Friday, June 20, 2008


Part 2

"Twists and Turns"

Like any good mountain road, we've had a few "twists and turns" – from the walk-in refrigerator to the exhaust hood over the range – that almost kept us from opening or forced us to shut down. But we have kept our nightly schedule despite the technological obstacles (and some have said, despite Mercury being in retrograde) with the initiative of our staff and the responsiveness of Housing Vermont – our landlord – to make sure the equipment worked so we could keep our doors open.

Sometimes, this has kept us from providing the level of service we would prefer. When equipment doesn't function right, work in the kitchen gets delayed or sufficient quantities of produce can't be delivered. In addition, the level of enthusiasm – admittedly our oversight in not anticipating it fully – has meant that on a few nights some items have sold out. This can be especially disconcerting if you are not an omnivore! But we encourage you to ask your server how we might accommodate your needs… Claire's is always about conversation.

As well, the volume of business has been its own challenge, so we are now looking to expand our kitchen staff, with more cooks and a sous chef or lead line cook so our current staff can breathe a bit of the fresh summer air. That will help us expand the menu and hours of operation, as we bring to fruition the full project of daily lunch and dinner service and a range of cocktails at the bar.

What you'll see and hear at Claire's

In our first few weeks, you might have noticed that the bar area did not look quite right; was it "artistic" or unfinished? In our last push to open, we decided to leave a few of the finishing touches unfinished so the most important work in the kitchen and dining room would be completed. In addition, a few things required that we be open and see how the space "worked" before we could figure out what might need to be addressed. In addition, no one anticipated that August's heat would arrive in early June!

Now that the bar is finished, you can truly appreciate the stunning red oak bar Patty designed and built, and the craftsmanship of the stained red oak detail around the room. With the red pepper walls and marble counter recycled from Linda's bank building on Mill Street, the bar area sets just the right mood for a beer, a cocktail, or even a meal. Soon, the flat screen television will be connected, in time for the peak of baseball season, the summer Olympics, and the Tour de France.

And of course we have more plans!

Working with an historic space – the Bemis Block was rebuilt with financial support tied to the preservation of historic aspects of the building – has been both a joy and a challenge. Who would want anything other than our giant windows "open to the world" with the splendid view of the bridge across the Lamoille River? That view, of course, comes with a small price: the streaming sunlight at the end of a hot day, and the hard glass surface that magnifies every decibel of sound. Combined with the amazing proportions of the space, our historic and beautifully detailed tin ceiling, our generous and convivial benches, the stunning floor made from local wood, and our warm mahogany tables, all this makes for a charming and comfortable space, but one with few surfaces that actually absorb sound!

So, with two birds in mind, we've installed accordion blinds made from fabric in a caramel tone that will filter the setting sun down to a soft glow as they also absorb the sound. Their best feature is that these lightweight blinds draw from the top and bottom, so we can target light and sound without blocking our view out or the view of the town into Claire's. And, we've installed sound absorbing acoustical tiles in the bar area, which has been one of the other most challenging spaces in terms of trapping sound. And air conditioning will be here in time for our real summer, by the start of July.

As these new features are incorporated, we'll see how the sound, light, and temperature change, and what more needs to be done.

Finishing Thoughts

We will continue to listen to our neighbors, friends, and supporters, and take into account all the feedback that we hear, responding to concerns and problems. Happily, what we have been hearing has been overwhelmingly positive with regard to both the food and the atmosphere. People enjoy a place in town where they can plan for a casual dinner or celebration, and by chance run into friends and family. Our friendly staff, and the show available "on stage" in the kitchen, set a tone of welcome and community that is very important to us as we work to get it just right. That said, we know it has not always been perfect, as hard as we have been working toward that goal. Where we know an experience has been less so, we have moved to make amends. We ask you to keep in mind that we are part of the community, and the community is part of us. Our success depends on your satisfaction and enjoyment.

Our success also depends on our commitment to food, which is first a commitment to conversations – between the chef and the farmer, and between our guests and our staff. We love to talk, so please feel free to talk with any of us about the food or about your experiences. Ask questions about our menu, stop in for a cup of coffee or a beer just to chat, drop a suggestion at the host stand by the door, send us an email at, or stop any of us on the street. We really want to talk with you.

Thursday, June 19, 2008


Part 1

As we count down our first month open, we at Claire's want to share with our friends, supporters, and community our appreciation for your raves, your constructive critiques, and your understanding. It has been quite an amazing few weeks for all of us, and we have much to thank you for and much to share with you about the challenges of opening and our plans ahead. That said, in all our planning we never anticipated the success we've had so far!

Measuring What Works

One of our favorite investments is our point of sale system (POS) which makes it much easier to balance the books at the end of the day, manage inventory, and make sure we are on budget. But the POS does one more thing: it helps us respond to our community by giving us a complete profile of what guests order and what dishes are the most popular. At the end of every night, we see how many people we served and verify reality against our projections as well as our menu.

At this point, two things stand out. First, we are consistently seating more than 80 people – as many as 110 on weekends, and rarely fewer than 60 – in a restaurant with 52 seats at table and 15 at the bar. In business terms, it means that almost every night we "turn" at least half the tables. That is not double our projections. It is QUADRUPLE our projections! Even as we looked out over the first four years, we never promised our investors and supporters more than a handful of nights when we would actually turn tables.

