Maria Philippis is the founder & owner behind Boitson’s, a beloved Kingston restaurant that closed its doors this past January. Boitson’s arguably changed the Kingston restaurant landscape, ushering in an upgraded level of cuisine and service for the city and drawing in crowds from all over the Hudson Valley and beyond. I had the pleasure of speaking with Maria about her career, the many factors that contributed to her decision to ultimately close Boitson’s, and her dual experience of being a trail-blazing restauranteur and a mom. Read on to learn more about Maria’s story!
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born on Long Island and pretty much grew up there. We moved around a bit when I was a kid. Then we settled in Farmingdale.
Do you remember as a child knowing what you wanted to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be an artist and fashion designer.
Where did that come from? That inspiration?
I don’t know. Neither of my parents was very artistic. I was just always drawing and making things and sewing. I don’t know why. It was just created by impulse.
You come from a restaurant family. Can you tell me a little bit about what it was like to grow up in that environment with that as an example of work and professionalism?
Both my parents worked in restaurants when I was growing up and my dad always worked in restaurants. My mom ended up going back to college and becoming a bookkeeper, so she was then working the back of the house in the restaurant industry. I just was surrounded by it. All my relatives worked in restaurants. My brother worked in restaurants. Growing up in my teens, if I wanted a new dress or I wanted to buy something, my parents would say, well, you have to go work at the restaurant. So from 12 on I always just worked in all aspects of the restaurant industry. I was a bathroom attendant, I was a coat check girl, a bus girl. I was a barback, a waitress, a hostess, and a manager. Even through college I bartended and waitressed.
I personally started working in restaurants when I was 14 and I always feel as though I keep coming back because it feels like the most familiar thing to me. Have you found that in your life as well?
Yeah, I mean, I swore when I went to college that I would not work in a restaurant or run a restaurant. For years my dad would say “just come work at the restaurant after college, you’re really good at this.” And I would just say no, I don’t want to do it’s not my calling. I tried to avoid it, but I never did. I never went more than six months without a restaurant gig.
You were the owner of Boitson’s which was truly one of the most beloved restaurants in Kingston and in the Hudson Valley. What’s the story behind that opening? Because I’ve heard it’s kind of a fun one.
Well, Boitson’s was named after my landlord. Before I moved back to the Hudson Valley I lived in Brooklyn, and I lived there for probably about 10 years. Even after I moved away, he would beg me to move back and, you know, he just had a thing for me. He was an older man. His wife had passed and he was alone. And then he died, and he left me his house in Williamsburg. I ended up selling the house and moved up full time to the Hudson Valley, bought the building, opened the restaurant, and named it after him.
Wow, that’s pretty crazy.
Yeah, it was very crazy.
Had you talked to him about wanting to do that at some point or did that just happen naturally?
He would always say, “Oh, let me help you open a restaurant” and I said, you know, “I don’t want anything from you, I’m fine.” For years, he would say, “open your own place” and I would say, “I don’t want to have my own place. I just work in restaurants. This isn’t my calling.” And then he died in 2008.
Other than him, what would you say was the inspiration behind Boitson’s as a concept?
I always loved a small Bistro. I’ve opened restaurants with my family and for other people and they always felt too big to me. I just wanted a tiny little restaurant where I could see the whole space all at once and not be overwhelmed with separate dining rooms and stairs and this and that. I just always liked a really intimate bistro that could be cozy. And when I saw the space in Kingston, everyone said it was too small for a restaurant but I said, “no, it’s perfect.” It was a tanning salon before, so everyone kept pointing out “it’s 800 square feet. How are you going to put in a kitchen, a dining room, a bar, and bathrooms?” And I just said, “I’m gonna do it.” I sketched it out on a cocktail napkin and said, “if I can do it like this and it’s really tight and it’s really efficient, it’ll work.”
And it did!
Yeah, I just love a bistro. I love a neighborhood joint. I didn’t want it to be too precious. I didn’t want it to be fancy. I didn’t want it to be a dive. Just a spot that could be in any city, you know? In any time period.
Are there certain days or moments that stand out as highlights of your career as a restaurant owner?
Hmmm, I don’t know. I mean, I really loved what I did. I don’t want to do it again. But there were definitely so many moments of extreme laughter, you know, people coming in and just having a great time. I think our first New Year’s was really kind of amazing. The following year we threw the first big New Year’s party on the street. But the first year at Boitson’s we didn’t have a party because we thought it would just be too busy and things would go wrong. That night nothing was really happening on the street but in the restaurant, it was super fun. Customers had brought a giant candelabra with tons of candles on it. People were dressed up and my friend brought a Victrola so we were playing records. It was just a funny, weird, quirky evening. There were many nights with a lot of laughing. It was good times, good music, good energy.
Switching gears a little bit; I know that you’re a mom. How do you feel like motherhood has impacted your career in the restaurant industry? And how did you juggle the responsibilities of being a mom and a business owner?
