Coffee with Kirsten Harlow Foster of Foster Supply Hospitality

‘I love that I can walk down almost any Main Street here and know most of the people I pass by.  I love that they know my family, that they know my kids, and that we represent the true definition of Community.’

I have rarely ventured out of Manhattan and Williamsburg during my visits to New York. The lockdown gave me the time to research places I want to visit once I am able to be back in the US and The Catskills tops the list. During my research, I came across a wonderful and independently owned group of hotels and restaurants under the umbrella of Foster Hospitality Company and was intrigued by how Kirsten Harlow Foster with a background in finance, decided to move into hospitality.

I had the pleasure to catch up with her (socially-distanced zoom call!) and learn about her journey thus far and I really can’t wait to visit the properties once I am back in New York!

What made you want to move from the financial sector to hospitality and before starting the Foster Supply Hospitality company, which hotels inspired you the most?

The Western Sullivan Catskills, where we now live and run our businesses, has become my home.  My husband grew up here and our kids are fifth generation ‘Livingston Manor’.  And so, since I first discovered this beautiful part of the world, I have been trying to find a way to be up here full time!

While we were dating, my now-husband Sims introduced me to the area and we began coming up nearly every weekend.  Almost immediately, I fell in love with the area and instantly felt at home in the Community.  And so the conversation quickly turned to ‘how’ do we get up here full time as opposed to ‘should we’.  Neither of us felt right about raising a family in the city – we both felt strongly that our kids should grow up with grass stains, splinters, and a strong sense of community.  And while I loved my experiences working at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where I had most recently spent nearly 10 years of my career, I was tired of the heavy travel schedule, suites & high heels, board rooms, and fluorescent lights.  I was also ready for a new intellectual challenge!

As we opened both The Arnold House and North Branch Inn, we held onto our day jobs and worked weekends and nights to see what kind of potential it had.  We were encouraged from the initial momentum and decided to go all-in – and at that point, it became about creating enough scale to make it meaningful and sustaining both for us, our Community and the increasing members of our team that we were attracting, and so we quickly sized up to the current 5 operating hotels and 2 stand-alone restaurants that are in our portfolio.

How would you describe the Catskills to a first-time visitor?

Humble.  Quiet.  Overpoweringly beautiful.  Simple.  Complex.  Strong.  Cohesive.  Far from but close to everything you need.

What key differences have you noticed when it comes to working in finance versus hospitality?

I have always been motivated by public service, and before we founded Foster Supply Hospitality, I had never worked in the private sector!  And while all of the institutions that I worked for – whether it be small micro-finance NGOs, large international organizations, our Central Bank or the US Treasury – have powerful and important missions and mandates – it was not until we founded FSH that I truly felt that my work had a tangible impact on my Community.

Which of your properties should a first-time guest visit first?

That’s like asking a mom who her favorite child is!  All our properties are special and unique in their own way – it really depends on what one is looking for!  But since it’s our newest ‘baby’, I’ll say that I am incredibly proud of what we have built at Kenoza Hall.  It was our most exhaustive construction and renovation and I think that many of the design lessons that I learned in developing the other hotels and restaurants culminated in the design of Kenoza Hall.  It is also our most complete property, with all of the bells and whistles of a large resort while retaining the intimacy of a small hotel.

What does an average workday look like for you?

It really depends!  I have my home base in our FSH offices, where many of our Executive Team members also spend a good part of their day, but then I am often on property for other parts of the day.  We are almost always in development mode, and so during those times, I can nearly always be found in an active construction site trying to visualize our next project!  And no matter where I am, I am never without my measuring tape, box cutter and notebook.  And of course, having small children, I am grateful that my workday can be as flexible as I want/need it to be so that I am as present as possible for them.  It’s a great balance I am grateful for.

What is your advice to those who want to start their own hospitality business?

I would ask them, are you sure? Its HARD WORK.  There is a common misnomer in this industry that it’s somehow fair game for an amateur.  People think that just because they love restaurants and have traveled to many hotels, that they can operate them without any experience. I could never have done any of this if my partner in all of it wasn’t a seasoned hospitality professional. It’s not the romantic notion many people think about.  I have so much respect for the Operators in our company – and all hospitality companies.  Its grueling work.  We always say, running a hotel and restaurant is like performing on Broadway.  Every day, the curtains go up and you have to do it all over again.  With a smile on your face and everything mise en place. So if you want to get into the business, start at the bottom and learn your way up.

And while many people love the romance and social aspect of the industry, this is a numbers business.  We are an extremely data driven / spreadsheet oriented company. On day 2 of the COVID-19 pandemic, we ran stress tests and revised our budgets.  By day 6, we had about 8 different scenarios laid out and continuously stressed them to make sure we understood our risks and vulnerabilities, as well as our opportunities at all stages.  I am always surprised by the lack of business/financial disciple that I see in the industry, but without it, you’re driving blind.

What do you love the most about the Catskills? 

Everything!  I love that I can walk down almost any Main Street here and know most of the people I pass by.  I love that they know my family, that they know my kids, and that we represent the true definition of Community.  Nearly everyone I know here volunteers, serves on a Board or in some way or other dedicates some of their time to making our little corner of the world better.  I love that when our family goes on a camping trip, we only have to drive 20 minutes outside town and have our pick of a handful of incredible campgrounds to choose from.   I love that there are great shops to splurge on, wonderful design stores to get inspired by, restaurants and food purveyors to be salivated by, wonderful trails and rivers to spend time outside in.  All within a short drive from our home, which is an old farmhouse surrounded by dairy barns, chickens and horses.  And all that, but we are just a short two hour trip to one of the best cities on the planet.

What is your next project you’re currently working on?

We have quite a few projects up our sleeve in the near future!  We have another hotel that had been slated to open in May 2020 but has gotten pushed back due to the Pandemic.  We are hoping to open this property, just across the river from the great town of Narrowsburg later this year.  After that, we have our eyes set on some substantially bigger projects… stay tuned!

More on Foster Supply Hospitality HERE

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