A Great Escape

Doug Mack and Linda Harmon, owners of Mary's at Baldwin Creek in Bristol, left the city life for an intimate bed and breakfast and dining destination

by Portland Helmich

Doug Mack and Linda Harmon, of Mary's at Baldwin Creek in Bristol, met while working at the same restaurant in New Jersey, which they left after a friend's death. "When that happened, it hit me," Harmon says. "You can't go on year after year saying, 'Oh, someday I'll go do that.' "

The vast majority of patrons who dine and lodge at Mary's at Baldwin Creek do not do so on a whim. The gourmet inn is too far off the beaten path on Vermont 116 in Bristol to attract many people who just want to grab a bite or who've wandered off the interstate and need a place to rest their heads for the night. No, dining or lodging at Mary's is an event, and proprietors Linda Harmon and Doug Mack know it.

The husband-and-wife team spent five years looking for a larger space in which to grow their business when Mary's was only a small eatery in the village of Bristol. "Nothing ever seemed to fit what we wanted," Harmon recalls, "and after the fourth year we realized it was because we didn't want to be a Burlington, Middlebury or Waitsfield restaurant. Our customers saw us as their destination restaurant. They made plans to come here. If we moved (out of Bristol), we'd disrupt our clientele."

In 1993, a 1787 farmhouse sitting on 430 acres, three-and-a-half-miles from the center of Bristol, appeared on the market. Though Harmon and Mack knew they could not afford and did not need an abundance of acreage, friends encouraged them to inquire about the property. The elderly couple who owned the house had been good customers at Mary's. The call was fruitful. Harmon and Mack bought 25 acres, which included the farmhouse, five barns, and a cottage where they and their two daughters could live. The remaining acres were sold to a lumber company in Bristol.

Harmon says purchasing the quintessentially Vermont property taught her an important lesson. "If you don't ask, you can't get."

Patrons who stay in one of the inn's four casually decorated rooms or who dine in the downstairs restaurant are treated to more than pastoral surroundings. They also enjoy "cuisine with a conscience." Mack, who is head chef, is one of the founding members of the Vermont Fresh Network, a statewide, non-profit collaboration of farmers and chefs whose mission is to support the sustainability of local agriculture by creating new market niches for small family farms.

Chef Erin Acheson prepares dinner with Vermont-grown ingredients.

Since his early days as head chef at a restaurant called The Store in Basking Ridge, N.J., Mack has always had an interest in fresher products. "We used canned beets as a garnish," he recalls, "and I said, 'Why are we using canned beets? Even a sprig of parsley would be better than this.' "

His relationship with local farms began when he and Harmon owned Mary's on Main Street in Bristol. "I always had farmers coming to the back door with products," he says. Today, Mack deals with 15 farms at the height of the growing season. His dairy comes from a farm in Weybridge; his venison from Middlebury; his chicken from New Haven; and the list goes on. Some farms grow produce specifically for Mary's. All of the restaurant's green beans ("the best on the planet," Mack declares) and a special variety of lettuce called Lolla Rossa, for example, are grown on New Haven's Orb Weaver Farm.

The advantages of doing business with local farmers instead of national food distributors are indisputable for Mack. "It's healthier and there's less waste," the New Jersey native explains. "Because the food doesn't travel as far, I can use an entire head of lettuce instead of throwing away the outside layers." He adds: "I feel better that I'm supporting a family farmer over some big conglomerate food chain."

Supporting family farms translates into backing the working landscape that gives Vermont its splendor. A board member of the Vermont Fresh Network, Jeff Roberts, believes the significance of such a contribution cannot be overlooked. "Vermont's landscape doesn't happen by accident," he says. "The beautiful open spaces that we have are here because of the people who work the land and the people like Doug and Linda who support them."

Supporting local agriculture does present challenges, however. Convincing the public that higher food prices are worth the cost is the main one, according to Mack, who chooses to buy beef tenderloin for $16 a pound from Coleman Ranch in Colorado (Vermont ranches cannot supply the amount of beef Mary's requires) over beef tenderloin for $6 or $7 a pound from a national distributor. "But if you sit down and eat that piece of beef," Mack urges, "you'll remember it your whole life."

In this respect, Mack and Harmon see themselves not only as innkeepers and restaurateurs, but as educators who enlighten the public about the value of eating fresh, family farm-raised products. Mary's Farmhouse Dinners, held every Wednesday evening from July through September, are a perfect example of the couple's commitment to keeping small farms vibrant.

"We have a farmhouse menu," Harmon explains, "and all the specials come from one specific farm." To help put a face with a name and to give recognition to the farmers who have become their friends, Mack and Harmon invite the farmer whose products are featured that evening to come to Mary's and "hang out" behind a complimentary appetizer table for a couple of hours. Harmon says that when they first approached farmers about the idea, most were cautiously interested. "They said, 'Sure, but why would anybody want to talk to me?' " Harmon chuckles, "and lo and behold, everybody wants to talk to them. People ask them about farming techniques, their lifestyle, special tips, everything."

The creative manner in which Harmon and Mack approach their business impresses Pat Messer, who owns Millhouse Bed & Breakfast in Starksboro. "In the restaurant," she says, "it's fun because no two tablecloths are the same, and the plates and place mats don't necessarily match. Doug has always been amazingly creative with his cooking, too. He comes up with combinations of things that defy reason but work together so well."