Second, we are almost exactly on target in terms of our price point. In developing our business model 18 months ago, we anticipated an average check price of approximately $20 per person, and every night's POS "reality check" gives us a per person average that is consistently between $20 and $23. The difference between projections and reality can in part result from price increases for food generally over the past year, and the challenge of opening so early in the growing season. With a range of possibilities at different prices on the menu, as well as an affordable wine and beer list, you have the choice of what you enjoy. Small plates or starters are selling at an amazing rate – some people make a meal of them, some just stop by for a snack, a beer or glass of wine. Of the entrees, our wonderful steaks from up the road at Snug Valley are a best selling item almost every night, as is Steven's astounding halibut caught in sustainable fisheries. And some folks come in just for the spectacular desserts.

And the menu will be developing even more. As soon as the best local frying potatoes become available, we'll "roll out" Claire's burger and fries. Our plan is to continue to expand the menu, offering more options at a range of prices for vegetarians and omnivores, taking advantage of the growing season and preserving some items for the winter ahead. In July, we plan to offer a full bar and to open during the day for lunch.

We are excited to see so many of our neighbors from Hardwick and all the towns around coming to eat at Claire's, saving some money on gas and still enjoying a wonderful evening out, while helping to support the farms in our area and the people who staff our restaurant. We've also welcomed guests from around Vermont who are excited by the food we serve, our business model, and all of the related initiatives underway in Hardwick. With all the bad news about our economy, a global food and energy crisis and a national recession, it helps all of us to stay closer to home and keep our dollars in our community.

Watch this space tomorrow for more stories about our "twists and turns" and what you'll see and hear at Claire's over the days and weeks ahead.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Eat Your Vegetables!

Training in French restaurants, Steven soon learned a profound lesson. Despite the respect that all French cooks have for produce just in from the farm, sometimes they didn't really understand what ingredients a vegetarian might eat. Often he has heard, "They might have the fish," or, "Use the chicken stock for that vegetarian pasta, it has the best flavor."

Growing up and growing vegetables in a community garden with his mother, Steven learned to appreciate the things that sprout in the soil - after overcoming the initial uncertainty of a rebellious child. So its not surprising that his first stand in the kitchen was over the purity of vegetarian items. He took it upon himself to craft new menus in advance for vegetarian guests, and always insisted that any chef he worked with try the vegetable stock he made to replace the chicken... each time, he succeeded.

Today, Steven believes that vegetables, grains, fruit, and seeds should be respected as primary ingredients in any dish, and he believes that anything "meatless" is not suffering from a lack of substance or protein, nor does it need to mimic a meaty alternative. At Claire's, he exemplifies this approach on the menu with a daily "Warm greens, grains, seeds, and sprouts." Reflecting our support for local farms, the primary ingredient is the greens available in season, right now including baby chard, kale, and mustard greens, warmed and wilted in butter or oil (vegan depending) but still retaining their vibrant color and "bite." Adding grains, such as wheatberries, quinoa, and barley, provides a mixture of sweet and earthy flavors, a great "chew" or texture, and they are loaded with proteins. Though many Vermonters have discovered the wonders of quinoa, or even wheatberries, barley remains an underappreciated item for vegetarians and omnivores alike. A heaping spoonful of pesto - made with our sweet local garlic in season and lemony wild sorrel, or basil later in the season, or early mint - is mixed in to bring out the sweetness of the grains and greens while adding a subtle sense of heat and crispness. Oven roasted seeds add to the protein in the dish while providing the smokey flavor of caramel.

Our warm greens change regularly, while there are always other vegetarian and vegan items on our menu, from salads and pastas to rich stews, silky soups, and stunning entrees. And we have dishes to satisfy any omnivore, from the best grilled steak in the Kingdom and locally raised poultry and pork, to seafood from sustainable fisheries.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Menu at Claire's

Steven plans his menu after talking with local farmers, looking for ingredients at their peak… nourished on the soil and water of Vermont. From there, he begins a journey that might take him down the road to a cheese maker or baker. He considers how the weather has flavored this season's produce, what local herbs or spices from far away might best bring out that uniqueness, and which cooking technique are most suitable.

Steven is always looking for those classics – something familiar or comfortable, maybe something with a twist – that will bring back the best days we've enjoyed with friends and family around the table. It is, as he explains, "What farmers enjoy growing, people enjoy eating, and I enjoy cooking."

Our menu changes almost every day. Sometimes just a bite as new produce is available, but often more surprisingly. Here are a few items from the first two weeks at Claire's....

To Start or In the Bowl:

Cream of sunchoke and carmelized onion soup

Maine Crab Cake, spinach salad, lemon and sorrel cream

Shitake and Oyster mushroom tartine with Constant Bliss

Fusilli pasta with ramps, goat cheese, and mint pesto


Chef's daily Warm Greens, Grains, Seeds, and Sprouts

Chicken Molé and quinoa, cabbage salad

Pan Roasted Chicken with Asian salad

Pork Loin roasted with rhubarb and maple

Halibut over a ragout of fiddleheads, spinach, asparagus, and tomato

Salmon and Panzanella salad with turnips

Grilled Snug Valley Sirloin with Isabella's Chimichurri, herbed butter, or Blue Cheese

To Finish:

Chocolate peanut butter fluff

Ginger Bread with ice cream

Rhubarb pecan crumble with ice cream

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

And the first report is in....

Food writer Sylvia Fagin - who has worked in the kitchen with Steven - captured Claire's heart and soul for an article in the Times Argus published today. Enjoy!

"Claire's brings flavors of the world to Hardwick"