Hidden Gems: Part 1– Bali Thai Imports and Knapp’s Landing, Sniffen’s Lane, Stratford, CT

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The city of Stratford is filled with wonderful hidden gems, and being a native has given me the opportunity to explore and delight in all these little out-of-the-way places. From time to time here at Fairfield County Moms Blog, I’d like to share the wealth and highlight some of those finds in a series called “Hidden Gems”.

Bali Thai Imports recently opened a warehouse retail store here in Stratford on Sniffen’s Lane. I had heard something about it online (most likely Facebook) earlier this year, and then I saw they had a tent set up at Stratford Festival Day in June. I stopped in, and I was floored by all the lovely things they had on display. They gave me a coupon for 15% off my next purchase at the store, and a couple of weeks later, I made my way there with my 16-year-old niece to check it out. We walked in, and our jaws dropped:

(view of the store when you walk in)
(view of the store when you walk in)

I wanted to buy one of everything in the store. There were so many wonderful things to look at– jewelry, home furnishings, clothing, bags, gift sets, doors (yes, doors!), statues, lanterns, the works. After my visit, I immediately started telling everyone I knew about this place. I couldn’t believe my luck to have such a wonderful establishment in my hometown. And I wanted everyone to know about it.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the idea of doing a blog post about the store, so I contacted them to see if they’d allow me to do a write up. I spoke with Leigh, who works at the shop, and she told me Mike, the owner, would love to sit down with me and chat about the place.

Michael Oross, owner of Bali Thai Imports, is also an electrical contractor here in our town. While being a contractor is his work, the store is his passion, which was pretty evident the moment we sat down. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that each and every item sold in the store and online is handpicked by Mike himself on his yearly trips to Bali, Indonesia, and Chiang Mai, Thailand. These items are not chosen out of a catalogue and shipped to the warehouse. Mike described in detail what it takes to bring these lovely items back to The States for us to purchase and enjoy.

The entire process takes about four months. Mike spends at least a week in each area. He hires a driver/sourcing agent at each place, and together they visit village after village for wares. Each village, each shop specializes in a certain item, whether it be jewelry, pottery, statues, and the like. Mike combs through all the offerings, deciding what he’d like to stock the store with for the coming year, paying close attention to detail and craftsmanship. Once he’s found an item he’d like to stock, the sourcing agent helps him with discussing price and quantity with the shop proprietor, and in return, he’s given a little slip of paper detailing what they’ve agreed upon.

This happens over and over again during his visit. Once “shopping” is complete, the sourcing agent puts the entire order together. With the little slips in hand, he collects all of the purchases one by one until all are accounted for and ready to ship. A shipping container is then secured, and all wares are packed. The container is placed on a cargo ship, which takes one month to arrive in the United States.

Once here, a second agent handles all of the importing. All items are listed on the cargo manifest and checked against a list of product materials that cannot be imported into the United States (there are certain woods that cannot enter the country. The craftsmen and artisans in Bali and Thailand try to work only in allowable materials in order to sell their wares). They are then brought to the warehouse, unpacked, checked for damages (some items that are damaged in shipment can be repaired; others are a lost cause. This is part of the gamble of importing.), and catalogued into their system. Last, Mike decides which items will be displayed in the brick-and-mortar store and which will be online items only.

Listening to Mike talk of the entire process, it’s amazing to see how he delights in it. To me, it sounds like so much work. To him, it’s life. You can feel that love for the beauty Bali and Thailand have to offer in each and every item displayed in the store, from the handmade sandals to the lovely flower pendants he showed me that are real flowers somehow encased in a heavy shellac, the integrity and brightness of the colors still fully intact.

see the hand-carved doors in the background
see the hand-carved doors in the background
more lovely wares
more lovely wares
bags and apparel
bags and apparel
the flower inside this is real
the flower inside this is real
lovely carved Buddha
lovely carved Buddha
trinket boxes - I bought one of these as a teacher's gift this year
trinket boxes – I bought one of these as a teacher’s gift this year
handmade sandals
handmade sandals

Bali Thai Imports also has a Facebook Page where they occasionally post a kind of “deal of the day”, offering a percentage off a particular kind of ware on a certain day. I like that they’re so interactive with their customers, and they will do all they can to please them (Mike told me that at Stratford Festival Day, they made three trips back to the store to get items customers wanted that they didn’t have set up in the tent. How’s that for customer service?) The warehouse store is open Tue – Fri: 10:00 am – 5:30 pm and Sat: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm.

