Episode #1: Opening a Restaurant Part 1 with Kristin Canty of Woods Hill Table
Welcome to our very first episode of the Restaurant Insider podcast. In the spirit of new beginnings, today we’ll be kicking off a three-part series about the good, the bad and the down right dirty aspects of opening a new restaurant. We chatted with Kristin Canty, a prominent restaurant owner/operator from Boston, Massachusetts, about everything from sourcing local farm-raised ingredients to putting out a literal dumpster fire on the opening night of one of her restaurants. Take a listen!
Hello, and welcome to the official Restaurant Insider podcast. Thanks for joining us. Thank you so much for joining us for the first ever episode of the Restaurant Insider podcast. To kick things off, Meghan Kavanaugh, one of our lead editors and host of the podcast, sat down with Kristin Canty, a prominent restaurant owner/operator from Boston, Massachusetts. This is the first episode of a three part series, all revolving around opening a restaurant. Meghan and Kristin cover everything from sourcing local farm-raised ingredients to putting out a literal dumpster fire on the opening night of one of her restaurants. Here’s Meghan.
Meghan: So we’re here with Kristin Canty, who is the owner and operator of Woods Hill Table and Adelita, which are both in Concord, Mass., as well as a new farm-to-table restaurant opening in Boston Seaport District next year called Woods Hill at Pier 4. Kristin, welcome. You are the first guest of the Restaurant Insider podcast, so thank you for coming. We’re happy to have you.
Kristin: Thank you for having me.
Meghan: Of course. This is exciting to kick off. So we wanted to especially talk to you, because we would love to get your insight on how to open a restaurant and what you really need to know when you’re getting started. And since you have two successful restaurants already open and another one any time now, we would just love to know how you went about opening them. What was the impetus for starting the idea, and what made you want to get going?
Kristin: My story’s a little different, because I made a documentary called Farmageddon: The Unseen War on American Family Farms, and I was traveling around the country speaking about the plight of farmers, and I was staying with a lot of chefs and farmers and food bloggers. I was staying in these little communities, these very special communities that screened the movie a number of times, and they had a really strong food network: a very strong chef and farmer connection, and a very strong farmer to consumer connection. When I got back to my town of Concord, Massachusetts, I felt like we didn’t have that strong of a connection, and I wanted to do something to make it stronger.
So my idea for a restaurant started out as a food truck, where I was just going to buy food from local farmers and make maybe to-go meals for soccer moms or as bone broth, and it snowballed. Other people got involved and it snowballed into 150 seat, full service restaurant pretty quickly.
The diet that I’ve always followed is like an ancestral diet, and the tenets of this are if you eat your meat, it’s pastured. If you eat fish, it’s wild. Our ancestors had a lot of raw foods in their diet, so I wanted to have raw oysters and tartare and ceviche on the menu. If you eat your grains, they’re soaked, so we have sourdough breads on the menu, and we soak all of our grains overnight. Our ancestors had a lot more enzymes in their diet, a lot more inferments in their diet, so we have Kabachi on tap.
So this is the restaurant that I wanted to start. When I realized that we needed to serve 150 people, farmers quickly told me that there wasn’t going to be enough meat raised the way that I wanted it, so then we ended up purchasing our own farm to pasture raise our own animals. So at the Farm at Woods Hill, we have like 70 head of beef, 120 pigs, usually about 3,000 meat birds, 500 ducks, and 50 lamb right now. Pasture-raised on 260 acres, and then we lease another 100 acres from our neighbors for grazing purposes.
So my story of opening up a restaurant is a little different than others, because it wasn’t chef-driven. Now it is, because I have the chef, but really it was my passion for serving this nutritious food. This is what I wanted. I wanted to help the environment, support farmers, support local farmers, and help people eat a nutrient dense meal, so then the chefs and the bar people and my general manager ended up taking this and turning it into a chef-driven gourmet restaurant.
Meghan: That’s amazing, and it’s really true farm-to-table.
