Table for one

Albany Business Review / Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine built a hospitality empire together. To keep it growing, though, it was time for one of them to leave.

Photo by Donna Abbott-Vlahos / Albany Business Review

It was on the back deck of The Bradley bar two years ago that Vic Christopher realized his vision for Clark House Hospitality was fundamentally incompatible with that of his business partner, Heather LaVine.

Christopher stood on his new deck, proud that he had built it for just the cost of wood at a time when Clark House was on a strict budget, and waited for LaVine’s reaction.

“She says, ‘No, you did a great job. I commend you, you’re right, it’s beautiful. I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Christopher recalls.

“This” was continuing to invest in the company’s portfolio of real estate in downtown Troy.

Christopher laughed it off at first. But LaVine stood firm. And not long after, they set up a savings account that would become a fund for LaVine’s buyout.

When LaVine announced her decision to leave the business this January, it came as a shock to Clark House staff. But a closer look at LaVine and Christopher’s journey, from husband-and-wife startup bar owners to exes in both business and marriage, reveals that their split was a long time coming. And it shows why the business’ growth depends on LaVine’s departure.

“It’s going to help the company grow in a way that we just wouldn’t have if I stuck around,” LaVine said.

One building was the start

The pair started in business together in 2012 when they opened the Lucas Confectionery. They had met while working for the Tri-City ValleyCats — Christopher in marketing and LaVine in administration — before getting married, buying the downtown Troy building that would become the wine bar and moving into the apartment upstairs.

The bar on Second Street, with its exposed brick, Edison lightbulbs and natural wines, grew from Christopher’s New York City roots and signaled something new for Troy.

“It was about creating a community gathering space, it was about providing great hospitality, it was about developing a space where everyone felt comfortable,” LaVine said.

Back then, the business wasn’t about wielding two-by-fours or fashioning restaurants from rubble.

“When we started this seven years ago, there is no way either one of us envisioned this,” LaVine said.

It wasn’t long before LaVine and Christopher purchased the Clark House building around the corner on Broadway — then a collapsing former hotel destined to become a parking lot. In the space where Little Pecks cafe later emerged, you could stand in the basement and look four stories up, clear to the roof.

During the initial cleanout, Christopher developed a mindset to simply get through the day: Just fill up one more dumpster. One dumpster a day became one room at a time. And now the building houses the cafe, fine dining spot Peck’s Arcade and The Tavern cocktail bar.

Later purchases of 22 Second St. and 28 Fourth St. gave Clark House a wine shop and dive bar, respectively. All told, the company has invested about $1.6 million in downtown Troy real estate and renovations.

But the real impact they’ve had on the city is harder to quantify. 

“Vic and Heather showed that sweat equity and passion matters in a redeveloping city,” said Tom Nardacci, who created the Troy Innovation Garage on Fourth Street, a few doors down from The Bradley. “The model for revitalization of an urban downtown doesn’t have to start with the biggest checkbook.”

Nardacci also points to the quality of food and hospitality at Clark House as a standout in the region. When he hosts guests from out of town, Nardacci almost always brings them to Peck’s Arcade and the Lucas Confectionery, knowing they’ll walk away with a good experience.

“To be able to attract companies, to be able to attract talent around here, we need a wholesome and upgrowth food industry. And I think that’s something that Troy has — didn’t have before them — but has now,” Nardacci said.

‘Yin and yang’

As the business grew, Christopher and LaVine’s difference in vision became more apparent. Christopher thought Clark House was just as much a real estate company as it was a hospitality company, but LaVine saw the spaces as a means to an end: taking care of people.

“The old buildings in Troy are magnificent,” LaVine said. “They’re a lot of work. And that kind of work with so many buildings, even just from what we have now, makes me anxious. Like, really anxious.”

The stress level peaked when Clark House made a bad bet on Donna’s Italian in 2016. The restaurant didn’t fit the mold of Clark House’s other businesses: It was a rented space up the hill from downtown, in a neighborhood near Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

The restaurant didn’t turn a profit and closed six months later.

“We were running out of money,” Christopher said. “It was just too much, too quick. And I think Heather got a little gun-shy at that point and I don’t disagree with her.”

LaVine took on the work of righting the ship. The company became extremely budget conscious. Vacant positions went unfilled.

Months passed, and as the weekly money meetings faded, the business eventually regained its footing.

That’s when Christopher got the itch to expand again. He bought The Bradley bar and built the deck, with LaVine’s reluctant permission. And then the business went stagnant for another two years.

This push and pull could be vexing at times, both admit, but in a way it was the very reason for their company’s success.

“Sometimes it was like, how are we ever going to get anything done because there is so much yin and yang,” LaVine said. But they always found a way to meet in the middle.

They also knew their areas of ownership, and rarely, if ever, overstepped the line.