A few doors down from Bali Thai is one of my favorite seafood restaurants ever, Knapp’s Landing.

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On the same day I took my niece shopping, we also stopped into Knapp’s for lunch. It’s situated right on the Housatonic River (in fact, you can dock your boat behind the restaurant to grab a bite to eat if you fancy). It was a little windy the day we went in June, so we sat inside at a window table to take in the views. On the beautiful August day I ventured out to meet with Knapp’s manager, Peter Massey, I got a front row seat on the patio to take in the breathtaking waters.

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Peter told me the story of how Knapp’s Landing itself came to be. After his grandfather, Peter Knapp, spent 20 years in the United States Army, he and wife, Tomiko, whom he met in Japan, decided to construct the building on his property near his dock landing in 1969. In 1971, they opened a Japanese restaurant on-site called Tomiko’s. Eventually, the business was handed down to their daughter, Patty, and in 1996-1997, Knapp’s Landing was born. Both Peter and Tomiko, now age 89, still live upstairs, and Patty has turned over management duties to her son, Peter Massey, who’s been living and loving the job and the restaurant for about 10 years now.

Peter explained that Knapp’s is all about family and community. His parents, his brother, his cousins, etc, all spend time at the restaurant doing various duties. Those that are not directly related have built a trusting relationship with the Masseys and are considered like-family because of it. In turn, their family members have also joined the ranks. When Hurricane Sandy hit last year, Knapp’s lost their entire patio. It was gone in the blink of an eye. They applied for government help and were denied (as were other businesses in the area, sad to say), so the Masseys paid to have the patio rebuilt out of pocket. They decided to construct an outdoor bar while they were at it. When the community of Lordship, the area the restaurant is built and where the Masseys themselves reside, heard there would be no government help, they stepped in, contributing to all of the labor performed to rebuild the patio– from building contractors to pavers to electricians– they got the job done. And the outcome is beautiful.

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When I mentioned I was doing “Hidden Gems” on both Bali Thai and the restaurant, Peter exclaimed, “That place [Bali Thai Imports] is a real hidden gem!”He said he sends many of his customers there to buy gifts for their significant other because the quality of items is so good and the prices are so affordable. In fact, he said he recently stopped in to get jewelry and clothing for his wife and daughter for an upcoming vacation trip. Mike also had very nice things to say about both Knapp’s and Peter, as well. It’s all about community around here, and I find it so refreshing.

Fresh is Peter’s number one priority at the restaurant. He casually told me he received an order of over 100 lbs of fresh lobster the day before our interview, and he said it would most likely all be gone in a couple of days. Whoa. He also mentioned he was in at 8:30 am that morning, three hours before opening, simply to check on the freshness of the order that arrived that morning. Many of the fresh items, such as the tuna that arrived that morning, are not a staple of the menu. Instead, the specials menu is revolved around the freshest catch of the day and the vegetables that are locally in season. In addition, the menu offers a variety of gluten-free and vegetarian options. Lastly, there is a major attention to detail with every dish prepared. Peter’s own daughter has a severe shellfish allergy, and yet she eats at the restaurant all the time. There is no concern about the food she orders coming into contact with the numerous shellfish dishes being prepared by the chefs because there is a system in effect to make sure that never happens. The kitchen is a well-oiled machine in that way.

In addition to all of that, when it comes down to it, if you walk into the restaurant looking for a specific meal and it’s not on the menu, they’re happy to make it for you if they have the ingredients on-hand. I find that to be a wonderful attribute to any business. Peter knows you can’t please everyone, but at Knapp’s, they will do whatever they can to give you the meal you want.

As for the menu itself, I can attest to the fact that the clam strips, the house salad with their raspberry vinaigrette, the chesapeake crab cakes, the fisherman’s platter, the pecan encrusted salmon, the river burger, and the fish and chips are awesome. Oh, and the lobster roll (made CT-style) is out of this world.

Holy Lobster Roll, Batman!
Holy Lobster Roll, Batman!

If you’re looking for a Saturday afternoon of good food and shopping with your girlfriends, a date night with your significant other, or even a family outing with all the kiddos, take a trip to these two wonderful establishments. The entrance to Sniffen’s Lane is directly across from Sikorsky Airport in Lordship. The road itself is filled with highly industrial buildings, but I promise there is a reward at the end of the lane. Just keep driving. And enjoy the day.

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