Have you heard of Sullivan County? It’s the coolest corner in the Catskills these days, thanks in large part to husband-and-wife hoteliers Kirsten Harlow Foster and Sims Foster, whose company Foster Supply Hospitality has been opening stylish boutique hotels, farm-to-table restaurants and even a nonprofit called A Single Bite that aims to eradicate local food insecurity.
This area—which has a long and storied history—has come a long way. Back in the 1800s, Sullivan County’s bluestone rock was used to build many of New York City’s sidewalks. Later, anglers discovered the Beaverkill River and created fly-fishing clubs that still exist today.
Then there was the legendary Borscht Belt era (think Dirty Dancing). By the 1960s, Sullivan County was in its golden era—one of the most happening vacation destinations in America, with more hotel beds than any other county in the U.S. But with the rise of international travel, those glory days came to a halt, leaving behind abandoned resorts and economically devastated towns.
Sims, who grew up in the town of Livingston Manor, remembers hearing stories about the good old days in the Catskills. “My grandparents and my father talked about this vibrant, energetic, busy, economically viable place that I had no relation to when I grew up here in the eighties and nineties,” says Sims, whose great-grandparents moved to Sullivan County in 1910.
Sims left to work in the hospitality industry in New York City but found himself drawn back to his childhood home. “I appreciated the natural beauty,” he says. “And growing up as a country boy in the woods, I always had this pull to come back and try to do my part to bring an area I love back in some way—to do some good here in Sullivan County.”
Each of Foster Supply Hospitality’s properties has a one-of-a-kind vibe that’s rooted in down-to-earth pleasures with a modern twist. The DeBruce—a cozy lodge overlooking a river—has a restaurant that was named one of the best in America by Esquire magazine. North Branch Inn is spread among several historic buildings in a small town by the same name.
Kenoza Hall, a 19th century boarding house, has been glammed up with custom-designed furniture, clawfoot soaking tubs, a wellness spa and a chic restaurant with lake views. The Bungalows at Kenoza Hall—a new addition—has 10 luxe cabins with soaking tubs, gas wood stoves and a dedicated “Tummler,” an activity director who will book excursions, spa treatments, special outdoor dinners in the fields and more.
And that’s just a sampling: The company has more hotels and restaurants in and around the region—and more on the horizon. Here, we caught up with Kirsten Harlow Foster and Sims Foster to find out how they got started, what inspires them and their advice for other entrepreneurs.
A Side Hustle: “We started with the Arnold House. But I don’t think that—strategically—we really knew where we were going in the beginning,” says Kirsten. “Neither of us got rid of our jobs, but I think we both were secretly fantasizing about not being on planes all the time and running around like crazy people. I loved my job at the Fed, but I was also done with board rooms and conferences. Coming up here and seeing the positive impact we had—not only with guests, but also within the community—had a profound impact on me.”
How it Started: “The year before we opened the Arnold House, we got married up here and had a hundred of our closest friends and families—but there weren’t many places for them to stay,” says Kirsten. “It seemed so ironic that in a place so beautiful—a place that we love so much that we wanted to share with everyone—we couldn’t find the right hotels. So that got us thinking: Maybe if we add rooms to the restaurant, we can help show people how great it is up here. There’s a reason why people were attracted to this area back in the day, and all those reasons still exist today.”
A Light in the Storm: “We were hoping that a chord would strike with people like us from the city who wanted a place to escape,” says Kirsten. “The moment we realized that it was working was in an early-season snowstorm in November. It was supposed to snow all weekend and we thought everyone would cancel. But over the next few hours, every guest showed up. So that’s when we said: ‘Let’s keep going.’”
The Appeal of Sullivan County: “This area resonates with a lot of people,” says Kirsten. “I love the fact that we’re close to the city but utterly rural. I love that we don’t have strip malls and chain restaurants. It’s small-town America that has been disappearing in our country. We have nature and rivers and lakes and hiking and a lot of diversity. I love that my kids can name every type of tractor and they know the farmer down the street and buy eggs across the street. It’s a part of life that we have to hold onto as we continue to modernize. It’s important that we don’t forget this kind of simplicity and realness.”
Creating a Business: “There wasn’t a magic night where I said, “Well, now we’re going to have multiple hotels and restaurants.’ It was, ‘Let’s try another one.’ And when that one started to work, then it became more pragmatic—we couldn’t keep going and hold onto our day jobs,” says Sims. “So that’s when we started to ask ourselves, ‘How do we create the life that we want? And how does that fit into a strategy, a spreadsheet, financial goals, company goals?’ We wanted to build a company, which is a whole different muscle and skill than running a hotel. It’s building a team, building a culture, thinking ahead, understanding how cash flow works and understanding the capital needs to support the growth.”
Creating Brand Pillars: “We care deeply about the communities that we’re in. If we’re doing right by our communities, then we know what we’re doing is right for us,” says Sims. “We care about our guests. I got so tired in my career of listening to people talk about taking care of people and then putting up barriers and rules and providing a culture that didn’t really deliver. And then the third thing is that we deeply care about the people that have joined us. Kirsten and I both lead from the bottom of the pyramid. So the more people we add to the team, the more people we feel responsible for supporting. We feel privileged that they’ve made a choice to join us. So we work for them.”
Advice to Aspiring Entrepreneurs: “If you are starting your own company, it should reflect your values. So you have to understand who you are and what you want to present to the world. Secondly, a lot of entrepreneurs want to focus on the creative, visionary part of the business—and that’s certainly important—but it means nothing unless you’re willing to put a P&L together, understand cash flow and understand how your vision is supported by a foundation that gives you a chance for success. Culturally, the Shark Tanks of the world emphasize that flying-in-the-clouds part of entrepreneurialism. But you have to enjoy the [business] part that allows you to do that.”
Managing Through Covid: “We kept all of our staff employed through the whole pandemic,” says Sims. “In some ways, this was a very easy decision because it was fundamental to who we are—if we couldn’t take care of our guests because we were closed down, we could focus on our teams and our community. Quite honestly, [we did it] at whatever cost it was going to be to us.”
A Single Bite: “This is an educational program to teach kids about the difference between real food and processed food and that they have a choice. It’s been around for about [five] years,” says Sims. “During Covid, we mobilized. We still had people on payroll, but we didn’t have any guests to serve. So we just changed the guests wholeheartedly to our neighbors and worked with lots of other volunteers and went from serving 300 meals a week to serving 2,500 meals per week in the community. Spiritually, it helped our team and us in those great moments of uncertainty. We’re a company of action. Our goal is to do everything we can to eradicate the problem [of food insecurity] in Sullivan County. No one in our county should go to bed hungry.”
Read more: https://www.forbes.com/sites/laurabegleybloom/2022/08/30/how-this-couple-is-reinventing-the-catskills-one-hotel-and-one-meal-at-a-time/?fbclid=IwAR19lCkSvHM2HpBAUMiRp2Xfy8zp8E-kFXEs-8H2OilNZtDxfSTUWPznbZ0&sh=541d883e1eda