If you’ve noticed any of the recent developments along the main street of Pine Plains, chances are Jack and Irene Banning have had something to do with it. By Pine Plains’ standards, Jack and Irene aren’t considered “locals” — they’ve only lived in Pine Plains since 2008. But, if you were to judge their local status by their commitment to the Town of Pine Plains — on so many levels — you would have thought their ancestors had arrived in Pine Plains at the turn of the 19th century.
Joan and I sat down with this energetic, community-minded couple two weeks ago to talk to them about their past and ongoing projects, all aimed at revitalizing the center of Pine Plains and making it a true destination that will attract new visitors and support all of the town’s local businesses. They are the very definition of the word “visionary”.
A little history first —
After first arriving in Pine Plains in 2008, Jack and Irene built Black Sheep Hill Farm where they breed Black Welsh Mountain sheep for meat and wool. They also raise heritage pigs for meat; chickens for eggs; and grow summer vegetables for local markets. They fell in love with both the town and the people of Pine Plains and decided to purchase the Mountain Cow Cafe in 2012. In addition to the cafe, they also bought the building next door (which is now an architect’s office…remember that…it comes into the story later.)
THE PINE PLAINS PLATTER
Formerly the Mountain Cow, Jack and Irene updated the space and changed the name to Pine Plains Platter. Shortly after The Platter opened in 2012, Jack announced a contest to create a giant mural on the highly-visible clapboarded side facade of the old 1859 building (we shared the announcement on our website).
“The contest is open to any and all artists (or groups of artists) who would like to submit a proposal to design and install the mural. This is your canvas,” he said, ” a chance to create something meaningful both for our town and for your career, as it is so highly visible.”
Turns out, they didn’t get a lot of response to the call for a design — in fact, not one. But at the last minute, after the deadline had come and gone, came an incredible offer from a remarkable source. Doug Larson, an accomplished NYC architect, a talented scene painter, and a local history buff who weekended in Pine Plains, approached Jack asking if he was too late to be considered. Are you kidding? The rest is Pine Plains history (read our story right here on our blog about its creation). It is also, according to Jack, when “something changed…I think the community knew we were really in it for the long haul”. And guess who now rents the space Jack owns next door to The Platter? Larson & Paul Architects…Doug’s firm opened a Pine Plains office!
With the addition of Amy Benack-Baden in 2014 as Chef and Manager, the Bannings have transformed the cafe into a now-thriving business. Amy is a hometown girl who grew up in Pine Plains. She graduated from Stissing High School, went on to LeMoyne College as a political science major and got her degree but in the end realized cooking was her true passion. “I have been in the kitchen since I can remember. I was always there helping my Mom with the cooking, and the eating.” Amy had happily been the chef at a restaurant in Red Hook for six years when she heard from a friend that Jack was looking for someone to run The Platter. Jack tells the story that she came in for her interview with a written menu and pricing and said “this is your menu and these are the prices…let me run the place my way and it will work”. Jack wondered about the low prices on the menu…she told him “this is what people here can afford. You’re not just open on weekends.”
When I asked her where she found the courage to interview like that she said, “I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I was happy at my current job but the idea of bringing something like this to my hometown was a dream come true.” And she was right when she told Jack it would work. It did. She really seems to have her finger on the “food pulse” of what locals and weekenders want from The Platter. “The first thing I did when I came in was pull back the curtains on the windows so people could see inside. I wanted the cafe to feel open and welcoming to everybody.” Forgive the pun, but that attitude and her menu have been a recipe for success at The Platter. The food is excellent with almost all of the ingredients sourced locally. The service and atmosphere is friendly yet competent, and with Jack’s trust and light-handed management style, Amy and her staff seem to have a true sense of pride in the business.