“When things are really rocking, I don’t want to do what she does and she wants no part of what I do,” Christopher said.

This dynamic played itself out in very tangible ways: LaVine’s prudence saved the business when Donna’s Italian failed, but Christopher’s ability to see opportunity everywhere gave Clark House an undeniable presence in downtown Troy.

“In a very simple way, her focus on the expense side of things enabled me to have just a full-blown focus on promotion and revenue,” Christopher said.

So what happens now without LaVine’s check on Christopher’s ambition?

“I have no doubt that there are a lot of people on this team that will continue to play the yang role. I am certain. I’ve seen a lot of them do it,” LaVine said.

LaVine chose to leave at a time when each of the businesses is anchored by stable leadership. Christopher says his hands-off style will give each person room to take even more ownership over what they do.

“The right people are in the right place to continue exactly operating as is. I’m preaching continuity to everyone,” Christopher said.

The buyout

Christopher did try to find middle ground with LaVine one more time, in a last-ditch effort to keep her in Troy.

In July 2018, Christopher submitted plans to the city of Troy to consider for its application to the state’s Downtown Revitalization Initiative. He wanted to convert the third and fourth floors of the Clark House building into affordable “micro apartments,” and hoped financial support from the state would ease LaVine’s anxieties.

“I was trying to put together a deal that was better than leaving the company for her,” Christopher said.

LaVine didn’t budge, and so the two went about constructing a complex buyout agreement.

Here’s how it worked: In order to avoid selling the wine shop or Bradley buildings, they put a portion of the business’ profits from the past two years into a savings account, and also sold a three-family home in South Troy. Then they refinanced the mortgages on the remaining properties with Pioneer Bank. The deal extended the loans another 10 years to keep the payments level while extracting equity. And on top of it all, LaVine and Christopher got divorced. 

“We wouldn’t have been able to do the deal without the divorce,” Christopher said.

The reason: Proceeds of a divorce are not taxable in New York. Christopher and LaVine had ended their marriage during the same years they were rapidly expanding their business, but didn’t make it official until now.

The agreement yielded a $120,000 buyout for LaVine and a $225,000 construction loan for Clark House.

And even though both parties got what they wanted — LaVine, the freedom to focus on hospitality; and Christopher, the freedom to grow the business — the buyout was bittersweet.

Christoper told LaVine, repeatedly and right up to the moment they signed the papers, that she didn’t need to leave.

“I said to her, ‘It doesn’t matter what was said in the press. It doesn’t matter what we’ve said internally. You can change your mind.’”

But Christopher’s desire for LaVine to stay was inherently in conflict with his ambitions for Clark House.

“I guess, really, the only option is for her to leave if I’m going to grow the company,” he said.

‘This is my life’s work’

Behind a piece of plywood held on the wall of Little Pecks by a single screw, you can peek into the two-story space where the future of Clark House will begin to take shape.

Christopher wants to create a “grand lobby” for the building on Broadway, with a custom steel staircase and plush lounge. From there, he wants to finish out the second floor with more event and recreation space (think darts and billiards), giving guests lots of spaces to wander and linger.

But the bulk of Christopher’s construction budget will go toward the third and fourth floors of the building, where narrow staircases — treads worn down to raw wood and banisters coated in dust — wind between partially framed walls and piles of construction supplies.

Christopher isn’t sure exactly what will go on those upper floors, but new walls, insulation and windows will create a “vanilla box” ready for something new. Christopher’s mind jumped from apartments to Airbnb units to offices all within the span of a few minutes walking around the space.

Notably, the construction budget doesn’t account for labor. Christopher plans on doing most of the work himself, with the help of a few staff members.

Just as he started all those years ago, with one dumpster a day, he will finish, one window at a time.

So it’s fitting that Christopher sees his ambitions for the business as inextricable from the buildings that house them.

“My skills are not transferable. I am tied to these buildings,” Christopher said. “I am one with these properties. This is my life’s work.”

And it also speaks to the reason Christopher is staying and LaVine is leaving.

“There’s no amount of money on earth that would buy me out,” Christopher said.

Ready to go

LaVine ended her time with the business just as she started: with a shift at the Lucas Confectionery.

LaVine seemed to know every patron who walked through the doors the last Friday of January. She would lean over the bar, recommend bottles and field the same question over and over: Where to next?

Meanwhile, Christopher wasted no time putting his plans in motion, stealing a few minutes away from the bar to chat with his architect, Neil Pelone.

“If you’re ready to go,” Pelone started. “I am,” Christopher said, and made plans to renew construction permits with the city.

In the slower moments when LaVine wasn’t pouring a glass and Christopher wasn’t talking sports, you could spot the emotions bubbling up: a tear in LaVine’s eye or a catch in Christopher’s voice.

“This has been the quickest seven-and-a-half years,” Christopher said from behind the bar, to no one in particular. ◆