As the warm weather retreats, so do many of the customers of East End businesses that offer locally made products. But sales for some of these companies may taper off less than usual this season with the addition of the new Long Island Welcome Center in Dix Hills, where a Taste NY market is selling local food and goods in an effort to promote tourism.
That’s the case for Browder’s Birds in Mattituck, which sells eggs, quiche, chicken stock and honey at the store, located between exits 51 and 52 on the Long Island Expressway.
“It’s just important to buy local year round because we’re all just trying to survive,” said co-owner Holly Browder. “We’re still feeding our animals in the winter and paying our employees and doing chores everyday.”
Now, however — two months after the $20.2 million welcome center and rest stop opened — the Federal Highway Administration has said federal law prohibits over-the-counter sales at rest areas along interstates and that only vending machine sales are allowed. The welcome center currently offers an array of New York State goods, from coffee and cheese to fresh produce and spices.
The state Department of Transportation has argued that the sales are allowed and that the center isn’t commercial and is instead intended to promote the state’s tourism industry.
Ms. Browder said that in addition to exposing people to East End businesses, the center offers non-local customers a more convenient place to purchase their goods.
“The challenge out here is always the seasonality, so if they can offer products to maybe more people that we could reach this time of year then that’s just a bonus for us,” she said.
Businesses are highlighted at the center on a rotating basis, giving various vendors a chance to feature their goods. Other local companies that have been represented include North Fork Chocolate Company and North Fork Potato Chips.
“Between the federal and the state they’re supposed to be in the process of negotiating and making something work. And obviously we’re very hopeful that it would, simply because they’re doing a very good job for us there,” North Fork Potato Chips owner Martin Sidor said. “They’re selling a lot of chips. Every little bit helps for sure.”
This isn’t the first spat between the federal government and the state over New York tourism efforts. The FHA is also demanding the state either take down 514 “I Love N.Y.” signs it erected earlier this year or bring them into compliance with federal law by making them smaller and easier for motorists to read.
On Tuesday, the heads of the FHA and state DOT, Gregory Nadeau and Matt Driscoll, met in Washington, D.C., to discuss both issues. In a joint statement, they said they plan to continue conversations with a goal toward resolving any outstanding compliance issues.
“FHWA and NYSDOT had a constructive conversation,” the statement reads. “We discussed the tourism signs and over-the-counter cash sales taking place at the Interstate System rest area on Long Island. We agreed to form a working group on the sign issue to identify a strategy that explores opportunities to achieve New York’s objectives of continuing to promote tourism in a manner consistent with federal legal requirements.”
While negotiations continue, Congressman Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), whose district includes the East End, has expressed support for local businesses.
“Congressman Zeldin supports reaching a solution that allows local businesses to better promote their products at the Long Island Welcome Center and draw more visitors to local businesses and attractions,” his communications director, Jennifer DiSiena, said Friday.
After hearing about the issue last week, Crimson and Clove co-owners Alicia Valeo and Kevin Breslawski of Smithtown checked out the center. The couple sells spice blends, salt sets and make-your-own mustard kits year-round online and at farmers markets, but said most of their goods at the center were nearly sold out.
“It wasn’t just people lining up to get coffee, but there were a lot of people that came in and there were a lot people that were looking at every single item,” Mr. Breslawski said. He said he watched as people pointed to items and said they’d be good for someone they knew or remarked, “Oh, this is cool. I’ve never heard of this before.”
“It seems like something that should be good for the local area and local businesses,” Ms. Valeo said. “A lot of people there are people we know from the Long Island farmers markets.”
Grace Longinetti, who owns Copia Granola and makes all her products at the Stony Brook University Business Incubator in Calverton, said her business has benefited from the welcome center.
“I have expanded my customer base because I have gotten online orders from people that are local,” she said. “They can go there, sample the product and feel better about buying online in quantity, so I know it has helped my business grow.”
Photo credit: Krysten Massa