If the glittering examples of Patchogue, Bay Shore, and Riverhead are anything to go by, it seems Long Island’s Main Streets are most commonly revitalized by two things: Excellent food-and-drink communities; and equally excellent, ethical politicians.
How many towns, despite needing both to transform themselves, have just one?
Smithtown, for starters. Despite a Main Street dotted with eateries—from the extraordinary breakfast spot, Javier’s Cafe, to the mouthwatering steaks at Chop Shop—much of the rest of it remains vacant (in many cases, for years at a time). A short walk through the heart of Smithtown begs a question: Why? Why has Smithtown remained stagnant while so many of its surrounding towns have transformed themselves?
Local chocolatier Kristen Slevin, who owns Smithtown’s Yottabyte Craft Chocolate and Candy with her husband, has both an answer and a solution. And she’s running for Town Supervisor—against Pat Vecchio, a 40-year incumbent—because she can’t sit idly by.
“I never wanted to be a politician,” says Slevin. “I will never label myself as one. I am a community advocate. Smithtown residents welcomed us and our shop into their town and were genuinely concerned about our ability to succeed. After passing our one year mark, we witnessed too many stores close, as well as stores that didn’t even make it a year. The current philosophy in our town government is hands-off, free market, the-town-can’t-do-anything-about-vacant-shops. I have a different philosophy. I believe a town and the residents can set businesses up for success.”
Slevin certainly knows something about setting up a successful business. Since opening Yottabyte with her husband over a year ago, the shop has quickly become a destination for people passionate about socially responsible chocolate. Housed in a small, historic building that used to be the Smithtown School House (where poet Walt Whitman once taught), Yottabyte is home to Long Island’s largest selection of fair-trade, ethically-sourced chocolate.
“I believe there is a beautiful symmetry between our chocolate shop and our town,” says Slevin. “In order for our shop to survive, our town must thrive. Where some businesses have chosen to become politically neutral, for fear of backlash from consumers and the town, we believe it is our obligation to be an outspoken voice in our town. We can’t change the world, but maybe we can do our part in our own neighborhood, while other businesses do their part in their part of the world. Faith that there are others working towards a better world keeps us motivated.”
You would have to be motivated to take on a challenge the scale of Slevin’s. Not only is she running against a 40-year incumbent; she’s running without party affiliation. This means that while Republican and Democratic candidates only need to collect 500 signatures—beginning in June—to appear on the ballot in November, independent candidate Slevin needs to collect three times that—1,500 signatures—and was not allowed to begin doing so until July 11.
While most would find the challenge daunting, Slevin seems almost invigorated by it. Every day, Slevin can be seen standing outside Yottabyte on Singer Lane, collecting signatures and patiently explaining to passersby that signing her petition now doesn’t mean they’re promising to vote for her in November; they’re just giving her a chance to run in the first place. It’s hard, often thankless work, but in just over 2 weeks, Slevin has already collected 500 signatures. Were she running as a Democrat or Republican, this would be enough to secure her place on the ballot. Instead, as a candidate without party affiliation, she will need to collect 1,000 more signatures between now and August 11.
Just as a walk down Smithtown’s Main Street begs the question of why it’s been allowed to deteriorate so badly, a walk down Singer Lane—which runs perpendicular to Main Street—begs the question of why a local business owner, wife, and mother would set herself up for so much work and hassle. The answer, for Slevin, is simple: She wants Smithtown to be a place where every family—and every small business—is not only welcome, but set up for success.
“I would love to see Smithtown full of small specialty shops, whose owners are local and take pride in excellent customer service,” she says. “In a day when mom & pop businesses compete with big box corporations and online monopolies, we have to become masters in areas that they can’t compete with us. Wonderful in-person experiences—personal attention and the social aspects of shopping and dining in person—can never be replaced by robots and drones. The future of Smithtown and Yottabyte is based on community involvement and raising the bar on service.”
So, is Smithtown ready for a sweet, revitalized future? That remains to be seen. What’s certain: Kristen Slevin is ready to serve.
For more on Kristen Slevin’s campaign for Smithtown Town Supervisor, please visit her Facebook page. To sign her petition to run this November, please visit Yottabyte Craft Chocolate & Candy at 9 Singer Lane in Smithtown.