A Nosh Above

In partnership with the community, this restaurant thrives

by Will Lindner

claires0212Steven Obranovich is the chef-proprietor of Claire’s Restaurant and Bar in Hardwick, a community-supported restaurant he and co-owners Linda Ramsdell and Mike Bosia launched in 2008 with the help of the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

Dining at Claire’s Restaurant and Bar in Hardwick could lead one to fantasy.

Here’s the picture. After an uncommonly good meal — in which each portion is enhanced by tastes that add complexity yet work well together, and the accompanying ale or red wine was (one sip reveals) “selected” rather than merely purchased — the diner chooses a dessert from an imaginative menu, then asks to pay compliments to the chef.

The server graciously points the way to the kitchen. But upon opening the door, the diner discovers that, instead of a steaming, bustling room of tile, stainless steel, and cooking aromas, it’s not a kitchen at all. Instead of walls, there is an ecosystem of wide-open spaces, where the farms, fields, hills, and gardens of Lamoille County are on display. And that it was this integrated, creative, natural unit (deftly orchestrated by chef-proprietor Steven Obranovich) that produced and prepared the dinner.

Obranovich and his partners at Claire’s, Mike Bosia and Linda Ramsdell, say that about 90 cents of every dollar spent on food goes to farms and artisans in Vermont. By far, most of that money goes to farms, growers, producers, and processors within 15 miles of the restaurant. To put that in perspective, Morrisville is just over 15 miles from Hardwick while Montpelier is 26 miles away. Claire’s’ commitment to local agriculture is hardcore.

And when they have to look farther, they ascertain that those distant producers use sustainable practices and keep their neighbors employed. Or that the seafood comes from the coast closest to Hardwick (as in Maine), and is sustainably harvested. “That means no cod,” Bosia points out.

If this seems like a Spartan, joyless culinary ethic — somehow gleaning nourishment from the spare New England countryside — it is anything but. Obranovich, a 43-year-old Californian (Palo Alto), attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and trained and cooked in fine restaurants there, in the Everest Room atop the Chicago Stock Exchange, and in Strasbourg, France.

Along the way he developed an appreciation of what some call peasant food — recipes “based on the food of everyday people,” he says — and a sense of adventure in developing its potential.

At Claire’s, because of the restaurant’s close contact with the community, the result is extreme spontaneity.

“Steven goes foraging for the ingredients each day,” says Bosia, referring to Obranovich’s treks seeking fiddleheads and ramps in the spring and “foraging” from farmers on the phone. “That’s the way the menu evolves.”

“It’s dictated by what’s being grown,” Ramsdell chimes in.

And, Bosia says, “As a result, we have these mini-crises, like the potatoes that don’t come in.”

Or the unexpected bounty.

“People drag stuff through the door not even expecting to be paid for it — casual farmers whose primary income isn’t from food production,” says Obranovich.” Contemplating the disparate harvest before him, Obranovich puts his skills, experience, and imagination to work.

“Steven uses flavor profiles from places that have inspired him,” says Bosia.

Obranovich expresses it more modestly. “We serve what the farmers want to grow, what people want to eat. It sounds simplistic, but in a nutshell that’s what I want to do.”

Claire’s intense connectedness to the community is its raison d’être. Ramsdell, the only member of the ownership trio native to the area (she was born in Newport, and graduated from Craftsbury Academy), studied elementary education at Johnson State College, but earned a B.A. in women’s studies from Brown University in Rhode Island.

Eternally “a woman in transition,” as friends described her in her youth, Ramsdell, now 47, considered a career in social work. Instead, in 1988, she opened the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, answering to another calling, her passion for reading. But the bookshop sometimes feels like a form of social work to Ramsdell because it’s a place people come to talk.

As the now-famous Hardwick renaissance began unfolding in the early 2000s — the development of often-interrelated enterprises that nurture and support small-scale, local agriculture, which has revitalized the town and village — Ramsdell came to believe that an important, yet missing, ingredient was a Main Street restaurant that could be a gathering place for Hardwickians of all walks.

