a tailcoat, chatting with the bartender about the day’s news (the arrival of the Statue
of Liberty).


Photo by Ken Gabrielsen

 

“We're honest with our customers.”

—Travelers Rest


Westchester’s oldest businesses — the ones that have “survived,” to borrow parlance from the Small Business Administration — may seem strikingly different. Some draft legal and insurance paperwork; others trade in schnitzels and turkey sandwiches. But they all have rich histories featuring challenges and triumphs; over stalled economies, over natural disasters, over wars.

The owners of each offer similar explanations for their success: growing deep roots in their locales, then honoring those roots. A can of paint and a new Mercedes don’t look alike — but in either case, you want to purchase it from someone you trust, and someone you’d recommend to your neighbor.

Rick McClatchie, of the century-old Wm E. Morrell agency, puts it well: “Our business is based on relationships with people and business within our community.”

 


Kevin Zawacki is a frequent contributor who lives in Peekskill. All of the businesses featured in this article are older than he is.

 

 

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