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Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine: Bringing Community Back to Troy

With their restaurants and city involvement, the couple is shaping the capital district

“You’re part of the story now,” Vic Christopher tells me three weeks after we last spoke. “I’ve been telling everybody about what happened to you.” I interviewed him, not the other way around, but this is what he does: relates to people and gets them to relate to him. That's part of why he and his partner Heather LaVine have seen so much success in small, upstate Troy, NY.

The story Christopher mentions is one about Uber. Troy is a tiny town on the Hudson River but it's not accessible easily from the train, which means it loses out on a lot of the tourism — those easy weekend trips that people from "the city" take up to other (and richer) Hudson-adjacent towns. Uber isn't allowed in the area, and some business owners — like Christopher and LaVine, who own a restaurant, a wine bar, and a wine shop in New York's capital district — are trying to change that.

The inconvenience is one thing ("what happened to me" is that I waited 45 minutes for a cab, and was then asked to wait in case another potential passenger showed up) but the missed opportunities for growth are what get the couple riled up. "Every time that dollar sign turns, that's economic activity," Christopher says, shaking his head. "It's the only way we'll grow."

Christopher and LaVine care a lot about growth. "We love growth," LaVine says. "And as much as we love it personally, we do it because we have such great people around us and we want to keep them engaged and invested." The two met while working in minor league baseball. Vic, who was brought in to increase attendance, was in charge of promotion, marketing, and sales, while Heather handled the ticket office, administration, community relations, HR, and merchandising for the Tri-City ValleyCats. "Our jobs then were just like they are now at the restaurants," Christopher says. "We run our business like it's a minor league stadium, with different promotions and different things going on all over the facility."

Eventually, they left baseball. (They got kicked out — "like Pete Rose" — if you ask Christopher, but that's a different story.) LaVine got a job working at a non-profit charter school system in recruiting, hiring teachers for schools in the area. She could work from anywhere, and they were ready to move back to Brooklyn, where Christopher's from, when the mayor of Troy called and asked him to stay. He wanted Christopher to do for the city of Troy what he did for baseball: promote business and community. The mayor offered him a job as economic development coordinator, and Christopher went all in, bombastic as always. And then, just like at the ValleyCats, Christopher was bringing business to Troy and LaVine was bringing in people — this is becoming a constant theme in their lives.

So instead of going to Brooklyn, the two moved into downtown Troy. "I wanted to make a statement: 'As the economic development coordinator, we're going to move downtown, open a little cafe, and live above it.'" The bought the old confectionery space and planned to put in a wine bar, named after the historic building. But some people took Christopher's enthusiasm as a negative, as bravado — "another theme," says LaVine — and things got political, fast. Christopher was asked to leave. "I got fired from two high-profile jobs in a year and a half — I thought I was done. I grew a beard, I papered up the windows of the cafe, and I knew needed to build this cafe right so we could survive," he says. "Because I wasn't ever going to work for anybody else ever again."

People told them they were making the wrong choice, but the two put everything into building out Lucas Confectionery. They traveled often, and "everywhere we went, we would look for and find ourselves spending most of our time in wine bars," LaVine says. "The wine was part of it, but it was really the way every wine bar made us feel at home. We didn't have that in Troy, and we wanted it." When the paper came down on their first night, there was a line around the block.

I got fired from two high-profile jobs and wasn't going to work for anybody else ever again

From then, there have been plenty of successes — Lucas Confectionery, the wine bar, now has a sister wine shop featuring biodynamic and natural wines organized into categories like women and urban winemakers instead of by region. There's also the duo's restaurant, Peck's Arcade, that does a tasting menu and a la carte offerings and where, on some nights, you can even hear Christopher DJing. But there have been plenty of setbacks, too, though LaVine and Christopher always seem to get the rebound. "I never thought I'd have enjoyment after baseball," Christopher says. "I feel really blessed to be in the restaurant industry now and to have found that same enthusiasm again."

Their enthusiasm is evident in everything that they do. "We can't say no to anything. We literally would not know what else to do with ourselves," says LaVine. But now, the city is into it: Everyone stops to say hello to the couple when they walk down the street or into other establishments in town.

So here they are, with three thriving businesses and two more on the way. "When we opened Peck's Arcade it was five degrees out in January," Christopher says. What they noticed is that because their businesses are in adjacent buildings, people would have dinner in Peck's and then go straight to the wine bar next door because it was too cold to leave. "We realized that if we could create connectivity, if we could make cool and eclectic spots, people would stay all day." And that's what they're doing — bringing people into town and making them stay.

It's a big change from when they first started planning the wine bar. "There was heavy skepticism," Christopher says. "There was this downtrodden, beaten attitude because people had seen little bursts of revitalization before that didn't amount to anything, and they'd had their hearts broken." They didn't think it would last, "but now, when something opens, there's excitement." It's been a long process, but people want to move to this area, and Christopher and LaVine are happy to keep growing along with Troy.

"There's no limit to creativity," LaVine says, and Christopher adds, "I just want to come up with concepts that excite people. I don't think I'll ever want to stop entertaining people."

Find the full list of 2016 Young Guns here

Sonia Chopra is Eater's managing editor.
Heather LaVine and Vic Christopher own and operate Peck's Arcade, Lucas Confectionery, and Twenty-Two 2nd Street Wine Co. in Troy, Ny.
Image by Doug Liebig
Editor: Dana Hatic
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
See all Young Guns coverage here.


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