Businesses that rely on tourism are learning to adapt to seasonal ups and downs.
And many of those businesses find that catering to the folks who live here year-round is a good way to shore up business at times like now, when visitors aren't flocking to the area.
The Mirror Lake Inn kitchen staff at work. From left are Tom Roush, line cook, Brooke McDonald, line cook, and Executive Chef Jarrad Lang.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Morris)
Chef for a day
It's one of those classic early spring days, the kind touted on posters with the slogan, "Welcome to the Adirondacks: If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes."
Outside, it's alternating between rain, sleet, snow and sun. Inside, the kitchen staff at the Mirror Lake Inn is gearing up for another day of work. On this particular day, the staff is getting a little help from me; I've traded in my pen and pad for an apron and a chef's knife, and I'll serve as guest chef for the evening.
I've worked with food for much of my life; I've churned out Italian subs for hungry rugby players at the Lakeview Deli, rolled chimichangas for the horse show crowd at Desperados and worked at a few other restaurants in between. Cooking is also in the family: My sister has a culinary degree from Paul Smith's College, and my mother's Italian relatives had her cooking as soon as she was tall enough to see the stovetop. And for what it's worth, my dad also makes some mean pancakes.
But stepping into a kitchen with a sous chef, pastry chef, a chef de cuisine and an executive chef? That was new territory for me.
The guest chef program was launched last year by Jarrad Lang, executive chef at the Mirror Lake Inn, and the hotel's owner, Ed Weibrecht. The weekly event, held each Wednesday at the hotel's Taste Bistro restaurant, aims to attract local customers by featuring a different guest chef every week - someone those customers might know from around town.
"Ed said to me, 'So and so used to be a great cook; we should have them come in,'" Lang said. "We started batting some names around, and the whole thing just sort of took off."
Lang said he started by bringing in guest chefs from other local and regional restaurants, but then he noticed that more people turned out when people like Ted Blazer, president and CEO of the state Olympic Regional Development Authority, participated in the program.
"You have that personal connection now; it's not just a chef you may have heard of, but actually a friend," Lang said. "Now it's like, 'Oh look, my friend Chris is doing this; let's go check this out.' Someone's friend had a say, designed the menu, actually prepped up some of the stuff that's in the kitchen. It makes it really neat for people."
The program is straightforward: The guest chef sits down with Lang, creates a three-course menu and then helps the kitchen staff prepare the meal.
"You tell me what you want to make, we'll tweak this or that, see what ingredients are in season," Lang said. "People get a kick out of it."
Looking for locals
There's no denying that tourism is a major economic engine in the Adirondacks, but business owners and residents are also familiar with the dreaded off-season, especially in a region that depends largely on the weather to attract visitors.
Some business owners will lock up their doors for a few weeks in the spring, but Jim McKenna, president and CEO of the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism in Lake Placid, said more local entrepreneurs are keeping their doors open and turning to locals to weather the downtime.
"Having that local and regional clientele is really important," he said. "You can talk to any business that looks at tourism as one of their main vehicles; they'll tell you that the times when you don't have a lot of visitors around, generating a local and regional audience is a must: It keeps employees on and keeps business strong."
McKenna said hotels like the Mirror Lake Inn, the Whiteface Lodge, the Crowne Plaza and the Lake Placid Lodge all have programs to entice locals "to come out and enjoy what they have."
The Boathouse and Chair 6 restaurants in Lake Placid both offer mid-week specials geared toward locals, and many stores throughout downtown Lake Placid offer a 10 percent discount for people from the Tri-Lakes region. Golf courses provide similar deals.
Locals night at the Boathouse, for example, offers a 50 percent discount off the food bill. The restaurant's owner, Katrina Lussi Kroes, said the special has been a success.
Vanessa Valenti, sales manager at the Lake Placid Lodge, said that after the Lodge burned down in 2005, the hotel's owners rebuilt the pub in hopes of attracting a bigger local audience.
"The pub used to be a fraction of the size it is today; they made it larger to appeal to the locals in the off-season," she said.
Valenti said the hotel also offers a "Throw me a Bone" promotion just for local residents. Customers receive a card that gets a hole punched in it after every visit. On the fifth visit, the customer gets $25 off the bill.
Valenti said the Lodge, like many businesses, also asks local customers for their email address as a way to keep in touch. She said those programs have worked, and the Lodge has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity as a result.
If you build it, will they come?
Gearing promotions toward locals is one way to try to drum up business in the off-season. Creating an entirely new event when not much else is going on is another.
Saranac Lake's Daffest, short for daffodil festival, is now in its second year and continues this weekend.
"We need something to offset the mud," said the event's lead organizer, Cherrie Sayles. "We needed the yellow blooms, the soap-box derby - the excitement of having something going on after a long winter."
Last weekend's Daffest Derby attracted nearly 100 soap-box racers. Sayles said having the event centered in downtown Saranac Lake directed a lot of foot traffic toward local merchants.
"It's working: It brought people in from across the region, and hopefully it gives merchants and restaurants a kick-start."
Lori Dodge-Cushman, co-owner of Nori's Village Market, said her business saw an uptick because of Daffest.
"We had a busy weekend," she said. "And I think it's cool how they spread it through three weekends this year. That's a good way to deal with unpredictable weather."
Tricia Fontana, co-owner of the Blue Moon Cafe, also said business was up because of Daffest.
"Traditionally, it would have been slower this time of year," she said.
Back in the kitchen
If the aim of the Mirror Lake Inn's guest chef program is to attract locals and drum up extra business, then it seems to be working. Lang said Wednesdays have been busy in the Taste Bistro restaurant, and each guest chef draws a different crowd of fresh faces.
To date, guest chef night has featured people like Adirondack Health President and CEO Chandler Ralph, Select Sotheby's real estate broker Corey Iaria and Gail Brill of the Adirondack Green Circle. In the coming weeks, the event will feature WSLP Vice President Jim Williams, real estate broker Margie Philo of Adirondack Premier Properties and Lake Placid residents Bill and Gail Kissell. Guest chef night will go on hiatus for the summer months.
My night went off without a hitch, thanks in large part to the kitchen staff at the Mirror Lake Inn. In fact, the only thing I'll take credit for is staying out of the way and letting the professionals do the work. But Lang said I could take credit for bringing in friends and family members who hadn't dined at the restaurant before.
"That's what it's all about," he said. "Our region has a lot to offer, and it's not just for the tourists."