Published DateBy Tom Eastman
CONWAY — “What's S.O.H.L. got to do with it?”
Lots, says Corrine Rober, operator of Margarita Grill of Glen. Margarita Grill, a family-owned operation founded in 1983, along with the Local Grocer of North Conway in 2011 were named New Hampshire Sustainable Restaurant and Lodging Environmental Champions, a program administered by the New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association (NHLRA) to promote sustainability.
Margarita Grill followed that up in February 2012 by becoming one of four certified New Hampshire Farm to Table Restaurants.
In an interview, Corrine said S.O.H.L. (Sustainable, Organic, Handcrafted or Healthful, Local) is a set of environmentally conscious principles by which to run a business.
Together with her sister, local 121 Fit trainer Michelle Rober, and a few other fellow restaurateurs who belong to the Valley Originals organization, Corrine is helping to launch a farm-to-table effort that she hopes will lead to better support of local farming while improving people's lifestyles.
Bill Bennett of Maestro's has hopped on board, and so are other Valley Original members, some of whom have long followed the same farm-to-table practices, such as Jackson's Thompson House Eatery, which has a garden located in back of the restaurant, and the Oxford House Inn in Fryeburg, which also has a garden.
The topic was discussed at a meeting of restaurant owners Tuesday morning, Feb. 26, at Delaney's Hole-in-the-Wall.
Approximately 25 representatives of local farms and restaurants attended the meeting as well as from the Farm to Restaurant program.
Like the Robers, Dick Delaney, president of the Valley Originals group of independent locally-owned restaurants, sees this as being bigger than just a food initiative.
“We [the members of Valley Originals] are jumping behind this as a group at one level or another, and not just in terms of using local farm products. It goes right down to your local service people — it's all about sustainability,” said Delaney after the Tuesday morning meeting. “It's all about helping the local economy and keeping your money in the valley as much as possible. Some of us are taking this on 100 percent; others at other levels, but in some form, yes, this can make a difference.”
Among the speakers at Tuesday's meeting were representatives of an alliance known as North Country Farms. Kathy Sherman of East Conway's Sherman's Farm and other farm representatives spoke of their desire to work with local restaurants. She said she looked forward to working on a plan with local restaurateurs.
Also among the speakers was Leslie Fletcher of the Thompson House Eatery.
“Your customers appreciate it [our using local produce] and they let you know they do,” said Fletcher, who operates the popular Jackson eatery with partner Larry Baima.
Delaney's, the Red Parka Steakhouse and Pub, Moat Mountain, Horsefeathers, Notchland Inn, Pricilla's. J-Town Deli and the 302 West Smokehouse. have already committed, according to Corrine.
Partners include producers like Sap House Meadery, Sizzlin' Sauces, Vintage Bakery, Good Vibes Coffee, Moat Mountain Brewery, Sandwich Creamery, Pork Hill Farm, Sherman Farm, and White Gate Farm of Tamworth.
“What I am trying to do, first with the Valley Originals and then to see what kind of response there is from the rest of the business community, is for people to take it further as a platform for our community,” said Corrine.
Business talking points
Corrine and Michelle's environmentally-conscious S.O.H.L. guideposts as practiced at Margarita Grill include:
• Buy from local farmers.
• Work with local artisans
• Use biodegradable takeout containers.
• Use garden seal certified cleaning products.
• Follow the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood guidelines for the Northeast.
• Reduce the use of fossil fuel, water and electricity.
“The change is no small endeavor,” notes Corrine. “Shifting purchases to local farmers means more work and new procedures. Though there are more than a few obstacles, the movement is taking hold. These restaurants grasp the necessity of the evolution and are willing to make the change.”
Corrine and Michelle see no reason why it can't lead to all businesses in the valley, not just restaurants.
It not only makes environmental sense — they contend it also makes economic sense, not only for local agriculture, but for local businesses' bottom line.
“[Since adopting these practices], we finished the year with a 25 percent increase in sales. Rather substantial for a business operating for almost 30 years,” said Rober.
A story of renewal
Rober recounted the steps that led her to the farm-to-table philosophy that also includes other environmentally-conscious practices.
From economic challenges came rewards.
“Two years ago,” she said, “I was coming out of the winter with a need for more money. After almost three decades of operating Margarita Grill, I had realized that changes were in order.”
She says she spent a lot of time trying to find low-cost ways to better market the business.
“I stumbled upon a certification for environmentally-sustainable businesses, offered by the NHLRA,” said Rober.
Much of her equipment seemed to be breaking down at a time of tough cash flow. But, she saw a light at the end of the tunnel: the sustainability program.
