We Bought a Piece of New England History
This time last year we were in New Orleans, scared not only about our health, but our livelihoods. With Levi and me both being in the restaurant business, and New Orleans being a city dependent on tourism, our professional lives were in question. Having grown up in a small town in Massachusetts, one that we visited every summer for an extended period of time, we took a deep, hard look at a move.
For anyone who knows our family, you know this wasn't an easy choice. We were (and hopefully will always be) a family that embraced the very fabric of what makes New Orleans. We didn't miss a chance to dress our family up and parade in the streets - we've been members of the Intergalatic Krewe of Chewbacchus from the very inception marching with our 3 month old baby Chewbacca. We made the news for our costumes, from the front page of NOLA.com for little Mardi Gras weekend, to being featured on NOLABeings for our Queen Amidala and baby Leia get-up. The boys marched with the Jefferson City Buzzards and kissed girls in the streets for St. Patrick's Day. We never missed a Jazz Fest, French Quarter Fest, VooDoo Fest, or Bayou Bugaloo. We rode our bikes to the Quarter on beautiful days, and the Super Dome on Sunday to cheer on our favorite team. We ate Beignets in City Park after riding the historic Carousel. They knew us by name at 100 plus year old family grocery, Terranova and gelato mecca Angelo Brocato's. Even as I type this, I get sad thinking about the beautiful life we had in New Orleans with our incredible friends.
Working for the restaurant group, Dickie Brennan & Co. we had great experiences that allowed for us to see parts of the country and world we wouldn't have seen otherwise. We were also fortunate to be on the opening teams of multiple restaurants, and helped create and bring to life Acorn at the nationally recognized Louisiana Children's Museum. Being part of their team for twenty years meant that Levi pretty much got to play a hand in every role at various times. From his start as kitchen manager to his manager positions at restaurants throughout the group, eventually earning his way to Operations Manager for the entire family of restaurants, he gained a lot of experience and helped mentor a large group, many of whom have become like family to us.
I met Levi at work in 2006 when I took a job in the marketing department. Two years later we were married and two years after that we had James. My career in restaurant marketing included everything from menu development with the chefs to ad/media buying and promotional copy. I launched the New Orleans Bourbon Society in the time before bourbon's huge resurgence of popularity. Through the society, which now stands 6,000 members strong, I've hosted events with almost every master distiller and traveled to Kentucky twice for events with members from around the country. I wrote business plans and concepts for restaurants that came to fruition and some that did not. We traveled to London and held a pop-up, bringing New Orleans food to the UK for a week while the Saints played at Wembley Stadium, which garnered us national press attention. I was behind the camera while we shot pictures for Garden & Gun, and the Food Network. I worked with a team to get food donations to serve thousands of people in need during the early days of the pandemic.
When you're working day-to-day, it's easy to overlook the amount of experience you've gained along the way. But, when you take a step back and reevaluate (something the pandemic forced us to do), we realized that we had the opportunity to do something special for a community using all we've gained throughout our careers. We chose Charlemont, Mass. for a few reasons. The Wells Corner store was up for sale. The historic building in the village of Charlemont has been a staple of this small town since 1845 when John A. Wells sold boots and bolts of cloth along with over 1000 barrels of flour a month. It has seen a few lives and incarnations during its nearly 200 years - country store, deli, package store and most recently an antique store/bakery. The previous owners did a lot of work to restore the building, work that we've continued to build upon. In addition to the store, the building houses a salon, and two apartments (ie. additional rental income). The most notable business in Charlemont is Berkshire East - the very place I learned how to ski. In recent years, Berkshire East has taken initiative to expand their offerings and today is a year round resort offering mountain biking, a mountain roller coaster and canopy zipline tours in the warmer months. Charlemont is also one of only eight towns in the United States to have both a river and a mountain. The Deerfield River runs through the town and is a popular destination for whitewater rafting, tubing and fly fishing.
