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News of Otsego County

karen lemister

Next Generation Buys Rudy’s
Business Partners Rethink Village Mainstay

Next Generation Buys Rudy’s

By JIM KEVLIN • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com

Business partners Matt Denison, left, and Joe Festa have bought Rudy’s. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)

Matt Denison, new proprietor of Rudy’s with Joe Festa, remembers running into Karen Lemister in the alleyway between the liquor store at 143 Main St. and Alex’s Bistro.

“I think this is something you would have a lot of fun with,” said Lemister, who owned Rudy’s for 48 years with husband Fred. One thing led to another, and over the Christmas holiday the venerable business changed hands – and generations – from the retirement-age Lemisters to the 30-something business partners.

Karen calls the new owners “the three Es” – “They have never faltered in energy, exuberance and excitement.”

The transition from one generation to another “is really exciting,” said another 30-something merchant, Jess Lanza, Cooperstown Chamber of Commerce president, who operates Kate’s Upstate with his wife, across from Rudy’s.

What happened is the ideal, Lanza said: “Instead of having a business closed by retirement, it’s passed on to new owners who can bring new ideas and new vitality.”

Denison agrees, pointing out that Alex Guenther, a partner with her dad Brian Wrubleski in Mel’s at 22, was a classmate at Cooperstown Central. “2007 dominates!” he declared.

Matt is a member of Cooperstown’s Haggerty clan, which until recently operated Haggerty Hardware. His mother, Trista Haggerty of Cherry Valley, has also been in retail, he said.

Graduating from CCS, he attended Bennington College, finishing his degree at New York City’s Pratt Institute. Then – after a year producing videos for Sports Illustrated and other Time magazines, 70 hours a week – he came home to bartend at Alex’s Bistro, where he found he enjoyed the public contact and associated salesmanship.

Festa, The Fenimore Research Library’s special collections librarian, has a bachelor’s in art history from SUNY New Paltz, followed by two masters: in art history from Hunter College and in library science from Queens College.

He was a reference librarian at the New-York Historical Society before joining The Fenimore in 2014. “I fell in love with Cooperstown,” he said, “with the museum, with the culture, with Main Street.” A patron at Alex’s, he met Denison there.

The idea is for Matt to work days, and Joe to continue at The Fenimore – he loves that job, too – and fill in evenings and weekends.

The two have been thinking about adjusting the inventory. Matt has some ideas for the tequila section; Joe is interested in bourbons and whiskeys. They are exploring “more price-affordable wines that are good.”

They also have some ideas for social media marketing. A virtual wine-tasting, for instance, where customers buy samples and taste them with Matt’s guidance. Or a cocktail-making class. Or how to make white sangria. (Hint: It includes peach brandy and a pear liqueur.)

Over New Year’s weekend, as the partners were trying out their high-tech calculator, a patron bought a $75 bottle of Cooperstown Distillery’s premium bourbon.

The next morning, the patron came back and bought another $75 bottle.

The new merchants were thrilled.

Denison and Festa closed the deal with the Lemisters on Dec. 16, and received a certification to charge sales tax on the 24th. The store was open over the New Year’s weekend, but closed this past

Monday for two weeks of renovations – painting and reorganizing the inventory.

“This is something new, but holding onto the old tradition,” said Joe. “It’s like having a piece of Main Street to maintain and update.”

“There are ’70s vibes we really don’t want to replace,” said Matt.

Lemisters’ Downtown Dynasty Ends With Rudy’s Liquor Store
Family Cooperstown Mainstay Since 1952

Lemisters’ Downtown Dynasty

Ends With Rudy’s Liquor Store

Last September, Rudy’s Liquor Store proprietor
Fred Lemister reflects on what would be his final 9/11 window display at the 143 Main St., Cooperstown, establishment. (Jim Kevlin/AllOTSEGO.com)

Among other things, Fred Lemister was famous for decorating the front window of Rudy’s Liquor Store, which he and his wife Karen operated for 48 years.

His final window – the Lemisters sold Rudy’s to Matt Dennison and Joe Festa at year’s end – was the simple crèche you may have noticed walking by 143 Main St. this Christmas season.

A perennial was Fred’s Titanic window. “I’m a Titanic buff,” he said, also noting the local connection: Arthur L. Ryerson, president of Ryerson Steel, Chicago, who owned a summer estate on Otsego Lake, died in the sinking, although his wife Emily and four children rode on Lifeboat Four to safety.

“The one that meant the most to me was our 9/11 window,” said Lemister, himself the celebrated responder to 9,400 calls in a half-century with Cooperstown’s EMT squad. “I always found it extremely hard to put up. Tears would come to my eyes thinking of the young men and women who passed away on that day.”

The Lemister family has been a force on Main Street since 1952, when Andrew Lemister, Fred’s father, bought Sherry’s Restaurant in the three-story red brick block “at the light” where Mel’s at 22 is now.

In 1970, a few years after his father’s passing, Fred’s mother Evelyn married Rudy Omerzu, a local painting contractor.

Fred and Karen Lemister last February when EMTs from around the county honored his 9,400 calls over 50 years, and her sacrifice
that enabled his responsiveness.

Looking for a less strenuous occupation for her new husband, Fred’s mother and her son approached Cyril T. George, who had opened the liquor store, called George’s, in the late 1960s.

George also operated the Hitching Post at 149 Main, next door to the liquor store, where Alex’s Bistro is now, and he offered mother and son a two-business deal: Buy the restaurant now (1970), and the liquor store at a future date.

On Aug. 7, 1972, the Lemisters did buy the liquor store, renaming it Rudy’s, although things didn’t turn out as anticipated. That Christmas, Rudy Omerzu suffered a fatal heart attack while bowling at the Bowl-A-Rama (today’s Price Chopper).

So Fred, his mother and Karen found themselves running three establishments: Sherry’s, the Hitching Post and – keeping the name in Omerzu’s memory – Rudy’s.

In 1989, an electrical fire in the kitchen damaged the Hitching Post, and former Bruce Hall partner Richard White bought and renovated it for his daughter Ellen Weir’s Homescapes.

It became a restaurant again in 2007.

In 2018, the Lemisters sold the former Sherry’s property to restaurateur Brian Wrubleski, who operates Mel’s at 22 there.

So the Rudy’s sale, which includes the building, signals the end of a 67-year family and Main Street legacy.

In an interview, the Lemisters said they plan to put their Eagle Street house on the market in the spring. Son Andy lives in Jacksonville, Fla., and daughter Kim Knapp, near Orlando, so the parents are looking at the St. Augustine area, in between.

The four grandchildren are also a draw: Andy’s twins Addison and Andrew (A.J.), and Kim’s Makenna, 10, and Kassidy, 8.

In addition to the window displays, the Lemisters’ landmark Rudy’s is remembered for Bassett hound Barclay, who in the early days greeted patrons at the door.

When he passed away, the Lemisters commemorated him with a front window display of Bassett hound memorabilia.

“For 14 and a half years, he was the ruler,” Karen remembers.

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