LEE — The more that downtown Lee's culinary landscape changes, the more it stays the same.
A resurgence in the downtown's dining scene is helping to return Lee to prominence as a food destination in the Berkshires. Recently, seven new or relocated food businesses have opened in town.
Main Street has a new bakery in a familiar spot, a new owner of a popular restaurant and an established eatery staying put with a radically different menu.
Sweet and Savoury on Main recently reopened in Lee, after moving from its original Main Street location in Stockbridge. A Ukrainian immigrant has taken over the former Aiello's and renamed the breakfast/lunch nook Prado's, located across from the Salmon Run Fish House.
Meanwhile, the Verma family has dropped serving Indian food under Chef Express and has opened a second New England Wraps, several months after debuting the dine-in/takeout business at the Premium Outlets in Lee.
"Lee continues to develop a top-notch diversity of food options for both visitors and residents in our Downtown district," said Colleen Henry, the executive director of the Lee Chamber of Commerce.
"Restaurateurs enjoy wide support among our local residents, making Lee a choice location for new eateries."
The number of food and accommodations businesses in the gateway town has increased by 30 percent since 2007, according to 2012 U.S. Census data, the most recent available, and a current list of town businesses.
In 2007, Lee had 90 eateries, bars, hotels, inns and cafes. The number dipped to 55 food-related businesses in 2012 at the tail end of the Great Recession.
Today, Lee boasts almost 120 restaurants, food and accommodation businesses, according to the online business listing website Manta.
The three new retail spots for foodies makes four that have opened in Lee within the first six months of 2019. Lucia's Latin Kitchen relocated from Pittsfield in late April to the former Sullivan Station restaurant on Railroad Street.
The ongoing revitalization of Lee's downtown business district has developed a United Nations dining experience in recent years that includes Ecuadorian, Peruvian, French, Italian and Asian fare along with traditional American cuisine.
A tradition continues
For nearly two decades, Cakewalk was a fixture at 56 Main St. under three different owners providing the town center with a variety of muffins, cookies, breakfast and lunch specials and, of course, cakes. Cakewalk closed last fall, leaving a baked-goods void until Sweet and Savoury owner Livia Landry reopened June 20 in the much-needed larger space.
"I knew what we had with Sweet and Savoury, but I saw the potential to expand with that kitchen," she said.
Sweet and Savoury closed its small shop in Stockbridge at the end of January for a traditional winter break, with plans to reopen in Lee by April. Landry said cleanup and repairs to the kitchen took longer than expected.
Despite the lengthy delay, Landry never wavered from her decision to move, which included bringing on good friends John and Deborah Scalia and their very delectable doughnuts. Five months ago, the Scalias had closed their widely popular Home Sweet Home Doughnut Shoppe in Great Barrington, but Landry persuaded the couple to bring their talents to Lee. Landry says Deborah helps run the front end, with John coming in five hours before opening for the day to make the doughnuts.
"The experience they bring with them is priceless," she said. "They don't work for me, they work with me."
Landry's co-workers also include former Cakewalk employee Samantha Passetto, and Landry's mother and longtime baker, Margaret Esposito.
"I may own the business, but my mother is in charge," said Landry, who splits her time between the Berkshires living in Florida with her family.
Passetto is a junior at the prestigious culinary school Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I. She appreciates Landry taking her on when she isn't in school.
"I enjoy doing this and keep baking so my skills don't get rusty during the summer," said the Lee native.
In addition to doughnuts, Sweet and Savoury now serves breakfast sandwiches, paninis, homemade soups and bagels shipped in from the Great Barrington Bagel Co. It has expanded its baked goods to include fruit bars and cookies, to go along with its signature scones.
Landry considers her business a boutique bakery that strives for the few leftovers at the end of the day.
"When we make our cookies, we make the dough and use it right away. We make our goods in small batches so they are always fresh," she said.
Vlad Karachentsev is making a fresh start, becoming an American business owner for the first time since he moved to the Berkshires five years ago.
He co-owns Prado's Cafe with his former landlord, Javier Fernandez, having bought the breakfast and lunch eatery from Stephanie Aiello, who had bought the former Otto's at the same location, 85 Main St.
The nearly seamless transition occurred April 26, when Karachentsev reopened after a week of cleaning and other prep work.
"I wanted to organize [the cafe] my way," he said.
Prado's menu is similar to Aiello's: omelets, breakfast sandwiches, salads and other lunchtime fare. Karachentsev slowly is adding his own offerings, such as frittatas and bringing in an espresso machine.
"We're trying to change little by little," he said. "We now use No. Six Depot coffee [from West Stockbridge.] People like local."
Two months in, Karachentsev is feeling more comfortable running his own business in a bustling downtown.
"I like Main Street where I live; some days it's busy, some days it's quiet," he said.
Sandeep Verma has gone from making such homeland delights as chicken tikka masala and homemade naan to wraps, hearty salads and smoothies.
After nearly two years serving Indian food under Chef Express at 62 Main St., Verma, his wife, Sadhvi, and their son, Mukul, are now operating under New England Wraps. The Verma family opening its original New England Wraps last October, at the Premium Outlets in Lee, prompted it to duplicate the business model that was a success at the shopping village food court.
"People are always looking for healthy, organic food," said Sandeep Verma. "During the summer, most of our produce is local."
Added Mukul: "This concept is what works in this area ... and we're having a very good response, especially from the elderly."
The Main Street New England Wraps is located near two large senior citizen housing complexes.
The downtown eatery also offers a variety of hamburger options, not available at the Premium Outlets location, vegan options, and catering-size platters of wraps and sandwiches. The Main Street location offers online ordering through Grubhub and Door Dash.
The Vermas came to the U.S. two decades ago via Los Angeles. But they have been working locally since arriving in the Berkshires in the early 2000s. The couple initially invested $100,000 for a brand new kitchen in order to open Chef Express in spring 2017. This time around, new cooler units were added. Two years ago, the Vermas installed wooden booths to enhance seating. The walls still are decorated with various types of artwork along with a puppy photo of now-5-year-old Golu, the family St. Bernard and restaurant mascot.