Well, you know, the timing was a little strange. I opened the restaurant and then within that year, I had a baby. In hindsight, it’s not really the way to do things. Generally, you should open your restaurant and let it run for a few years before you start having kids. But I think not really thinking about it and just doing it is the way to go. You can try to plot it and plan it, but you really can’t. You don’t know what’s really going to happen. I was lucky; I had my mom helping me a lot and I have a really good crew of friends that chipped in and helped. And living close to the restaurant was helpful. Also taking it easy with hours — I decided early on that I was only going to be doing dinner for six nights. I didn’t want to do seven days. I really wanted to do five nights but the demand was high pretty soon after we opened.
I think that I missed a lot with my baby because I had to be at the restaurant. It had just opened, there was no choice. My father also died in the first four months of my being open.
Oh my god.
Yeah, so that was a really effed-up time.
That sounds so overwhelming.
Yeah. But you know, when you look back it’s overwhelming. At the time you’re just in it and you’re just doing it. It’s hindsight that really messes with your head. Also hearing other people saying things like, “how are you going to do this?” Well, you just do it. People deal with much more than this. I’m an optimist.
How old is your kid now?
My son is now 11.
Is he a foodie because he grew up in that environment?
Yeah, he’s got a lot of opinions. You know, I had another restaurant too. I had Kovo which I had open for three years and he always considered that his restaurant. He was devastated when I closed that one. He was crying in the car as I was telling him, “Honey, now I get to spend more time with you and I won’t be at work so much.” He was like, “Yeah, but you know, I love my meatballs and my tzatziki.” I told him, “I know honey, but now we’ll get rent every month.” And he looks up from a pool of tears and asks “how much?” He’s a businessman, he likes business.
That’s so cute. I’m sure he gets that from having the experience of watching you as a businesswoman.
Yeah, I ended up saying to myself, “you can work your ass off or you can collect rent. And I think I’d rather collect the rent.” I mean, I know closing Kovo was a big hit for a lot of people. People really loved it. And it was great, it just financially didn’t make as much sense. And missing the time with my kid was tough. I missed a lot when he was a baby. But now that he’s doing more school things and activities I have to be there because there’s no one else to do it. I’m a single mother, I don’t have a partner and he doesn’t have a dad in the picture. So it’s up to me!
What brought you to the Hudson Valley?
I went to college in New Paltz. So I came up, loved it, left for about 10 years, and then came back and then left again and then came back again. And now I’m pretty firmly rooted here.
Did you always know after going to college here that you wanted to come back eventually?
No, I thought I wanted to be in the city. And I did that. Then after 10 years, I thought, I don’t really want to be in the city anymore. And I love it here! Every time I go somewhere else, I ask myself, “can I live here?” But it’s never really where I want to be.
It’s pretty special. Are you in Kingston?
We just moved to Port Ewen last year. We lived above the restaurant for years before. It was a true Mom and Mom’s shop. It was good for raising him because I could keep an eye on him and if I had a sitter I could still run upstairs and keep an eye on things. But I couldn’t keep Boitson’s open, especially once we moved last year.
That naturally brings me to my next question: why did you ultimately decide to close Boitson’s?
I think 12 years is a long run for any restaurant. It was getting harder. Even before COVID with labor and housing for staff. It was just getting harder and harder and my patience was starting to really fade. After doing Kovo and renting out the space, I just said, you know, I think I just want to do that. Because running a restaurant is really hard and I wanted to be home more. I kept on trying to find ways to have other people run it or not be there as much but my phone was ringing 24/7.
How do you feel that this area of Hudson Valley has influenced you both as an entrepreneur and also as an individual?
It was a lot easier to do things in the Hudson Valley. I once felt like I was going to open something in the city or in Philadelphia, but it was just too expensive to do it anywhere else. It was too restrictive. With the Health Department and the liquor authorities and everywhere else I looked, I realized, oh my god, it’s going to cost me a million dollars just to get in the door and do what I want to do. When I came to Kingston, I could afford to buy the building and I could afford to fix it the way I wanted to and live a decent life. If I tried to do the same thing in New York City I would have had to have a lot of investors and partners and it just would have been a very different thing. The Hudson Valley let me do what I wanted to do the way I wanted to do it.
What is your take on how the restaurant scene has changed in the Hudson Valley and where do you think it’s going?
I think the restaurant scene up here has come in and out. You know, I feel like in the 70s it had sort of a renaissance. There was this restaurant and food scene because of the Culinary Institute. Maybe with IBM leaving and the money leaving restaurants kind of dried up? I think because there’s money coming back to the area now, restaurants can open and people are willing to go out more.
I also think the restaurant scene around the world has changed because people eat out all the time. In the past, people would eat out only on special occasions, but times have changed. So I don’t know if it’s just the Hudson Valley or if it’s everywhere.
The changes you’ve seen in the Hudson Valley, let’s say in the last 10 years; do you think these are positive changes?