We saw this sleepy little town as the perfect location to bring a concept that locals and visitors will love. We decided to sell what was supposed to be our forever home in New Orleans. One that we poured our heart and souls into restoring. Our hard work even managed to get the house featured on Apartment Therapy, a design site that I followed for years and was beyond honored to be included among the many wonderful designers that grace their pages. When we bought that home people thought we were crazy because of the amount of work it needed (termite damage, two holes in the roof, extensive mold, etc.), but I'm so happy that we didn't let their skepticism stop us from renovating that gem of a house. My mom has always said that I have "champagne taste on a beer budget." She's right of course. I've always loved creating beautiful spaces (probably goes along with my astrological sign Cancer), but have had to do so on limited budgets. We did a lot of the work on the house ourselves, and did 100% of the decorating on our own, with a lot of help from thrift stores and gifts from the dump Gods (aka side of the road pickups). Within days of listing our home for sale, we had multiple offers, and ultimately the house went to a sweet family. One that will love it as much as we did.
With our home sold, we purchased the Wells Corner Store building in Charlemont and packed up the family. We were literally chased out of New Orleans by Hurricane Zeta, the first hurricane eye to pass over the city in the last 50 years. We closed the door to our Penske truck while the first rain bands from the storm lashed our faces. We took it as an omen that we made the right decision, no matter how difficult it was to make. Two days later we arrived in Charlemont and took up residence in one of the two apartments. One of the apartments was renovated and the other was not. We got to work on demo of the un-renovated apartment the next day and worked for the next 5 weeks to make the two-bedroom apartment into a place we could call home. Again, people were skeptical of our timeline, but we made them believers. We had to do it because we had seasonal renters for the other apartment who needed to be in by December. We gutted, refinished floors (all on our own!), replaced the kitchen and bath and painted, all to breath new life into the very tired apartment. We'd done it before and knew that together as a family team we could do anything. All of this while our three young kids were in virtual school. It was definitely a challenge and not one without a few tears, as well as a really unfortunate self haircut done by Julia while she was being under-supervised!
With a place to live complete, we set our eyes on creating the store. Between applying for liquor permits and special permits and navigating building codes for restaurant hoods among other things, our winter months were pretty much spoken for. With the weather getting warmer and the days getting longer, we've been able to start working on one of my favorite parts - the aesthetic! Our friends, who have become family, Joan and Rick, traveled from Houston after their second vaccine shot. They are a dynamic duo and don't shy away from any project! They helped us paint. This wasn't the easiest task since the place had dark red ceilings, but we were victorious! The store consisted of so many variations of wood colors, we painted much of them to make it more cohesive and really show off the beautiful, original oak floors. Local carpenter/contractor, Jason Erali and his team built the coffee/ordering bar. We used the existing counters in the store to save money, which we moved and covered with a new facade to extend. For the now 10 foot bar, we needed to find a top. We found it in the form of a bowling alley, which we drove to Troy, New York to purchase. We also built a wall by the long row of coolers to create some dry storage space for the cafe, and cover the eye sore that was the back of the ice maker and cooler. Next up are the new store-front windows scheduled to go in soon (hopefully in next couple of weeks). These will restore the building to what it used to look like and bring so much more natural light into the store. We're also working on lighting and displays, and are waiting for our bistro table bases to arrive from Canada.
All of this work is to create a space that is inviting. One that you walk into and instantly feel at home. We have named our store Wells Provisions to honor the history of this building. Wells Provisions will be a place that you can stop in for a cup of great coffee and pastry and visit with friends. You'll be able to pick up a bottle of wine from lesser known, but excellent producers. Lunch will include top-quality sandwiches and New Orleans favorites. Our former co-worker from New Orelans and super talented chef, Sid Cavallo is joining our team and his experience in some of the best restaurants in New Orleans and around the country will be evident throughout the menu. We're not playing around. We plan on offering something special and noteworthy to the community. We'll have a little bit of something for everyone, with quality and hospitality as our cornerstone.
But the cherry on top maybe in the form of our ice cream stand! We'll have a fun, seasonal Creamie stand, with a take-out window. Creamies and local hard scoop ice cream will be on the menu along with shakes, sundaes and maybe an affogato. We've learned that nothing brings happiness quite in the same way as a scoop of ice cream.
We hope to welcome you to Wells Provisions in mid May, and are honored to be part of this community and restore a piece of New England history to its former, and hopefully greater, glory!
With Love, The Janssens (Wesley, Levi, James, Anders and Julia)