Kristin: It’s true farm-to-table. We’ve really been able to … The thing that I’m the happiest about is that the local farmers have come to me and told me that they’re able to hire more people. They’ve been able to buy more land, and they’ve been able to grow their farms because of the demand for organic vegetables that our restaurant is putting on them. So that for me is really exciting, and we have a good relationship with them. They come into the restaurant and eat, and some of my staff members go work on their farms, so it’s a nice relationship.
Meghan: That’s awesome, and it also came out of a personal reason, right, with your son. Can you talk a little bit about him and his allergies and what made you even look into this nutritious lifestyle?
Kristin: Right, so my son, when he was three, was diagnosed with being allergic to the world, which was frightening. But he was allergic to grass, dust, bees, every type of animal, every pollen. He couldn’t exercise outside, and I had to follow him around with an EpiPen and asthma and an inhaler. He was just very, very sickly, and doctors told me he was always going to be on medication and that his immune system was severely depressed.
So I started researching. Luckily, I started researching on the internet, and found out that kids that grow up on farms don’t have as many allergies as those of us that don’t grow up on a farm, and that once you have allergies, there was a lot of anecdotal evidence that unpasteurized milk or raw milk could be a cure for allergies. At the time, this completely disgusted me. I bleached everything and was a complete germaphobe, and perhaps that’s why we got sick.
But looking back at that, but it took me a little while. I just kept reading the pros and cons of it, and that the stories were compelling enough that I really wanted to try to see if I could cure my child. So finally, I met a local farmer and met his children to make sure they were alive, and met his customers to make sure everybody was okay. And drank a little bit at a time myself before I gave it to my children. It was delicious, and we felt great, and as soon as raw milk was just the milk in our refrigerator, my son was completely healed of his allergies, and he never sniffled again.
Meghan: Wow, that’s amazing. That’s great.
Kristin: We could get our carpets back and our animals back and everything.
Meghan: It’s a whole quality of life and everything.
Meghan: Amazing. Now, how does that translate into your restaurants, because I know that it’s not exactly raw, not every dish, correct? But how does that translate into how you plan your menus?
Kristin: So the chef plans the menus, so he just uses his specialties, his expertise, to have complete creative control within my walls. So how it translates over … and I don’t want to be this huge bossy person, but actually, the staff is very … it’s very supportive of it, engaged in it, because it’s very important to me that they use real butter or ghee. Olive oil, I don’t have any industrial oils in the restaurant. We don’t have soy or canola. We use animal fats, cook in organic beef tallow or our own lard from our own farm or chicken fat. So basically the chefs have told me that they’re appreciative of that, because that just helps the food taste better.
So because of the farm, we always have chicken on the menu. We always have beef on the menu. We have tartare; that’s our raw food from the cows from our own farm. We always have two fish dishes, wild caught off the state of Massachusetts. We always have our New England oysters, a choice of those. And then we have staple salads, but then we also, the salads and the vegetables that go with the dishes are always changing, depending on what the farmers bring in.
So pretty much as long as the vegetables are unsprayed, they don’t have to be certified or organic. If we know our farmers and we know that they’re not spraying, then that’s fine. And when they’re using grains, they soak them, and they have to be organic. Everything’s from scratch, so basically we just follow those tenets, and they can do whatever they want with the menu, as long as we’re using ingredients from the farms and all natural pure ingredients.
Meghan: Right. And from the operator standpoint, because you’re so seasonal, do you have to be flexible in terms of the ingredients coming in and the food costing? Can you walk through what that’s typically like?
Kristin: They are so flexible, because it’s different than any other restaurant, where we allow the farmers … and sometimes farmers don’t really understand restaurant service, so they’ll walk in at 4:00 or 5:00 with bushels of turnips or celtuce, and we don’t want any of this to go to waste, and so they’re scrambling all of the time, so the chefs will tell you that that’s part of the fun of it, but it can also be stressful.
