Photo courtesy of King Kone
Consistency is the main ingredient at these Westchester food landmarks, which serve up memories and nostalgia galore.
As one glance at the entertainment listings and business pages can attest, reboots and rebrandings abound these days. But perhaps a bigger challenge for businesses is to succeed without obvious change, to maximize the value in consistency and tradition. Steady and predictable are not the buzziest words in the marketing dictionary, but they seem to describe what consumers are craving, especially in the pandemic’s aftermath. Despite a challenging environment of rising costs, supply shortages, and workforce woes, a few of Westchester’s most iconic eateries have defied the odds to stay open, maintain their high standards, and keep the comfort foods coming.
Frozen in Time? Yes, Please.
When longstanding businesses change hands, surrounding communities often hold their collective breath to see what new owners will bring to the table. Northern Westchester let out a sigh of relief when Deb and Brian Hopkins acquired King Kone in 2001. At the time, the beloved Katonah ice cream stand, which has been in business since 1953, was “showing signs of disrepair,” says Deb, and “not really living up its potential. We wanted to bring it back.” And they did. The entire building was gutted; a new roof attached; additional soft-serve machines installed; and the menu expanded to include more ice cream flavors, as well as food, including hot dogs, hamburgers, and even a popular lobster roll. The much-needed improvements also kept the old-school feel of the place intact.
The Hopkinses, who are now divorced but still working together, know a thing or two about nostalgia and the ice cream business. The pair used to run a large fleet of Good Humor trucks as part of a catering company they owned in Armonk. Longtime fans of King Kone, the Hopkinses told the previous owner that if he ever wanted to sell, they wanted to buy. When they got the call 22 years ago, they didn’t hesitate.
“Most places like ours are just gone, but King Kone still has that small-town feeling, and I think we are all longing for that.”
–Deb Hopkins King Kone
“We got a great response, right from the start,” says Deb. “We’re fortunate that people here really care about King Kone.”
The support from the community motivated the couple to keep the stand operating during COVID, following all rules and regulations. At first, cones weren’t allowed; ice cream had to be sold in cups. Customers had to buy food to-go. Employees had to wear PPE. “It was difficult,” Deb admits, “and expensive. A box of gloves that used to cost $20 was up to $180 at one point. We really didn’t make any money, but we stayed afloat.”
By June of that year, restrictions eased, and customers could sit at the picnic tables. “Everyone was so happy,” she explains. “People could feel relatively safe here, they could see other people. It provided a sense of normality when everything felt out of control.”
The Hopkinses’ plans for King Kone are focused on business as usual. “The community wants us to stay the same,” Hopkins insists. “Most places like ours are just gone, but King Kone still has that small-town feeling, and I think we are all longing for that.”
Sometimes a Hot Dog Is Not Just a Hot Dog
Walter’s Hot Dogs in Mamaroneck has been in business for over 100 years, earning countless loyal customers and accolades along the way. Walter Warrington started the business in 1919, selling hot dogs and apples just off Boston Post Road. Nine years later, he had the iconic pagoda-like stand built on Palmer Avenue. Always fascinated with Chinese architecture, he wanted a unique building that would encourage people to stop, explains his great-grandson and current Walter’s co-owner, Gene-Christian Bara.
Warrington also came up with a product to keep them coming back. The secret recipe for his hot dogs is a blend of beef, pork, and veal, split and grilled. The distinctive hot dogs have been written about in The New York Times and named best in the country by Gourmet in 2001. When your hot dog becomes legendary, you know the pressure is on.
“It’s all about keeping up with quality and consistency,” Bara explains. “The biggest praise for us is when someone says our food ‘tastes exactly as I remember when I was a kid.’ People aren’t just getting a hot dog for three dollars — it’s more than that. They are here for the experience, how it makes them feel.”
Bara co-owns Walter’s Hot Dogs with sister Katharine DeCicco, and this fourth-generation team is carrying on a proud legacy. Their grandfather Eugene Warrington ran Walter’s for 60 years before passing away in 2017, at age 95.
In 2019, Walter’s was on a roll, with a fleet of food trucks and a new eat-in restaurant in White Plains. Enter COVID. While the completely outdoor Mamaroneck stand was basically pandemic proof, the company did face setbacks. “In 2020, we lost close to 300 contracts for our food trucks,” Bara says, noting that most outdoor events were canceled. Capitalizing on a smart pivot, Bara replaced some of those deals with government contracts that sent food trucks to hospitals and COVID testing centers. And while supply chain issues plagued many businesses during the pandemic, Walter’s never ran out of hot dogs. In fact, when other hot dog companies couldn’t supply local grocery stores, Walter’s was able to gain ground in that very competitive arena. “We were able to overcome a barrier to entry into a lot of grocery stores,” Bara notes. “They just needed hot dogs on the shelf, which gave us the opportunity to get our products in front of more people.”
Moving forward, Bara says Walter’s will continue to seek new retail opportunities, as well as to expand their food truck business to possible locations such as Los Angeles and Miami. But no worries, the original stand isn’t going anywhere. “Walter’s is a special place,” says Bara. “There aren’t a lot of places like it left in Westchester. We are honored to be a part of it.”
I’ll Still Have What She’s Having
Epstein’s Deli in Hartsdale has been serving food since 1969, when Seymour Epstein opened its doors. Even if it weren’t for the pandemic, the fact that Epstein’s is still in business is remarkable. According to The New York Times, the number of Jewish delis in the New York area has dwindled drastically over the years, from well over 1,000 to fewer than 100. Seymour Epstein (who has since passed away) sold the deli in 2008. The deal included a promise that the deli and its menu would stay the same.
