Though a once-vital source of general merchandise from grocery staples to basic hardware for making repairs around the home, general stores have been almost entirely squeezed out by big box stores and colossal online marketplaces in the past several decades. But upstate, a growing crop of chefs and entrepreneurs have taken to revitalizing the general stores, modernizing the concept in exciting new ways. One of the talented chefs helping to do so is Antonio Mora, creator of Tiny’s Sandwich, who currently operates out of Hamden General Store in Delaware County.
Mora has over 25 years of experience working in kitchens in Brooklyn, Manhattan, and New Jersey. In recent years, he worked as executive chef for six years at the Manhattan steakhouse Quality Meats before he opened Quality Bistro in Midtown in 2020. For a while, Mora worked alongside Sohail Zandi at the storied Brushland Eating House in Bovina. With one foot in the city and one foot upstate, the pandemic’s disruption of the restaurant industry nudged him closer to the Catskills.
First Stop: Bovina
Before setting up shop at Hamden, Mora was peddling his sandwich creations at Russell’s General Store in Bovina, where he cooked alongside Maggie McDowell of Magpies on Pink Street. The Bovina Historical Society owns the building that houses Russell’s General Store, and periodically puts out an open call for business proposals to operate on a short-term lease within the store.
Zandi and his wife Sara held the lease and provided the setting for Mora and McDowell to test and cultivate their concept, like artists in residence, for a fixed time between 2020 and 2022. Zandi describes Russell’s as belonging to everyone in the community. He noted that everyone has their “Russell’s story,” and he envisioned the general store being run as a cooperative.
After putting in his own shifts in the kitchen at Russell’s, Zandi pitched Mora on being a permanent fixture at the general store for the remainder of the lease. He already recognized the impact of the store on the community. “If you take away that energy (of Russell’s), the community would change” Mora explains.
On a road trip through the Catskills, my partner and I happened upon Russell’s General Store without any prior knowledge of the project. Mora’s sandwich offerings then included roast duck banh mi, BBQ pulled pork, and New York deli standards like smoked white fish on rye and breakfast sandwiches. There were also flakey, homemade chicken pot pies. The handwritten menu board even offered the New York City, Jewish diner classic matzo ball soup. My partner and I split a salty, gooey, toasted bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich and a fresh banh mi with crisp pickled veggies and wondered aloud, “What have we just stumbled into?”
If You Grill It, They Will ComeFollowing the end of his lease at Russell’s last, Mora moved the home base for Tiny’s to the Hamden General Store in eponymous Delaware County town. The building has changed hands many times since its initial incarnation as Seward’s Hardware and Plumbing in the late 1800s.
Current owner Amy Crawford purchased the building in 2021. Though her home base is currently in New York City, she’s a descendant of Delaware County dairy farmers, and as a child, she bought penny candy from Hamden General in one of its earlier incarnations. Initially, amid the pandemic, the storefront served as a work space for her family. Their nearby cabin lacked electricity, and the store was a place to charge phones and to work on laptops. Overtime, Crawford began to stock the store with items until it transformed into a pop-up general store. She stocked coffee, beer, and local dairy, meat, and produce. What it lacked was prepared food.
Crawford wanted to be able to meet the needs of locals but also to provide for travelers, who were more likely to be seeking a meal. The store needed to be open and accessible to all—whether they came for an old-school grocery store, or for a filling lunch. In similar fashion to Sohail Zandi, Crawford says, “When I opened the store, I thought, ‘How can I make this into a cooperative of sorts?’”
When Crawford learned that Mora’s time had ended at Russell’s General Store, she approached him about continuing his craft at Hamden General. And it’s there, on the far western reaches of the Catskills, Mora serves a delicious array of sandwiches like his pernil with sofrito, broccoli rabe and hot peppers, and Chicago’s beloved Italian beef. In a more populated setting, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a line of hungry patrons extending out the front door. But given the out-of-the-way setting, Mora and Crawford are happy with the steady trickle of customers.
Transforming upstate general stores wasn’t necessarily Mora’s mission, though that is what ultimately he is helping to do. “I just wanted to make a living when I moved here, and I found something nostalgic during the pandemic,” he says. “Something that would resonate like an Italian or a BEC, something authentic, so that people up here who had left from the city would have something comforting.” He wasn’t trying to modernize Russell’s, or eventually Hamden, but to make them the best version that they could be.
While specials are cycled into his weekly sandwich offerings, it's the classic staples that many New Yorkers can’t get enough of. The chop (or chopped) cheese comes with grilled ground beef and onions, blanketed by melted American cheese, served on a roll with any combination of “dressing up”—lettuce, tomato, vinegar, salt, and pepper—at the customer’s behest. Despite the notoriety of New York pizza, it's the chop cheese that is the unheralded, but much-loved champion at corner stores throughout the city. Bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches need no introduction, as they are the ubiquitous breakfast sandwich of choice from coast to coast.
Mora takes these classics and elevates them using fresh, mostly locally sourced ingredients. His cooking is comfort food. The delicious renditions of these sandwiches are a welcome addition to the traditional general store model.
It is the combining of worlds, the city bodega with the rural general store, that is at the heart of Tiny’s charm. “I wanted an upstate bodega,” Crawford explains. Mora delivered. Transforming storefronts like Hamden General by adding an exciting and sought-after breakfast and lunch counter, enhances the Catskills’ culinary draw while breathing new life into the general store concept.
“There’s no way this [concept] works without a kitchen making food, and Antonio is central to that,” Crawford explains. Her future vision for the store includes more frequent dinner pop-up events and collaborations, which Mora has taken part in before. There may even be potential for a weekly dinner night in the future, further purshing the store into hybrid grocery/restaurant territory.
Whether you’re living down the road from Hamden General or hungrily planning a trip from Brooklyn, it’s worth the drive to try Tiny’s sandwiches and to experience the rebirth of the general store.
Tiny’s is available at Hamden General from Thursday to Sunday, 10:00 a.m. to 2:30pm
Hamden General Store
35796 Route 10, Hamden, NY 13782