Meghan: Yeah, absolutely. Can you tell me a little bit about the menus of both restaurants that you have right now, and just sort of how they’re different and how you’re taking similar ingredients and putting them on the menu in different ways?
Kristin: Yeah, so we have Woods Hill Table, which is a fine dining restaurant, and that’s the restaurant that always has salads, a soup, and a chicken, beef, sometimes a lamb dish just staples from the farm. Then Adelita, our Mexican restaurant, uses all the trim from the animals, the parts of the animals that … At Woods Hill Table, we can use the finer cuts, the high end cuts, and at Adelita we can use the rest of the animal, and it makes absolutely delicious tacos. So that’s really how … it’s helped a lot. It’s very important to us that we don’t let an animal’s life go to waste and that we use the entire animal, so our taco and quesadillas over at Adelita have really helped with that part of the program.
Meghan: How do you communicate this to your guests? You know, when you’re just building up your reputation in the community, especially with two different restaurants, you’re doing a lot behind the scenes that the guests might not even be aware of. How do you communicate that value to them in terms of that they might pay a certain price for a certain dish, that they might expect a certain experience when they’re there?
Kristin: Unfortunately, probably a lot of the guests don’t even know. It’s a thing where a farmer will tell you that their customers will pay more for empty corn stalks to decorate for Halloween than they will for actual food they will put in their bodies. And so I have to be honest, our prices probably should be higher than they are, but my job … so when I first opened, people told me that if I was opening up a grass-fed restaurant, an organic restaurant, it was going to taste horrible. People were just picturing, I don’t know, bland quinoa bowls or something, and not realizing that we were going to be cooking chicken in chicken fat and it was just going to be absolutely delicious.
I didn’t want to be preachy, and I didn’t want people getting the wrong idea about what we were, so we really haven’t. From the very beginning, we just want you to know that what you’re eating is delicious. Just focus on that first, and now we’re slowly, as we … you know, it’s been three years now, so it’s really been slow. It’s really been word-of-mouth. It’s been some of the articles and press that we’ve gotten, but I have to admit, I haven’t been as vocal about it as we should be. I just wanted to establish the fact that it’s delicious. Don’t worry about it, and the chefs know what they’re doing.
So start there and now slowly … and I do have a lot of regular customers that will only eat at our restaurant because they were sick, they’ve had allergies, and they understand and they don’t want to eat … they want to eat all organic. But that’s been a slow build up of people knowing us and taking tours and eating every day, eating very often at the restaurant, and realizing that they don’t get sick after they eat there.
Meghan: Wow, that’s amazing.
Kristin: Yeah, so it’s slow and steady education. I never wanted it to be in your face. The only thing I want to be in your face is that the food is yummy.
Meghan: Exactly, and the customer testimonials, that’s worth its weight in gold, right? If they’re coming in and saying that I used to feel sick and now I don’t, or just the food alone, even if they don’t know the benefits, the food alone tastes amazing, so that’s great.
Kristin: Yeah, exactly.
Meghan: So what have you learned with the opening of the first two restaurants that you’re taking over now to your third? What were some of the … maybe the lessons you learned the hard way that you’re not repeating?
Kristin: Oh, every restaurant has its own issues. Of course, staffing is the hardest thing. Finding good people is the hardest thing, and I am so lucky, because I have wonderful people now and they’re all loyal and staying with me. In our restaurant, we pay living wages. Everybody has access if they want it to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, to health insurance. We have two big parties a year. I just had the whole restaurant staff up to our barn last weekend.
Meghan: Oh, that’s amazing.
Kristin: Yeah, for two days. I shut down Adelita and we had like a morale-building weekend. We have it every year, and they love it. They get to meet the farmers and see the animals and do farm chores and relax, and it’s a real bonding opportunity. Then we have a Christmas party. So basically even though we’re a restaurant, we try to provide a as healthy as possible lifestyle for everybody. The most important thing is that we find good staff and do everything we can to keep our good loyal staff there.
