Inside Alison Roman’s Upstate Shoppy Shop

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A three-and-a-half hour drive from Brooklyn, and an hour-and-24-minute drive from Hudson, is Bloomville, New York — a hamlet in the Western Catskills with a population of 173 according to the 2020 census, down from 213 in 2010. Adam Driver, Yoko Ono, Elijah Wood, and Steve Burns, the original host of Blue’s Clues, have been spotted around town and are rumored to have houses in the area. Also living close by is the owner of Birdsong Farm Community Garden, a demolition and real estate tycoon who is the father of the actor who played Nate’s father in a flashback episode of Euphoria. And on Labor Day weekend 2023, Alison Roman soft-opened her pantry store First Bloom in the lowest level of a building that used to house the beloved restaurant Table on Ten.

A 2021 New Yorker profile of Roman revealed that she had purchased the building for less than $300,000 in the winter of 2020 with plans to sell pantry goods and homemade items like chicken stock that she would make in her kitchen. “I’m trying to create things that will outlive this moment, and that will be able to exist without me,” Roman told the New Yorker.

Roman is the millennial food personality of the zeitgeist — she’s published three cookbooks, and is responsible for recipes viral enough to be known only by the most basic summation of their contents: the stew, the cookies. Since a controversial interview in 2020 and her subsequent departure from her New York Times cooking column, Roman launched a successful newsletter sharing recipes and cooking videos. In January 2022, she announced plans for debuting a cooking show and has since been shopping it around to various networks.

First Bloom is the latest addition to the Roman empire. This genre of store — which one might call a boutique grocery store, a shoppy shop, or a curated corner store — has proliferated in the past few years alongside the rise of direct-to-consumer brands like Fishwife tinned fish, Ghia nonalcoholic aperitif, Fly by Jing chile crisps and sauces, and Graza olive oil. The appeal of these stores lies in the specificity of their curation, and if Roman has already influenced what you eat and the shade of red lipstick you wear, First Bloom offers a new chance to create yourself in her image.

The store balances the local with the international, and with the homemade. First Bloom’s Instagram advertises the origins of local produce: potatoes and onions from Lucky Dog Farms, garlic from Star Route Farm, flowers from Roses Brook Blooms, and marrow beans from Buttermilk Bean in Ithaca. These items live next to their far-flung compatriots like Yun Hai Amber River Soy Sauce from Taiwan, Eden soba noodles from Japan, and Swedish gingersnaps. Since the opening, Roman has also sold homemade semolina lemon fennel cake (a recipe from her latest cookbook), chicken broth, pork broth, and, after posting a picture of a huge crate of tomatoes on First Bloom’s Instagram story, fresh tomato sauce with Calabrian chile.

On opening day I drove to First Bloom, gliding down Route 10, past signs for sweet corn and pick-yourself blueberries. When I arrived at 2:30 p.m. — parking was already scarce. I parked down the road behind a station wagon with Bard College and Bates College stickers on the back windshield.

Stepping inside, I was met with a huge wooden table displaying a vase of flowers and bowls of shelf-stable produce. At the cash register there was a bowl of Ferrero Rocher priced at 75 cents apiece, alongside a bowl of stickers whose proceeds went to the Delaware County Food Bank. The shelves along one wall carried dried pastas, Cento whole peeled tomatoes, and handmade spice jars with the First Bloom logo sticker and handwritten labels. Another wall boasted First Bloom sherry vinegar sourced from “Zoe,” presumably a friend, and Cantabrian anchovies with a little sign underneath displaying a map of Spain and a flag marking where in the surrounding sea they come from. With tinned fish popularity at its zenith, the store was fully stocked with conservas, including Minnow cod liver, a tinned fish brand created by the owners of New York City restaurants Hart’s and Cervo’s. Next to the cod liver there was another sign that read: “Codliver?? I don’t even know her! But seriously folks…” followed by an explanation of how best to eat cod liver.

The signs scattered throughout the shop situate the store as a true extension of the Roman universe — her books, her newsletter, they’re all tattooed with the particular sense of humor and style she brings to all of her projects. It’s part joke, part instruction, part confession. It’s warm, friendly, and ripe for forming the kind of parasocial relationship Roman fans tend to have with her.