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s nice to have these options. Places are busy. The only problem I see is the staffing. You know, 100 places can open up but you still only have 10 people to work. People now are just jumping around and seeing where they can make the most money, where it’s the easiest job, or what’s closest to home. There’s not a lot of loyalty, and for good reason! If you can make more money somewhere else why wouldn’t you go somewhere else? If you can’t afford to live in Uptown Kingston and you can live in Kerhonkson, you’ll work in Kerhonkson. Things have shifted.
I’m curious to see the way the whole restaurant industry will go, because with food costs, labor costs, and all the other costs, I can’t see how everyone’s going to survive. And I pray that it’s not the downfall of small restaurants. That it doesn’t just become big corporate restaurants or only restaurants owned by wealthy people. I don’t know what’s going to happen.
For my restaurant, it got to the point where I just couldn’t take any more money out of it. After I paid everybody and paid the food costs, there was no money at the end of the day. That’s part of the reason why I closed it — I didn’t see it getting better. Not that I didn’t do well all the years that I was open, but in the last couple of years it was really getting tougher and tougher and, you know, its blood money at the end of the day.
You stayed open throughout the beginning and into the pandemic. I’m sure that was as hard as it gets. How did you manage that?
Packing groceries at two in the morning with masks on and in fear of our lives. It was pretty shitty.
How did you manage to stay open? Or did you close for a period of time?
I mean, we opened, then we closed. We opened, then we closed again. And then I was a grocery store for a time. We cooked meals for essential workers. We did take out. I just kept on trying everything. It was too hard. We did it as long as we could, but in January I just decided I couldn’t do it anymore.
What are your goals for your future, personally and/or professionally?
My goal is to not go back to the restaurant industry. I’m hoping to maybe be able to just retire. I have an Airbnb and I have a couple of apartments. I just hope to do more small real estate things. And I’m really into gardening and I want to go back to painting and doing ceramics and hanging out with my son. And travel!
Where would you like to go?
Well, we recently flew to Chicago and took the train to Portland, Oregon, and then went to Seattle. And then we came back and I actually just went to Palm Springs with some friends. Our family is in Greece so I’m hoping to spend time with them this summer because it’s been years since I’ve seen them. When you have a restaurant, you don’t often get to go on trips. For years I would try to plan trips and then it’s, oh, this person is sick and this person is going to quit! Every time I would go away I ended up saying to myself, “oh my god, I should never have left.”
Is there anything you wish you could tell yourself back when you were first starting out as a restaurant owner?
Yeah, just to try to have fun and not take it too seriously. I don’t know if this is a great quote, but when everyone would get really stressed out my dad would always say “it’s only food, it’s not sex, relax.” It’s food! It should be fun and it should be enjoyable. Of course, the restaurant industry is stressful, but I would always try to tell myself, “when you go home don’t tell the horrible stories, tell funny stories.”
What are some of your personal favorite local businesses in the Hudson Valley?
Well, everyone thinks this is kind of funny, but Dallas Hot Weiners is probably my favorite restaurant.
Which location; there’s one in Kingston right?
Uptown, the one next to Boitson’s. And I go for breakfast— they make the best egg omelette.
Wow, I had no idea.
I know. Everyone says, really? I eat everything there besides burgers and hotdogs. They make a great egg salad sandwich and a great BLT. And they make it to order. They chop the eggs right there. And it’s like 4 dollars, you know, you just can’t beat it. It’s spotless, they’re nice and it’s fast. So it’s my favorite.
I’m really into antiques, so I love Kingston Consignments.
I also like Pakt and Masa. There are a lot of good spots… oh! There’s a new donut shop downtown. It’s called Half Moon Rondout Cafe and they make donuts to order. The donuts are insane. I also love Clove & Creek, Hops Petunia, Zephyr, and all the shops downtown. I go to Kingston Standard for pizza and oysters.
I have one last question! Since Beyond the Shag is, at its core, related to all things beauty; what is your go-to hair/makeup/skincare/beauty routine?
I just discovered Nulastin and I use it on my lashes on my eyebrows and I can’t believe how much my lashes have filled out and my brows have filled out. I’m really bad about taking care of my skin. The one thing I’ve gotten from my Greek heritage is pretty good skin. Even though I’ve abused it, forget to wash it, forget to moisturize, forget the sunscreen… and I try to do those things, but often I don’t.
And I hate to say it but you know, I keep buying all these expensive shampoos and hair products, and my hair never turns out as good as when I just use Suave. The rosemary mint, I swear by it!
And being blessed with great skin certainly helps!
It’s not great skin but it’s just not as wrinkled as it should be at my age and with the damage I’ve done. In my teenage years, we used to put on baby oil and lay out with tin foil on a record album. Seriously, just cooking ourselves.
And now everyone’s obsessed with sunscreen!
I know, now I go out with a hat and long sleeves and I feel like, “oh my god, what happened to me?” But it’s probably a good thing because, you know, the ozone layer and melanoma. It’s a scary, scary thing.