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Be sure to check out Pine Plains Platter’s Facebook Page for Daily Specials
Memorial Hall Renovation
In the NewsJack Banning, Ariel Schlein and Christian Eisenbeiss, collectively known as S.E.B. Holdings Management, LLC, bought the building last May (2014) at the bargain price of $199,000. They magnanimously decided to turn the venue into a performing arts center — something of which the whole community will be proud — that will attract visitors from Dutchess, Columbia and Ulster counties as well as from the entire Tri-state region. Yes, it will take time, but S.E.B. is well on its way. (Millerton News Editorial)
The Pine Plains Laundromat
Of course, the renovation of Memorial Hall won’t happen overnight. But Jack, Ariel and Christian wanted to do something with the building as soon as they could. They had purchased the building FOR THE TOWN and they wanted it to serve the town with no interest in turning a profit. Because they didn’t want to impose their ideas about what it should be, in June of 2014 they gathered together a group of the local townspeople and asked them what THEY would like to see happen with the building. The consensus was “we need a laundromat”. There had been a laundromat in the rear of the building some years ago but it closed, leaving people without washer machines or dryers no where, within a reasonable distance, to do their laundry. On April 22, 2015 (less than a year later) the new Pine Plains Laundromat opened.
Pine Plains Emporium
Jack and Irene’s most recent project — the Pine Plains Emporium — had its Grand Opening this past Memorial Day.On the heels of the opening of the Pine Plains Laundromat, Irene and Jack purchased the building that now houses the Pine Plains Emporium as well as a barbershop. Their intent is to honor the history of the building and to make the Emporium a place to find everyday necessities and interesting merchandise for locals and visitors alike.”
The Emporium, much like the original Chase General store, has an incredibly diverse selection of merchandise. And it just feels “fun” when you walk in…I flashed back to the old “dime stores” and hardware stores of my childhood that had everything you could imagine in them.
Apparel (Carhartt Jeans & Muck Boots), Yankees and Red Sox autographed baseballs and bats, kitchen gadgets & supplies, gardening supplies, fishing lures, sporting goods, yarn and notions, old local postcards, stationery, jigsaw puzzles, “penny” candy, select antique wooden objects and vintage advertising signs are displayed in a way that gives the shop a sense of the space’s history. Credit for that goes to creative consultant & vintage photograph collector and curator, Susan Burks, who has known Jack and Irene for over 25 years.
Jack and Irene’s own line of Black Sheep Hill custom body care products as well as a freezer case of Black Sheep Hill meat products are also a great addition. When we visited the store, it was clear that Jack and Irene are really involved in the operation. Jack was visiting with customers…Irene was stocking the notions section with new merchandise…they were working in their own store and really enjoying it.
General Manager of the Emporium, is another “hometown girl”, Torey Soracco. Torey’s background in retail work — including owning and running the bike shop on the Rail Trail in Millerton (and incidentally, a management position at Hammertown years ago) — made her the perfect candidate for the job.
Ironically, Jack found Torey through a conversation Susan Burks had at The Platter one day. Torey’s Mom happened to be there when Susan was talking about looking for some retail advice for the new Emporium. Torey’s mom told Susan her daughter may have some good ideas and she gave Torey’s number to Susan, and Susan passed her number on to Jack. After a couple conversations with Jack and Irene, Torey finally realized they weren’t just looking for ideas, they were looking to hire someone…and Torey happily found herself Manager of this new venture in her own home town!
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Both Joan and I loved the feel of the store. Joan was especially impressed with the design and layout of the space and the merchandise.
Happily, it looks like the Emporium is off to a good start. The shop was busy with local customers and visitors from other areas when we were there. During the Memorial Day Grand Opening, there were “Pine Plains” T-Shirts for sale at the Emporium. They ran out of them before the weekend was over!
In fact, one of the most satisfying comments Jack said he’s received since opening the Emporium was from a local Pine Plains citizen. “Where are the T-Shirts?” she said. “Which T-Shirts?”, he asked. She responded “I want one of those Pine Plains T-shirts…I’m so proud to live here now!”
IT’S WORKING JACK AND IRENE… THANK YOU!!