The community, which had struggled for years, was starting to develop a better sense of itself. “But we needed what I call ‘the third place,’” says Ramsdell. “Not home and not work. A place to meet and be with people.”

To explore how that might be accomplished, she hosted a gathering at her bookstore — this was around 2004 — and 55 people showed up. Clearly there was interest, but it took years for the stars to line up.

Says Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, which later played an important role in supporting Claire’s, “First they had a chef and no place; then they had a place and no chef.”

That changed when Ramsdell attended the opening of a much-ballyhooed restaurant in a nearby community. The chef was Steven Obranovich. At the hors d’oeuvres table, Ramsdell met Bosia, who turned out to be Obranovich’s partner (they were married soon after it became legal in Vermont, in front of the plate glass windows at Claire’s, in November 2010). Bosia and Obranovich had moved to Hardwick in 2004.

She invited them to her Craftsbury home, where she lives with Sheldon Miller, who works at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center, and his children, Anica and Xavier (who are now 12 and 15). Over dinner, they discovered that their belief systems were utterly aligned.

Bosia, 50, is also a Californian, from Novato. He met Obranovich when both were active in political causes in San Francisco, before Obranovich began his culinary career.

Bosia worked in community outreach and legislative policy for a state senator, but changed course and earned a Ph.D. in political science from Northwestern University in 2005. He is now an associate professor at St. Michael’s College in Colchester.

Bosia’s keen interest, and his academic specialty, is in political movements — “how organizations respond to social change, and how individuals learn to control their own destiny,” he says.

The production, marketing, sale, and consumption of food is a prime arena for local empowerment, and Vermont is on the cutting edge of the movement, so when Obranovich was offered the chef’s job here, the Californians enthusiastically made Hardwick their home. When Obranovich left that job, they threw themselves into Ramsdell’s vision of a local restaurant, and after a tragic fire in 2006 damaged properties on Hardwick’s Main Street, a space became available.

However, the three weren’t interested in the traditional business-ownership model. The Preservation Trust had been active in Hardwick’s renaissance, so they turned for guidance to Bruhn, and with his help developed a CSR — a community-supported restaurant — named for Claire Fern, an educator, artist, gardener, and celebrated hostess in Hardwick who died in 2002.

The founding trio owns the restaurant, but Ramsdell recruited more than 100, mostly local, people to provide start-up capital. Ramsdell calls it working capital.

“They’re not expecting an immediate payoff,” she says, “and perhaps not even anything significant in the long term.”

Their reward is a rejuvenated community.

Meanwhile, she was organizing The Hardwick Restaurant Group, a group of equity investors, which prepaid the lease on the building for 12 years, built out the space, and purchased much of the kitchen equipment.

“This ensures that the space and equipment will remain there, no matter what happens with this particular operation,” Bruhn explains. The Preservation Trust paid the restaurant’s first year’s rent.

This significantly relieves rent and credit obligations, allowing the ownership to plow more of the restaurant’s earnings back into the operation, which includes marketing (Bosia’s bailiwick). Then there are the coupons, an arrangement similar to CSA farms, which provide more operating capital.

“People contribute $1,000, and they redeem their investment by eating up to $250 in food a year, at $25 per month,” explains Ramsdell.

Claire’s Restaurant and Bar, with seating for 65, opened on Memorial Day weekend 2008. The business plan, if not conventional, was conservative: “Our model predicted that the first time we would have enough customers to turn every table would be New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day four years after we opened,” says Ramsdell. Instead, it happened the first week they opened, and several more times that summer.

There are many reasons for Claire’s success, says Obranovich. But one that he senses strongly is the community’s sense of ownership of the enterprise. With its emphasis on creating vibrant downtowns, that’s what the Preservation Trust hoped to see.

“From our standpoint, what Linda and the community hoped for in this place has actually happened,” says Bruhn. “The dream they had became a reality. It’s nice when that happens.” •