Meghan: Yeah, can you tell me a little bit more about that, just how important it is? Especially in the restaurant industry where there can be so much turnover, how important is it to keep that staff happy and upbeat as they go about their jobs?
Kristin: It’s the most important thing, absolutely, because they’re key. My bar staff, my front-of-the-house staff, all my customers like to come in and see them, and they don’t like to see turnover because they get their favorite bartender, and now that these bartenders have been there for two or three years, they feel like they’re family. A lot of our customers invite our bartenders and our staff to their family parties, to their weddings, to their barbecues, yeah, things like that. And the chefs, every restaurant will tell you how hard it is to find cooks, and we feel the same way with that, that you know, have a big pool party, invite them. My chefs all attend their weddings and funerals, so we just try to treat them like family.
Meghan: Right, and it’s working.
Kristin: Yeah, and every day’s an issue with people calling in sick or life changes taking them away, but we do our best to keep them.
Meghan: Yeah, and what about on the job do you do? Training obviously up front, but is there training along the way, or how do you … aside from morale, how do you keep them engaged in their job and wanting to move forward, keep them at the company?
Kristin: Well, every day we have our organic family meal, where we sit down with our front of the house and go over staffing, and everybody just really looks forward to that meal time. Day to day, all I have to say is that we’re lucky that we can pay our cooks well. They get a nice wage and nice salaries for their jobs, and we’re not open until 2:00 am. They go home, they can have their family life. They can have as stable as life as possible for the restaurant business.
Meghan: That’s great, and do you find that people have stayed around on staff because of that?
Kristin: I don’t know if that’s what they would say. I know that they enjoy these things very much. I think that they would say that they stay around because they’re paid well and because they really love the concept. So they embrace the concept. They embrace the farm. They love the farm. They love the whole thing.
Meghan: Yeah. And so when you’re going out too, to source, you obviously don’t want to pull your entire staff to the new restaurant. How do you go about staffing at the other restaurant? Do you take some people over with you, and where do you find your new talent? Is it social media or the job postings? Where do you go about finding them?
Kristin: Really posting jobs definitely, and we’re taking some of our staff over, but ideally, what I want to happen is that our executive staff kind of oversees all three restaurants, and my main staff will be going back and forth a little bit. Then we’ll have to have new people at each place.
Meghan: Yeah, absolutely. So tell me a little bit about what’s here at Pier 4? What’s the concept there like? Is it similar to Woods Hill Table, and tell me about that area of Boston. I’m familiar with it, and I would love our listeners to know how great a location it is.
Kristin: Yeah, so it’s at the location of the old Anthony’s Pier 4, which was an icon in Boston for decades. They knocked that building down, and they’re building a large condo building, and we are on the first floor, surrounded on three sides by water. So we’re out the farthest, I guess, into the harbor of any other restaurant, and we’re going to have a … it’s a 180-seat restaurant on the water, with 240 seats when the patio’s open.
The menu is going to be just like Woods Hill’s, except probably we will be adding a few more high end cuts that we might be able to support there, and lobster roll, clam chowder, things that people in Boston would expect on the water, that we don’t have at Woods Hill, because it’s in Concord.
Meghan: Right, exactly. And how have you gone about sourcing that? Is it different, sourcing that type of seafood or anything for you, or no?
Kristin: No. We have a wonderful … we get all of our seafood from Red’s Best in Boston.
Meghan: Oh, awesome.
Kristin: And Quarterdeck Seafoods delivers that for us, so we have a wonderful relationship with them, and they let us know what we should be eating at the time, like we don’t want anything that was over-fished. They’ve just been great at helping us source the seafood that we want, and we’ll be using the exact same for Pier 4.
Meghan: How important is it to establish those relationships with the vendors, where you can just trust what they’re saying?
Kristin: Yeah, no, it’s really important, and we were really lucky, because quite honestly … well, we found this wonderful man that we’re supporting this weekend at the Seafood Festival in Boston on the Seaport. We were just really lucky to find him, because when I first opened the restaurant, I was worried that one of us was going to have to go down to the docks every day in order to have the seafood program that I wanted, and luckily we found this man who delivers and who’s going to be supporting us all with Pier 4.
