- Courtesy of Otto's Market
For almost a century, the storefront at 215 Main Street in Germantown housed Central Market. When it closed in 2007, the close-knit community felt its absence acutely. But then, in 2008, Otto Leuschel filled the void with Otto's Market. With the new grocery store, Germantown locals regained not just a key source of sustenance, they also got back their community headquarters/bully pulpit/country-networking hub.
The Otto’s Market building was originally built as a grocery store in 1927, and when Leuschel purchased the building he did a total renovation of the space to recreate an all-American early-20th-century vibe. The atmosphere, and the market’s mix of everyday groceries with specialty and local foods, managed to do what was once thought impossible in Columbia County: bring the longtime locals and metro-transplants together.
Leuschel brought abundant produce from local farms, with quality pastured meats, fresh sourdough loaves, local food stuffs ranging from eggs and maple syrup to hot sauce, and freshly made doughnuts together under one roof. The selection of newspapers, hot coffee, and deli counter established this as the sort of daily drop-in spot.
Then in 2012, Leuschel opened Germantown Variety across the street, an updated five-and-dime concept as meticulously curated and quality-driven as the market, stocking everything from nails and screws to beauty supplies and children’s toys. The store proved Otto’s wasn’t just a lucky fluke, and that new businesses, if well run, could thrive in the out-of-the-way little town. The duo of stores cemented the former Whole Foods Market VP’s local legacy as a community-oriented master businessman. And many credit Leuschel with catalyzing the small town’s revitalization and paving the way for later businesses like Gaskin’s.
So, it came as a shock to many when Leuschel put both Otto’s and Germantown Variety up for sale in 2015. But he did so to move back home to Washington State to help care for his elderly parents, saying at the time, “it was a very difficult decision because I’m proud of what I’ve built. I see my life as chapters and this was by far the greatest chapter.”
In 2017, the business was bought by four friends—Tracy and Dana Martin, and Rae Cohen and Noah Bernamoff—who have continued to build off of Otto’s offerings and brand legacy, bringing their combined experience in the New York City hospitality industry.
Co-owner and prolific New York restaurateur Noah Bernamoff sums up the business partnership as one that “just makes sense.” He was in business with his wife Rae Cohen long before they took over Otto’s, while the partnership with the other couple developed from their friendship and shared passions. “Dana and Tracy are friends of ours and live upstate as well and had a long interest in community-building and environmentalism,” Bernamoff says.
The four were drawn to Otto’s due to its loyal following and strong customer base as well as the hard work Leuschel put into the store’s development. “We were leaping off where he started. I think that was very attractive to us–we weren’t essentially creating something from scratch,” Bernamoff says. “We were grabbing the torch, and treading our own path, but a torch that had been burning very similarly to what we were trying to do.”
Each co-owner’s role in running Otto’s varies. Thanks to his experience in the food and beverage industry, Bernamoff acts as general advisory although a large portion of his work revolves around “product sleuthing” and sourcing new inventory. Cohen handles store identity and design: taking photos of new products, designing Otto’s logo and custom merch, and sharing stories of local vendors.
A Greener Otto’s
With an MBA in entrepreneurship and management, Tracy Martin leads sustainability and community engagement initiatives that foster deeper connections with Germantown and the planet. Her husband Dana’s background is in finance, so he oversees daily financial operations and customer service needs.
The new owners have made numerous changes to infrastructure and inventory since taking over, building off Leuschel’s foundations. The most noticeable change is a complete reorganization of Otto’s interior, with operational changes mainly revolving around improving the store’s sustainability and energy conservation. Otto’s has gotten rid of the oil furnace, installed brand new insulation, finished the basement, built an insulated walk-in refrigerator, put in a fully ventilated kitchen, and added a side patio to create more seating. The business is wind-powered through ESCO Green Mountain Energy.
But Otto’s renovations are just the beginning of the store’s fight for sustainability. Spearheaded by Martin, Otto’s goal is to compost as much of their waste as possible. Along with countertop compost bins, Otto’s invites the public to dump bags of compost at their storefront to be collected and processed by Natural Upcycling.
Their compost project is just one way Otto’s acts as a hub and physical gathering space for Germantown residents. “As we see it, Otto’s is an extension of the community,” says Bernamoff. “We hope it’s a representation of some of the things that we think are important in a big-picture way.”
Bernamoff is sure to emphasize the role Germantown locals and staff play making Otto’s the community headquarters it is today, including chef Bobby Hellen, store and accounting manager Jen Rockefeller, and assistant manager Patty Baker. “The store is frankly very little about us, the owners, and so much more about the staff—many of whom predated us and really are the basis of the store,” Bernamoff says.
Otto’s short term goals include bringing back food service options and expanding the robust deli selection. The takeaway Friday Night Pizza has been a hit, usually selling out by Thursdays. However, the market’s future is directly tied with the staff and Germantown community. “Our long-term goal is to continue to nurture the incredible goodwill of our staff and figure out a plan for how the store can truly belong to the staff in a real equity stakeholder sort of way,” Bernamoff says.
Together, the four friends will continue to run the market and carry the grocery torch that has been burning almost without interruption since 1927.
Otto's is open for in-store shopping every day except Wednesday, 8am-7pm. Breakfast, lunch, and coffee are served by the patio from 8am-3pm, seven days a week.
215 Main Street, Germantown