“The idea of decreasing costs, connecting to a better way of doing business and getting a certification that would lead to free publicity really made sense,” she said.
Previously, she had connected with a program run by the the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative that pays 50 percent of replacement costs for equipment that fits the profile of decreasing fossil fuels or electric usage.
Within a relatively short period of time, she had no choice but to replace the restaurant's heating system, Other outdated equipment included her hot water heater, kitchen lighting and ice machine.
“Luckily” she said, “I was able to tap into the resources available from NHEC's program while also meeting the guidelines for NHLRA's sustainability program, elevating my status to receive an Environmental Champion status.”
She was further motivated when she found out about the New Hampshire Farm to Restaurant connection.
As was noted, the bottom line rewards were impressive.
“The result of promoting the changes and committing to sustainable business practices led to an enormous increase in volume. Some months we experienced growth as high as 50 percent,” she said.
Hooking up with Michelle
Corrine says her interest in local sustainability was engaged further by her collaboration with sister Michelle.
Michelle conducts a program known as L.E.A.P. (Live Energetically, Actively, Powerfully).
S.O.H.L. and L.E.A.P. are programs for business and individuals respectively that work hand-in-hand.
“I realized with collaboration from Michelle, that this was larger than my own personal success,” noted Corrine. “This was a combination of inspiration, connection and economic sustainability for our community. My daughter-in-law, Jamie Robinson-Petersen, came up with the idea of S.O.H.L.
The concept, she explained, was to integrate food, art and music into a holiday season gift-buying show at the Grill, to help bring people together while supporting her mission of locally-sourced products.
“I connected to the idea of S.O.H.L. and realized it had great depth in its meaning. I started to use the basic term as a driving point for all decisions related to my business. It became my mission statement and management strategy,” said Corrine.
Creating a restaurant that is driven by S.O.H.L. is about the interdependence of all its parts, notes Corrine.
“While connecting to partners in our area, I realized the enormous impact S.O.H.L. could have. Today's food source is questionable at best. Our economy is weak and the need to keep our dollars circulating locally is vital. The combination of these basic realities is what has gives the idea of S.O.H.L. its strength,” she said.
If the effort was done collectively, the results could be immense, she contends.
“[The impact could be] businesses and individuals working to keep their dollars closer to home, support the development of local agriculture, arts and local producers to improve our food source and deepen the base for tourism, while creating a stronger financial backbone for the valley has power,” she said
Valley Originals lend support
Corrine discussed her initiative with Dick Delaney, president of the Valley Originals, and co-owner of Delaney's Hole-in-theWall Restaurant. He supported the proposal, and so did fellow members.
She also met with one of Michelle's clients, Bill Bennett of Maestro's.
He, too, enthusiastically became involved.
Noted Corrine, “Bill was inspired to follow his passion of cooking 'Farm to Table' and was prepared to redirect his entire operation. Bill and I collaborated on the idea, which connected directly to my mission. He went full tilt into changing his menu, embracing the local sustainable movement and promoting the idea to others. He has taken on the idea of S.O.H.L. to drive his business.”
Bennett says the effort has reawakened the passion that got him into cooking to begin with.
“Our focus is now on organic, and sustainable, non-pesticide, non-synthetically fertilized and GMO free ingredients, which are locally sourced, while also developing a safer, green relationship with the environment,” says Bennett, whose business has been closed due to frozen pipes but who is in the midst of making renovations in preparation of reopening. “Our cuisine, still rooted by Italian traditions, may be peppered with non-traditional ideas and fused with non-European flavors.Working with local farms and seasonal ingredients, our menu will change more frequently and more fresh daily specials will emerge.”
Bennett felt he had to get closer to his Old Country roots.
“We asked ourselves, 'Why rely on mediocre foodstuff shipped from thousands of miles away?' Would the people of my mother's hometown of Savignano, Italy, ship items in from afar, and conform to the banal and expected 'Italian' stereotype menu? Or would they use what is fresh, available and near to them?' It tastes better, it's healthier, and it's better for the local economy.”
Michelle says it's a win-win approach.
“S.O.H.L., as it relates to farm-to-table and sustainable harvest, as demonstrated by Margarita Grill as an operating model, makes the consumer feel good — as if the consumer, by choosing to dine at Margarita Grill, is also nurturing their own health and the environment while supporting local small business,” said Michelle. “L.E.A.P. ignites passion and reconnects — it inspires action to a higher purpose. 121Fit, Margarita Grill and Maestro's are all working models of L.E.A.P. — and they are all S.O.H.L. driven."