Meghan: That’s going to be great. Wonderful. Well, I know that opening a restaurant, too, can have some crazy, unexpected moments. What has been some of the craziest moments that you’ve experienced opening restaurants? It could be any three of them, any three of the restaurants. I’m sure you have a bevy of options to choose from.
Kristin: Yes, I do. The craziest things that happen I can’t really talk about right now, but I guess when I first opened up Woods Hill, my very first general manager left the day I opened. Decided he didn’t want to open a restaurant, so he left, and it was the first day. I had hundreds of people literally breaking down my door to get in. I mean, the door actually came off. I had to keep calling the contractors to put it back on because people kept taking all of my doors off of the restaurant.
And the first night, my first bartender, who only worked for me for one night, threw a cigarette into my dumpster, and so there was a huge fire. The whole fire department had to come, and we were lucky that the whole restaurant didn’t burn down. The chefs caught it fast enough to push the dumpster away from the restaurant, and they were able to do that because the parking lot was a sheet of ice, so they just took the dumpster and pushed it away.
Kristin: The fire department came and were watching us for a while, investigating, because they thought that at first … we have a wood burning grill, and and so they weren’t sure that we weren’t managing the wood grill in a satisfactory way. So that was my opening of my first restaurant, and I hope that … fire, general manager leaving, and people banging down my door to get in, so hopefully that won’t happen again.
Meghan: Yeah. You can only go up from there, probably.
Meghan: Everything now seems like a piece of cake. That’s awesome. Yeah, so we also, in addition to this podcast, we also have Restaurant Insider Radio, and we’re asking all of our guests to contribute a few songs to a playlist that the staff can listen to as they’re prepping or as they’re closing up or anything. Do you have some songs that you listen to throughout the day or any types of music that gets you going?
Kristin: Well, first of all, we have our own playlist that people love, so it’s Woods Hill Table on Spotify.
Kristin: And when we’re not listening to that, my whole staff loves the Guardians of the Galaxy playlist, the entire thing. That’s a fun one. One of my chefs loves country. Each one of my chefs has their own genre and we switch off every day, so they each get to pick, so he sent “Toes” by Zac Brown as his favorite song. The executive chef is all Led Zeppelin all the time.
Meghan: Oh, wow. That’s awesome.
Kristin: Yeah, he loves that. Before service every time, we play … well, many nights we play Stars Wars, Return of the Jedi, and The Lion King, “Circle of Life.”
Kristin: Before service, yeah.
Meghan: That’s funny.
Kristin: Because they know that there’s about 20 minutes to go before, and they just all kind of march around to the Star Wars theme. It’s funny.
Meghan: That’s awesome. That sounds like a lot of fun. You can get everybody involved and also what pumps you up more than “Circle of Life,” right?
Kristin: It is. So I can send a few songs.
Meghan: Yeah, absolutely. We’d love to have them.
Meghan: Yeah, that sounds like … Do you find that that gives the staff a boost right before service? Get them kind of ready to go?
Kristin: Yeah, absolutely. It annoys some people, but most days it doesn’t get old. Everyone just starts cracking up and marching around.
Meghan: That’s awesome. Well, awesome, but before we go, any other teasers you can share about the new spot? Do you have an opening date?
Kristin: Yes, we’re getting the space handed over to us in December, and it seems to be on time right now, so we’re hoping to have a soft opening in May of 2019.
Meghan: Awesome, perfect. Just in time for summer, and those lobster rolls.
Meghan: It’s going to be perfect.
Kristin: Yep. The lobster rolls and the patio.
Meghan: Yes, awesome. Well, we definitely look forward to dining. I know I’ll be there, one of the very first guests. Well, thank you so much for coming over, and we appreciate your time.
Kristin: Thank you. Thank you very much.
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