According to Epstein’s longtime general manager, Frank Marto, that’s been an easy promise to keep. “Most of the people working here have been with Epstein’s for over 20 years — same chef, same recipes, same counter guys,” he notes. The continuity has been reassuring to customers. “People come here for the food they know — pastrami, corned beef, brisket, matzo ball soup, knishes — things they had as a kid. It makes us all feel good to know that we didn’t change a thing.”
Maintaining this happy status quo during COVID wasn’t easy. “We went from having a parking lot filled all the time to just me and about 1,000 seagulls,” Marto says, and he isn’t laughing. Working with a staff of just seven, down from about 35, Epstein’s kept cooking, providing curbside pickup and delivery. While the business is recovering, Marto isn’t exactly celebrating. “I’m just proud to say that we are still here… a lot of restaurants aren’t,” he points out.
Rising costs remain a challenge at the deli. “Everything has gone up,” says Marto. “I used to pay $24 dollars for a box of potatoes. I go through about 15 boxes a week. At one point, they were at $95. Now I’m paying $38. Better, but still up over 50%.” Passing the cost along to the consumer is simply not possible, he adds. “We’ve had the same loyal customers for years, but how much can we raise our prices? We have increased a little, but I’d have to charge $30 for a pastrami sandwich.”
Another worry involves the catering arm of Epstein’s. The deli has always supplied food for large gatherings. Some of this business is returning, as people are coming together again, but it might never be the same.
“Times change,” Marto notes. “If it wasn’t the pandemic, it might have been something else.” He insists one thing Epstein’s won’t do is alter or streamline the menu. “It would defeat the purpose of what we’re trying to do. We are here to keep tradition alive.”
Old Is New Again…And Again
As one of the oldest restaurants in Westchester, the Muscoot Tavern in Katonah has had numerous owners since it opened in the early 1920s. Over the years, it’s been called the Muscoot Inn, the Muscoot Restaurant, and the Muscoot Diner. While the name has changed, the structure really hasn’t. The restaurant still features the same signature red-and-white exterior and crooked walls. Patrons of the Muscoot Tavern can rest assured, thanks to current owner Brian Epstein’s efforts, the slightly off-kilter building and the business are rock-solid. Just to be sure about the building, Epstein had engineers come in when he bought the building, almost 10 years ago.
Born and raised in Bedford, Epstein learned the hospitality business in The Bahamas, where he owned a small hotel and restaurant for over a decade. While this stint included what he deems some of the best years of his life, Epstein gladly moved back to Bedford when his aging mother needed a helping hand.
After opening Social on 6 in Mahopac, he learned that the Muscoot Tavern was for sale. Epstein jumped at the chance to take over the iconic restaurant that he had frequented as a boy. He sold his Mahopac eatery and focused on “turning the Muscoot completely around.”
While he’s quick to praise the previous owners’ efforts, Epstein had a different vision. “My idea of good food is fresh ingredients, local when you can get it,” he explains. A lasting Bahamian influence is a new focus on fresh seafood, he adds. His changes have been welcomed by the community, according to Epstein. “Everybody tells me the food is so much better.”
Grateful to his staff, Epstein was determined to keep them working during the pandemic. “I couldn’t bear sending employees off with no money,” he explains. During the toughest months, the tavern muddled through the adversity, providing curbside service and delivery through GrubHub. “We certainly didn’t show a big profit,” he says, “but I was able to pay the bills and the employees, which was paramount to me.”
Food critics have rated the chicken wings at the Candlelight Inn in Scarsdale some of the best in New York State. (Take that, Buffalo.) And to think, when John Tracy Sr. purchased the Candlelight Inn in 1955 after returning from the Marine Corps, he didn’t want to serve food at all. Back then, the law required that bars serve hot meals, says current owner John Tracy Jr., who took over the Candlelight in the early 1990s.
“My father just wanted to run a bar, but the Board of Health said he had to offer food and that sandwiches, hamburgers, and hot dogs weren’t enough,” he explains. Tracy says his father used to keep a “prop meal” in the fridge, so he was ready if the health inspector popped in unannounced. Even if the bar’s limited fare didn’t satisfy the local code, customers were thrilled. Tracy’s mother, Phyllis, did a lot of the cooking, becoming famous for her roast beef sandwiches. It wasn’t until the 1980s, when the drinking age rose to 21 and bar crowds diminished, that Tracy’s father saw the need to focus on becoming a proper restaurant.
Other businesses who failed to make this adjustment simply didn’t survive. “We started listening to the customers,” Tracy says, “providing what they were asking for, and the menu grew.”
As for those famous wings, it took Tracy six months to perfect the recipe. The Candlelight now sells thousands of pounds each week, setting a record the last time the Giants won the Super Bowl, in 2012. “Almost 17,000 pounds went out that Sunday,” he recalls.
The last few years haven’t come close, with the pandemic and maybe the Giants to blame. A former Marine, just like his father, Tracy says he used his military training to tackle the virus head on, seeking out as much information as he could and installing an air purification system to keep fresh air flowing. The Candlelight Inn was also perfectly set up to handle the increased takeout business, with a separate building on the property just for that purpose.
“When we had to close the dining room, we took anybody from our staff who was willing and put them to work next door,” Tracy notes. “We didn’t pay ourselves that year, but we paid our bills and our employees.” He credits the government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for filling in the gaps. Tracy adds that he was determined not to raise prices “because everyone was hurting, and we wanted to help out.”
The future of the eatery rests with Tracy’s son, William, who may have some new ideas, but also respects its traditions. “I hope to keep up with the times while learning everything I can from the people who have been here as long as I’ve been alive,” he notes.
“We started listening to the customers, providing what they were asking for, and the menu grew.”
–John Tracy Jr. Candelight Inn