When proprietors Eric and Sandie Becker describe their Niles, N.Y.-based Niles Gourmet Country Market and Bistro as a “very hands-on operation,” they really mean it.
On Mondays and Tuesdays (their “days off”), the two climb into their SUV and cruise the bucolic, rolling hills of central New York, collecting organic produce, bison and elk meat, honey, wine and soap from farmers and artisans they know on a first-name basis.
Long before their doors open on Wednesday, Sandie lies awake in bed planning the chalkboard menu (which she changes several times daily), as Eric rises to tend the four herb gardens they’ve planted together, or tidy up the rustic, 1,200-square-foot log cabin/bistro/market he built himself.
Sandie cooks everything fresh to order. Eric waits tables and runs the register. And when there’s a break in the action, “I try to pull a few weeds between customers,” Sandie says.
Sound daunting? Absolutely, say the Beckers, who employ no outside help. But almost five years after opening their wholly unconventional business in what visitors often refer to as the “middle-of-nowhere” New York, their hard work is paying off with rave media reviews, celebrity regulars and a cult following of tourists who make the trek to savor such delicacies as crab andasparagus tarts; wood-fired elk pizza with homemade ricotta; sweet potato ravioli; or fresh, local ostrich. Once they’re done licking their lips, many customers make their way to the cozy market, where they buy specialty ingredients to make their own masterpieces at home.
“The bistro and market work well together,” says Sandie, an Italian-blooded chef who eschews recipes and measuring cups and never makes the same thing twice. “People say to me: ‘The food here is so real, so different. What is it that you do?’ And I tell them that if they buy the product after they taste it, maybe they’ll become more interested in eating local and organic.”
Local plus international equals gourmet success
Sandie, 62, a lifelong foodie, and Eric, 57, a handy carpenter with a green thumb, met at Cornell University, where they both worked in horticulture. When the two first spotted the lush 3-acre slice of heaven between Skaneateles and Owasco lakes 12 years ago, they were captivated by its European feel.
“It looks like a little spot in Italy,” Sandie says. The plot had a fixer-upper foreclosed house (which became the Beckers’ home), several ponds and captivating lake views. But sitting a bit far afield—roughly 30 minutes from Ithaca and 27 miles from Seneca Falls—in the heartland of conventional farm country, it wasn’t exactly an ideal spot to open an organic market. “Many of the locals would not shop here,” Sandie says.
Nevertheless, Eric got to work building a log cabin restaurant/store. The couple visited area farms, choosing to do business only with ones that shunned pesticides and other chemicals and that treated their animals with care. Sandie scoured the globe for rare, international gourmet specialty items (French basil oil in a tin, Spanish anchovies, Italian cold-pressed oils) for a unique set of offerings at both the restaurant and market.
With their miniscule marketing budget, the duo invested in alluring, colorful flyers with a map attached and drove all over central New York posting them. They also urged customers to spread the word, and took out one recurring ad in a local food magazine.
In 2006, they opened the doors and took a deep breath. “I was just trying to feel out the area to see if people would be interested in learning more about local food and sustainable living. I really wanted to teach people,” Sandie says.
Today, the place hums, with customers sipping local wine as they watch Sandie prepare their meal on the indoor wood stove or in the authentic 8,000-pound Italian brick pizza oven, which Eric recently crafted by hand.
Former Cornell University President Hunter Rawlings has become a regular, as has “America’s Most Wanted” host John Walsh. And the TV and print kudos keep rolling in.
“It was a big risk, but it has turned out to be a dream come true in a lot of ways,” Eric says.
His advice to fellow dreamers opening their own market or restaurant: Be patient and persistent. “It’s easy to look at the door and see no one coming in and get worried. We definitely had our moments,” he says. “But you just have to keep on working, give it time and don’t get discouraged. In the end, it keeps you young.”
Niles Gourmet Country Market and Bistro
4588 Grange Hall Road
Niles, NY 13118
Square footage: 1,200 inside plus an outside seating area (roughly one-third of the space is devoted to retail).
History: Opened in 2006.
Offerings: Gourmet bistro serves home-cooked local and organic fare with an international flare; retail section includes local meats and produce, artisanal cheeses, honey and soap, along with Italian, French and Spanish products.