Who Knew New Englanders Love Gumbo?
Gumbo is delicious. It's a fact, so it's not up for debate. But, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't surprised when gumbo quickly became our best seller out of the freezer case (and then the fridge case). In fact, we're making so much gumbo, we ended up having to borrow a HUGE pot from Berkshire East. This pot covers five burners (not exaggerating). Their chili season is approaching faster than we would like to admit, so we'll be in the market for our own colossal pot soon. But, even with this huge pot, we still run out of gumbo each week in the case. Lesson - find a way to make more gumbo. It's been awhile since I've written a blog post. Starting a new business (one that really is more like five businesses rolled into one) takes a lot of energy and doesn't leave time for much else.
We've learned a lot over the past two months. Gumbo can be used as an analogy for these lessons. Gumbo's inherent goodness comes from the layer of flavors. You start with the roux - it's the foundation. It takes time and patience to make a good roux. When you give the time and concentration needed to make that dark roux, your final result will be better. For Wells Provisions, this foundation was the space itself. We poured time and funds into turning the space into one that welcomes you when you cross the threshold. Restoring the facade to its original grandeur baths the store in natural light, and turned what was once dark into a bright and cheery space. Decorating with pieces that highlight Charlemont's history gives it an added charm while simultaneously making it feel like this place has been here forever (which in a way it has). Not a day goes by that we don't hear something along the lines of "this place is beautiful" or my personal favorite "this place feels great." I take that latter compliment as the biggest one I can get. It's true that our surroundings affect our mood, so if my design can make someone feel good, than I've achieved exactly what I was striving for. However, as a designer, my job is never done and I'll keep layering and adding touches that enhance the overall the space as I come upon them. And when I say "come upon them" I quite literally mean it. Did you know that a good portion of the decor in Wells Provisions was found - either on the side of the road (those blue plates on the wall) or at auction (that 10 foot windsor bench) or on craigslist (our bowling alley bar top)? Lesson one - good design doesn't have to cost a lot. It just has to speak to you.
After you've made your beautiful dark roux you need to start adding the layers of flavor. First you add the trinity. This consists of onions, bell peppers and celery and finally the Pope (garlic). For the store, the next layer was opening what we could, when we could. That meant we opened the Creamie/Ice Cream window first. We had some delays with our permits for the commercial kitchen, so we moved forward with opening for just ice cream on Memorial Day. And I say "just ice cream" but we never really do "just" anything. Our ice cream window had all the traditional items from hot fudge to malt, but it also had items that we challenge to be found at any other ice cream in New England or beyond. Bananas Foster Sundaes (we had a well-known Boston restaurateur get one and then after his first bite, get back in line for a second one because it is that good); Maple Rhubarb Sundaes; Housemade Chocolate Chip Cookie Ice Cream Sandwiches; Candied Bacon and Brownie Crumble Sundaes...you get the idea. We love good food and think "why settle with ordinary, when we can make something extraordinary."
Our soft serve got rave reviews, probably because of its 10% butterfat content. But what didn't get rave reviews was our super finicky machine. If I can be honest, we probably spent more money and time on repairing that machine than we made in soft serve sales. I'm the biggest soft serve fan out there, so if it wasn't for me encouraging Levi to continue with the fixes, the machine would have bit the dust half-way through the season. We have a second machine, but like I just said these machines are finicky and the amps going through the line are a little too high for what the machine likes (according to the Taylor Ice Cream Machine tech). The result is soft serve that is a little softer than we'd like (still delicious, but better in a cup than a cone). When I get a chance, I'm going to call National Grid and see if there is a fix that they can do to the line. Lesson two - try your best to give customers what they want, even if it doesn't come easy, but also accept when it's just not working. We do listen and we know you want the soft stuff! In the meantime, the window may be closed for the season, but you can still get local, hard ice cream and sundaes and bananas foster inside the cafe.
Continuing on our gumbo theme, next step is to add the stock. This step matters A LOT. Adding a sub-standard broth won't make your gumbo taste as good as it could or should. Our gumbo process takes days. I said that it all starts with a roux, but truly I stand corrected. It really starts with making a good stock and letting it simmer away for hours and hours. We use chicken bones from our neighbors Freeman Farm, along with lots of vegetables and herbs. This is what we add to our gumbo to make it extraordinary. I relate this to the actual 'stock' on our market's shelves. We're a cafe, coffee shop, package store and market. We knew from the very start that we wanted to sell local specialty products, and wine/beer/spirits from small producers. Charlemont has a general store - Avery's and we didn't/don't want to compete directly with them. We would offer the items that they didn't. Same goes for package store, Charlemont has one of those too. We wanted to have items that you wouldn't find there. That way all our businesses complement one another and we add to the offerings in town.
For liquor, our license is for off-premise (meaning you can't open it at the Cafe). Massachusetts only lets you have one type of license per business location, and with us serving mainly Breakfast and Lunch, it made sense to have the license be for off-premise. When it comes to wine, we're not wine snobs, but we do know our wine and feel that good wine should be affordable. Most of our wine is between $10 and $20 a bottle, with some costing less and some costing a bit more. These aren't wines you'll find on a grocery store shelf. These are delicious wines (we've tasted 95% of them), made by real people doing things the right way. We have wines and varietals from all over the world and are happy to help you find your new favorite! Same goes for beer - the craft beer scene in this neck of the woods is amazing, so it's really easy to support local producers doing cool things. In order for our customers to be able to try something new, we offer almost all of our beers by the single as well as by the 4 or 6 pack. Lesson three - It is possibly to make some of life's luxuries attainable and affordable.
On the spirit front, our collection is small, but mighty. We have pretty much something in every category as well as a few that don't really fit in a specific category (Creole Shrub I'm looking at you!) In our past life we were heavily involved with Tales of the Cocktail, and through this association met and hosted dinners with some of the best mixologists in the world. We like a good, balanced cocktail, and are thrilled if you want a little assistance in making selections or looking for cocktail ideas. In fact, I'm thinking of starting a section of this blog that has cocktail recipes, as well as mocktail versions. Let me know if that would interest you!
Gosh, I feel like I'm rambling, so if you're still reading (bless your heart), I'll try to go quicker. We've been trying to expand our stock of house-made family style meals to-go. As you know, gumbo has been super popular, as well as other Cajun/Creole staples like jambalaya and shrimp Creole. The mac n' cheese is a favorite and we've started to add more vegetarian/vegan options including a coconut-ginger-vegetable soup this week. If there is something that you'd like to see in the case, send me a note!
On the lesson side of things, I've been eating a lot of yogurt and lettuce. No, it's not a new diet fad. It's because we've been carrying it in the store, but you haven't been buying it. I think we're going to stop carrying it unless something dramatically changes in the purchasing habits of our customers. Lesson Four - people who like gumbo aren't the same ones who like yogurt. Joking aside, what would you like to see us carry in place of these type of items?
Moving on to the final step in our gumbo lesson plan - getting to the meat of the matter. The last step in making a gumbo is adding the meat, seasoning and letting simmer. We've stocked our shelves and our menu, and we've been letting it simmer. We've listened to your feedback and have been overwhelmed with the positivity we've been shown. Shrimp and Grits are here to stay (and of course gumbo). Oh, and that Collard Melt (which more than one person has told us in the best sandwich they've ever tasted) will continue to grace the menu. But we'll be changing out items and adding more options when it comes to the entire store/cafe. Because we've learned that evolving is good and businesses, like dishes should be tasted and adjusted as necessary.
Drop me a line and let me know your feedback and what you'd like to see at Wells Provisions - firstname.lastname@example.org
Hope to see you soon at Wells Provisions!