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A leap of faith

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  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Jennifer Stark, left, and her wife, Maureen McNamara, took a leap of faith and opened the Phoenicia Lodge in the Catskill Mountains of New York in early 2020. The lodge comprises a collection of rustic, 1940s cabins made up of five rooms, two suites and six independent cottages.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Jennifer Stark, left, and her wife, Maureen McNamara, took a leap of faith and opened the Phoenicia Lodge in the Catskill Mountains of New York in early 2020. The lodge comprises a collection of rustic, 1940s cabins made up of five rooms, two suites and six independent cottages.

In 2019, Maureen McNamara and her wife, Jennifer Stark, now both 60, took a leap of faith and decided to sell their popular restaurant, Amici’s Kitchen & Living Room, in the Detroit suburb of Berkley, Mich. The couple had owned it for 15 years. They packed up all their belongings — including two Shih Tzus named Junie and George — and moved to the tiny hamlet of Phoenicia, N.Y., nestled in the Catskill Mountains, about 100 miles north of New York City.

“We had lost our passion and had become extremely burned out,” McNamara said. “We bought the restaurant from Jen’s brother, so it never felt like ours. We wanted something that was.”

That something was the Phoenicia Lodge, a collection of rustic, 1940s cabins with wooden planks, made up of five rooms, two suites and six independent cottages that the couple bought in the beginning of 2020. (Rates start at $135 a night.)

“Jennifer had a place in Woodstock and knew the area. I would visit with my kids,” said McNamara, who has two children, Anthony, 29, and Rory, 27, with her ex-husband. “It resonated that this was a good place.”

The women met in school and reconnected in 2000 when they attended their 20th reunion at Dondero High School, in Royal Oak, Mich. McNamara, a production manager at an advertising firm, was married and living in Huntington Woods, a Detroit suburb. Stark, who was in a same-sex relationship, was living in Manhattan and working at Atlantic Records’ A&R department to find promising new artists. Their spark and attraction was surprising and undeniable to them both.

The following year, McNamara got divorced; Stark broke up with her partner and moved back to Michigan to be closer to McNamara. In 2015 they were married at the Dossin Great Lakes Museum on Belle Isle in Detroit.

Two days before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020, they welcomed their first Phoenicia Lodge guest. Then the world shut down. Still, the couple endured, and so has their inn.

“This experience has been exciting and magical,” McNamara said. “It’s a slower, calmer pace. And we’re turning a profit. That feels really good!”

The following interview with McNamara has been edited and condensed.

Question: What made you sell your restaurant and buy an inn on the East Coast?

Answer: Because we had both lost our parents and my kids were grown, we had a freedom to create something else. Every night, managing the restaurant and our 20-plus employees was like an ER situation. It felt all-consuming. It was a wonderful restaurant with wonderful customers, but we started to dread going in.

Q: How did you find the Phoenicia Lodge?

A: After being confined to a restaurant, we knew we wanted a location that was outdoors and would give us the ability to ski and hike. So we searched the Catskills. This was the only property we looked at. Even though it was a cold, rainy, snow-melting day, the property felt amazing and manageable. We knew we wanted hospitality because we’re really good with people. And something that was profitable. We saw ourselves here. We spent the night in one of the cottages. In the morning we told the owners we wanted to buy it.

Q: How did you prepare for this major transition?

A: We sold the restaurant and contents and closed on Dec. 31, 2019. We had a 1031 exchange, which gives you a tax break when you sell an existing business property and swap it for one of equal or more value that you buy within 90 days. We bought the inn in January 2020, then we had two months to pack our belongings. We had downsized from the suburbs a few years earlier so that part was easy. In early March, movers came to take our stuff.

The previous owners gave us a two-hour crash course on how to run a lodge. The owners felt urgent to leave; we felt urgent for knowledge. It was an odd mix. We were used to the pace of the restaurant; we were not used to running a lodge. They gave us an unfinished owner’s manual and we were off. It was exhilarating. We didn’t know we were in over our heads. Jen and I are fixers and producers who are not afraid to figure things out, which we did on the fly because that’s how we operate.

Q: When you opened the inn, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic days later. What was that like?

A: It was crazy. We were completely booked with guests who had stayed at the inn before. Then everyone canceled. Then we panicked. All we could do that first week was unpack. Our king-size bed wouldn’t fit into our bedroom. The place wasn’t the way we wanted, but there wasn’t anyone available to do the work and we had no resources. We did what we could and made the best of it. We replaced the mattresses, bedding, towels, and kitchen dishes and glassware. We bought new porch furniture and picnic tables and eventually hired someone to put a new roof on the cottages and main lodge. People who wanted to escape the pandemic started coming; we had the space. That was amazing. For the rest of 2020 there wasn’t a room available … (and) 2021 brought families. This summer was about weddings and groups. We’ve been thankfully very busy.

Q: What do you love about owning the inn?

A: Meeting and getting to know all our guests and hearing their stories and history. I love creating an experience and space for people that are comfortable, warm and inviting. I’m big on meeting people’s needs.

Q: What has been the hardest part of this journey?

A: Creating boundaries between ourselves and guests has been hard. Saying “no” to people was hard, too — “No, you can’t bring three dogs, because the rule is two.” Or “no, you can’t check out three hours late” — because that’s not the kind of person I was comfortable being. But I’ve learned it’s OK, even necessary, to do. If you’re really clear, communicative and specific with guests, they will respect that.

Q: How has this experience changed your relationship with your wife?

A: We’ve grown closer. We’ve always moved as a team, but now our teamwork is stronger. Our love and caring for one another has deepened because we did this amazing thing together, and we both appreciate what it took to make this move, adjustment and change happen. And there’s an increased respect for what each of us has accomplished.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise?

A: How exhausting and rewarding this has been. And that YouTube can teach you anything. We’ve had to learn basic plumbing and electric work. We’ve put in toilets. I’ve been amazed at our stamina. We’ve gotten physically strong. It’s been rejuvenating.

Q: What advice can you give to others who want to make a life-changing leap?

A: I was afraid to leave where I was. I became comfortable being uncomfortable and thinking this was it and this was our last stage. But I realized I wanted more. If you’re feeling that you want to make a change or are drawn to something you’re curious about, don’t stop revisiting those feelings and thoughts because they mean something. Identify things that make you happy. From there, in the things you like, look at how you can incorporate that into your life and what you might need to do to make room for those changes.

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