Messer could be speaking of Baldwin's "Rodeo," 4 or 8 ounces of beef tenderloin marinated Korean-style, basted with cilantro sauce, and grilled and served with a chilled soba noodle salad. The eclectic menu, which always features at least two vegetarian offerings, allows chef Mack to express not only his gastronomic creativity but his visual creativity, as well.

While "cooking his way through college" at Ohio State University, Mack majored in photography, which he credits with his understanding of the visual demands of food presentation. "I had a feel for the plates," he says. "That's definitely why I was so successful coming up the ranks."

In 1973, when he was cooking at theStore, Mack met Harmon, who was waitressing at the restaurant by night and substitute teaching by day. After graduating from Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y., with a bachelor of arts in history in 1970, Harmon expected she'd become a teacher. "I didn't have the patience," admits the Fulton, N.Y., native. "Maybe if I'd been in the ideal situation and every student in my class wanted to learn, I'd have been great."

Realizing that teaching was not her calling, Harmon says she needed to find something she could do well. For three years, she worked as general manager for The Publick House, the largest establishment in a New Jersey restaurant company called Growth Enterprises. "I loved the excitement of it," she says. "It's great to feel like you can make a difference in somebody's day in a two- or three-hour clip."

Harmon and Mack moved to this bed and breakfast from Mary's restaurant not far away. When they thought about moving to a bigger location, they knew they didn't want to move to a bigger town.

In time, however, Harmon realized that working for someone was not going to satisfy her in the long run. "I couldn't make every decision, and I wanted control over the details," she says. Mack shared her desire to be self-employed and to "evacuate" the metropolitan area where they lived. After the death of a close friend with whom she had often talked about moving, Harmon and Mack decided to stop planning and to just do it. "When that happened," Harmon recalls, "it hit me. You can't go on year after year saying, 'Oh, someday I'll go do that.' "

For six months, the couple traveled around the U.S. looking for a place to settle. After circling the country, the couple's last stop was Vermont. "It was everything to us that the metropolitan area wasn't," remarks Mack, who heard from a customer that Mary's was for sale while a beverage manager at the Sirloin Saloon.

Started by David and Mary Bolton in the mid-'70s, Mary's was originally a vegetarian restaurant. The next owner added seafood to the menu, as well as beer and wine. When Mack and Harmon bought the restaurant in 1983, they put in a bar and expanded to a full menu. The couple became innkeepers when they moved to their present location seven years ago.

Mary's is open year-round, closing for a week and a half in November and April. From May to October, Harmon and Mack cater events such as weddings, rehearsal dinners, and anniversary parties, making good use of their picturesque location, a barn that accommodates up to 75 people, and a tent that seats 200 for dinner. A separate catering crew is hired and trained for such occasions. "We do weddings almost every weekend," Harmon says.

The dining room, where overnight guests enjoy breakfast every morning, is open for dinner Wednesday through Sunday evenings only. "It was a couple years after we moved here," Harmon says, "that we made the decision not to serve lunch and dinner seven days a week. With the inn, it just became too difficult to make it all great."

"I feel better that I'm supporting a family farmer over some big conglomerate food chain." — Doug Mack

That change has given Harmon and Mack more personal time and allowed their servers a five-day workweek, as Mack handles breakfast by himself. "It makes for a really cohesive staff that's not overworked," Harmon says. All of Mary's full-time employees are offered 401K plans, and staff meetings are conducted daily over shared mealsstraight from the menuaround which Mack and Harmon discuss the evening's specials.

"It's a really positive group," server Melissa Bridges says. "When Doug and Linda are hiring, they consider the team dynamics that are in place. Whereas in many restaurants, there's a separation between the front and the back of the house, everybody works well together here."

Harmon and Mack say they work well together because they focus on different skill sets. While Harmon handles "front of the house" tasks, like administration and marketing, Mack mans the back of the house, overseeing cooking, menu development and maintenance. "If something goes wrong in the middle of the night, guests check in with him," Harmon says.

In the 108-seat restaurant, turning tables over quickly is not the goal. It can't be. Harmon says most restaurants have a clientele that lives within a mile of their establishment, but most people who dine at Mary's travel 25 to 60 minutes. Because of this, Mack and Harmon know their job is to provide people with an experience. "If we turn over one table a night, that's good for us," Harmon injects. "We couldn't do it faster because of the style of service that we offer."

After 18 years of being their own bosses, Mack and Harmon appear to have no regrets. Mack says he loves the adrenaline rush his work provides. "I like being busy," he says, "and I like the satisfaction of making people happy." Harmon nods in agreement and adds, "I like being able to do the things I want to do when I want to do them."

Though clearly pleased with what they have created, both say they would have a feeling of "completeness" if they developed an apprenticeship program that provided young people with knowledge about all aspects of the food industry. Not only would apprentices learn how to cook, do table service, and manage a restaurant, but they would learn where food originates by working on local farms.

"They'd milk goats and make cheese and plant vegetables," Mack says "It would give them a professional advantage over people who don't know where food comes from." Though the couple doesn't yet know how they're going to turn this dream into reality, between them, they appear to have all the tools necessary to manifest their vision.

"We're both dreamers," Mack says. "Linda is the one who makes things happen, and I'm the one who cooks them." •

Originally published in August 2001 Business People-Vermont