Katie Stiles and Kevin Lasko
Katie Stiles and Kevin Lasko fled the fast-paced Manhattan restaurant scene to run a general store and a successful catering operation in Vermont. As Katie says, they "figured why not?"
Never in a million years did Katie Stiles and Kevin Lasko envision themselves owning a general store in Vermont. The couple had been immersed in the high end restaurant scene in Manhattan, Kevin as executive chef at Park Avenue, a restaurant whose menu and décor changed with each season, and Katie as director of marketing and PR for a restaurateurs including Alain Ducasse and Michael Stillman. But when a friend of a friend invited them to consider running a general store in central Vermont, they decided to check it out as a lark. “It was a free vacation,” Katie says, “so we figured why not?”
That visit opened a new chapter for the couple, and since 2013, they have operated the Pittsfield Original General Store and the Vermont Farms Catering company. Kevin, as executive chef, manages the food and bookkeeping while Katie coordinates events and oversees ordering and staff. Both work regular shifts at the general store.
“When we bought these businesses in 2013, we weren’t even married yet!” Katie laughs. But they did tie the knot two years later. “We were looking at our catering calendar for summer,” she continues, “and saw an open date at Riverside Farm for July 4. So we took it and then had three months to plan our wedding.” While they did cater their own Friday evening welcome party, featuring paella and a roast pig, Cloud Nine Catering of Burlington and several other chef friends and staff took care of the Big Day. They honeymooned in Italy after wedding season ended in November and reveled in white truffle season.
The duo now caters more than 40 weddings annually from May through November, and once wedding season wraps up, they shift their focus to The Backroom, a cozy dining establishment conveniently located – you guessed it – in the back room of the general store. This intimate space provides a cozy atmosphere where up to twenty guests can enjoy an experience that starts with hors d’oeuvres and cocktails at the chef’s counter followed by three courses and a dessert, all for under fifty dollars a person. Guests sit at long communal tables, and within minutes, you’ll likely have a six degrees of separation moment with someone nearby.
Kevin stands at his open kitchen at one end of the room preparing dinner. “This way, I get to be part of the action and can watch people enjoying the meal. It puts on some pressure but challenges me to uphold our reputation.” Katie tends to a full range of cocktails and oversees the service. The menu changes weekly based on the availability of local ingredients. “We wanted to create an atmosphere that feels like you’re at a dinner party at our home,” Katie explains. “And we keep our prices where locals can still afford to enjoy a meal here. That’s important to us because they’re our neighbors.”
Kevin has been cooking his entire life. “I loved to bake but hated to follow a recipe. That drove my mother crazy.” He was a short order cook in Point Pleasant, New Jersey in high school and then earned his degree from the New England Culinary Institute. Katie graduated from Skidmore and wrote her thesis on the psychological process of marketing food. Although she focuses mostly on the front of the house responsibilities, Katie can certainly hold her own in the kitchen.
Katie and Kevin lived in the apartment above the general store. While it made for a short commute, they kept searching for their dream home. And found it on the side of a mountain a couple miles away. “We had looked at this place three years ago but it was way out of our range,” Kevin says. Three years of rent-free living – and saving money from 16 hour workdays – allowed them to finally buy this gorgeous palace of solitude at the end of a gravel road. They moved in on June 15 and still cannot believe their good fortune.
The home offers plenty of room for family and friends to unwind in front of the fireplace, the wine cellar, or around one of several dining tables. Katie’s family will spend the Christmas holiday here. “My entire family loves to eat, and something is always in the oven or on the stove. They’ll also be able to experience The Backroom for the first time.” Kevin adds that his favorite place in the house is right at the counter island and stove. “I’m so comfortable here, chopping and cooking while everyone hangs out drinking and talking. I don’t think I’ve sat down for a meal since high school!”
Since Thanksgiving is opening day at The Backroom, Christmas becomes the holiday focus. “We’ll do a brunch one of the days, starting with cocktails, including a nonalcoholic one like a cranberry shrub or grapefruit spritz,” Kevin says. “We always make a frittata using leftovers from the fridge, braised bacon, scallion pancakes, and a seasonal salad. The bacon is super fatty and unctuous, and Katie’s scallion pancakes are our go-to because they’re great with anything. And Katie keeps the Chemex going with Vermont Artisan Coffee, which we find is robust but never bitter.”
When Katie and Kevin do have a rare bit of down time, they work on house projects or develop their gardens. “We’ve got some fruit trees and berry bushes, and next year we’ll put in raised beds for veggies,” Kevin notes. Their exuberant black lab, Tucker, also appreciates runs and hikes on the mountain trails that surround the house. Sundays and Mondays allow for cooking at home. “We tend to eat a lot of vegetarian dishes when it’s just us, because we’re around such rich food the rest of the time,” Katie explains. “But I did get Kevin a Big Green Egg this summer so he has fun with that.”
What keeps them going through the long days and nights of running three bustling businesses? “We have an incredible team at the store and on the catering crew,” Katie explains. Kevin adds, “Sure the days are long but there’s always a finish line. We’re in the service industry and we provide more than just food and drink. Our job is to take care of people and create events they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
Maria Reade makes regular pit stops at the Pittsfield General Store as she travels on Route 100. Hard to beat their loaded egg sandwich but she’s learned not to eat it while driving…