Among the Portuguese olive oil and sardines tomate, I stumbled upon the girls from the Bard car, admiring the goods. Isabel Danishmend and Elena Feher had recently started their senior year at Bard and drove 1.5 hours to the pantry. They had just moved into a new apartment together after previously living with five other people and decided to take a break from unpacking to come to the store. The roommates cook Alison Roman’s recipes regularly because of their adaptability and affordability. “It’s amazing. It’s everything I would want in my pantry,” Feher says.

“When we go to the grocery store we are mostly going to buy these items,” says Danishmend, “I like that it’s a variety of prices too.” Most food items are under $10. Some of the fancier items from far-reaching locales are pricier, but pantry items are comparatively reasonable. The Cantabrian anchovies are $72, but a bag of rice or Rancho beans is $6. A box of De Cecco pasta is $4.

The prices are gentle enough to attract locals, not just Roman fans. “A store like this, there’s some local people that aren’t gonna like it because they might think it’s out of their range but there’s stuff that is high and there’s stuff that isn’t,” says Jimmy Beaton, a 59-year-old carpenter, who lives in nearby Harpersfield.

Barb Cole, a 78-year-old retired home care worker also from Harpersfield, welcomed the new addition. “I think it’s a good thing and the more you have the more it might encourage others to do similar. Because this area needs revitalizing,” she says. “It needs something different to draw new people in, tourist people, local people.”

The Bloomville main drag sleeps quietly along the Delaware River. Near First Bloom, there’s Castkill Castings, Sal’s Traditional Meat Center, Bloomville United Methodist Church, Bloomville Fire Hall, and not much else. Tourism in the Catskills has been surging, and although during the pandemic the number of New York City residents moving to Hudson Valley and the Catskills increased 124.4 percent, Bloomville has lost residents over the last 10 years. The building Roman bought for First Bloom was originally an 1860s house that Justus Kempthorne and Inez Valk-Kempthorne refurbished and turned into a cafe and restaurant. Another store 10 minutes down the road in Delhi, New York called Hamden General was saved from permanent closure a few years ago by a new owner. It’s a boutique grocery, larger than First Bloom, with a wide array specialty food and pantry items, and made-to-order sandwiches sold in the back. It was originally built as a hardware store in the late 1800s and the new owner has kept on display one of the tills with old family accounts written on paper cards.

“Some of these small towns like Bloomville have almost nothing left. So anything new that comes in might bring a town back. Even our Harpersfield has no real store center area,” says Cole. “A lot of these little places have faded out over the years and you need something.”

Beaton agreed as he walked away from the store with a bag of jasmine rice and some ginger. “There are some towns that aren’t commercial-friendly because they don’t want everybody there and the traffic. But that really, it makes a community… We’ve all got to shop locally.”

Roman reportedly splits her time between Brooklyn and upstate. And while visitors to First Bloom can’t expect to see her working the shop every day, on this day she held court near the register. She told me the big sellers of the day were the beans and the First Bloom sherry. She wants to add more items in the future, like linens, and is looking forward to seeing how the shop will evolve over time.

Outside the store, a group of friends in their 20s and 30s were mingling by the benches under the store windows. They mostly hailed from Brooklyn, Fort Greene, or Greenpoint, and were staying with one of the group’s parents who had moved into their second home in Hamden permanently. One member of the group, Charlotte Morse, 28 years old and a marketing strategist for a filtered showerhead company, said “it’s fun to see a brick-and-mortar version” of the Alison Roman experience.

First Bloom really does feel like a physical world expansion of the gregarious and inviting persona around which Roman has built her brand. It’s also a literalization of her role as a curator and tastemaker. After years of web pages, emails, and digital videos, it grounds the Roman project in the material world of objects and in-person meeting.

This has been Roman’s proposal since her very first published recipe: Make food with your own hands for yourself and for your friends. Enjoy the physical process and have fun with the people you love through sharing it. Upstate, this seems to be the default mode; with closer bonds and fewer barriers, community isn’t a dream or an abstraction. As I walked back to my car, I saw Cole beaming with genuine joy and gratitude, “Look at all these people!”

Callie Hitchcock is a journalist and writer who has published writing in The Believer, The New Republic, The Nation, Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, and has a food blog called Food Fantasy.

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