Yesterday was Jen's last day at the Wentworth By the Sea Hotel and Spa. Jen was given these lovely flowers--thistle included. Ben worked at his job at When Pigs Fly until just about two weeks ago, all while starting on this new, very time consuming venture! Jay McSharry told Ben he'd worked his regular job the night before he opened Jumpin' Jay's Fish Cafe ten years ago, but with a deadline of about 6 weeks to get the restaurant open by early May, working each night then all day didn't seem feasible. Now, things are moving along very quickly....just check out the progress on these walls!
Shopping for wood on a not snowy evening! The team searches for wood for the top of the bar. It will be made from sustainable wood from nearby forests, reclaimed and already fallen! Speaking of the bar, the team applied for their liquor license! Jen is planning out the beverage program already. For wine--it will be simple, with a few whites, reds, some sparkling--and the few on the list will be very good. They won't have 85 flavors of vodka (thank goodness) but quality spirits and 4 brews on tap, with many in bottles (and cans). PBR will be there and even Coors Light, a stable at the French Laundry when Ben was there. More on that to come!
Work continues on the awesome bar! One of the people you'll be meeting in this blog include general contractor Louis Hamel of Louis Hamel Design and Build in York. Louis has been around for decades and some of you might remember Little Louis Fish House in Dover, a restaurant opened back in mid-2000s. Well, that restaurant had one of my favorite interiors in tems of design. Lots of lovely wood, for one. Louis went on to study restaurant design at Boston Architectural College. Ben and Jen describe him as their mentor for this build out and whenever they waver on something, he tells them to just "make a decision." Follow your instincts is a good rule of thumb.
They decided on wood for the bar because food gets too cold on metal, for one, and the overall "feel" is warm and soft. They're using reclaimed wood in the restaurant and there's talk of using an apple tree from a sustainable tree harvest company. More on those companies later. Carpenter John Grenier is making tabletops.
Coming soon...what wine should I have with my charcuterie?
So much has been going on in the past two days it's tough to know where to begin, but since most of my dining experiences begin at the bar...
Well, it's going to be an integral part of the dining experience. I don't know about you, but like to dine at the bar now more than in the dining room and Ben and Jen have the same outlook.
As Ben told me, "More and more when we were dining out, we were dining at the bar. We just enjoyed sitting at the bar. You get more direct contact with the staff. When you sit in the dining room it's almost more of a special occasion."
The dining room is good if you want a little private time. But I get what he's saying. You are much more a part of the restaurant while at the bar. You get to experience the restaurant and see what it's all about . I know when I dined at the bar at When Pigs Fly, Ben would come out and interact with the customers (not just me) and it was such an inclusive experience. He was telling me about some restaurants they visited where they'd see these little snacks behind the bar like house cured cornichon with a Dijon mustard so when you come to the bar at Thistle Pig you might find a fun little snack like smoked salami sticks for a buck. Pickles, rilette, sweet and salty tidbits to go with your drink. Have a meat slicer at the bar for charcuterie on the spot.
So the bar will be 11-13 seats and the whole restaurant 56 or so. They were originally going to do a raw bar, but nixed the idea so there could be extra seats. The bar will be on the right side of the restaurant now with the dining room on the left where there will be a big common table and benches for seating. And here's a fun idea--a few bar seats in the kitchen so you can come right where the action is and chat to the folks making your food.
Since Jen is such a wonderful bartender, too, anyone behind that bar will get personalized service. I've watched her work at the Wentworth when people have come back to the bar on an annual vacation and she remembered them, right down to their favorite drink! So the design of the restaurant fits the hospitality philosophy--inclusion, interaction, and guests experiencing the restaurant as much from the inside as possible--with a cozy dining room and a community table, lots of bar seating and even seating in the kitchen to see all the action.
I'll have more on the look of the bar as it progresses! I might even be finished today...
In other news
Wine and booze reps are already stopping by--what's going to be on the all important drink list?
You need a business plan to open a restaurant--go figure...!
So here we have two seasoned professionals in the restaurant biz (even at their young ages) who want to open a restaurant. Anyone will tell you--especially a business pro or a "numbers person"--that opening a restaurant is the riskiest business you can get into. But, well, they have a dream. They both needed and wanted their next professional steps.
Who ya gonna call for advice? Jay McSharry for one. He's one of the most experienced restaurateurs around. We all know Jumpin' Jay's Fish Cafe of course, but he has so many more. And they work. So, yes, he helped with ideas.
Then they called a bank and as Jen says, "very naively asked 'What sorts of things do you need to fund a restaurant project?'" If there was silent laughter inside the bankers' head, I would not be surprised. The bank directed them to the SCORE Portsmouth Chapter for advice and mentoring. The organization is made up primarily of retired business people who know what's up.
As Jen tells it, they sat awkwardly across the table from three gentleman who immediately looked at them like they were nuts. This makes total sense. It is a bit nuts. I opened a restaurant at the height of the internet boom in actual Silicon Valley and it was very, very difficult. But the couple understood that "these kind and talented people had seen many budding and hopeful entrepreneurs walk through their doors" and they quickly bonded with George and Harvey, their mentors.
So, they met every three weeks, then every other week, and by the end of it all several days right in a row. They gave up every day off that they had scheduled off from their “regular” restaurant jobs to make this a reality. They haven't taken a full day off from since the last week in December.
Well, George and Harvey at SCORE realized how serious Jen and Ben are. They pointed them to topics they needed to research for their business plan. One day, Jen walked up and down the streets of South Berwick and counted parking spaces while, she says, "looking like a cookoo bird". They visited the town hall to meet with the department of transportation and got an official report of how many cars pass by the new location in one day. 18,000-19,000 cars per day in the closest intersection? Good to know! George and Harvey helped them with financial projections, cash flow statements, profit and loss sheets, the actual business plan and how to talk with the bankers. While they didn't fund the project with the bank in the end (more on that in the future), they knew how to handle it. Now, they have the funding and a sharp business plan.
Next blog post....what color is that you're painting on those walls? And where's the bar going to be? Oh, and which seat is mine?
I've known Chef Ben Hasty for about 10 years, since he was a 19 year old culinary student. I've written many stories about him for The Portsmouth Herald and for magazines because he's a chef who has always been on the culinary vanguard in our area a leader, an innovator. He has always been a talent to watch, full of great ideas and much enthusiasm.
I wrote about him when he was the sous chef at The Dunaway back in 2006. And then when he became Executive Chef in 2008. I wrote about him when When he brought a pig named Lucy to The Dunaway from his family farm. When he headed up the kitchen at Epoch in Exeter in 2010. And when he was Executive Chef at When Pigs Fly in Kittery. He's made a big difference in our restaurant scene.
And so has his life and business partner, Jennifer Fecteau. I've known Jennifer for years, too, primarily as a bartender who not only makes a great drink, but can handle a crowd and bring people together. She gives front of the house service--most recently at The Wentworth By the Sea Hotel and Spa--that personal touch that gets people to come back again and again. Warmth, personality, and professionalism will certainly abound in this new restaurant thanks to her.
I look forward to telling you all about what's going on at the new Thistle Pig Restaurant in South Berwick and how they build, progress, and grow. We're going to have some fun, some laughs, and some great ideas flying around!
Rachel Forrest is the food writer and restaurant critic for The Portsmouth Herald, Seacoast Online and many other publications. She is the co-author of Maine Classics with James Beard Award winning chefs Mark Gaier and Clark Frasier.