Last year, 170 new restaurants opened in Maine. Statistically, more than a quarter of them won’t make it through their first year. This is the story of one that did — restaurateur Annemarie Ahearn’s ambitious Salt Water Farm — and of what it took to get there: bruised egos, broken friendships, and tough lessons about what Mainers want.
By Brian Kevin
Based on interviews with Annemarie Ahearn
Photographed by Dana Smith
[T]he thing you remember most about your first year in business is the panic. Not the day-to-day panic of serving three meals in a brand-new space with a recently assembled staff (you remember this too), but the existential panic, the chest-tightening terror of feeling all eyes on you. At night, you were afraid to lie in bed with your thoughts. You cried a lot when you were alone, and you listened compulsively to the news on public radio, trying to remind yourself that there were more devastating things happening in the world than the rapid implosion of your restaurant.
Also, you remember Justin, and the heartbreak of knowing you let him down.
What happened to you? When you left New York to start a cooking school in Maine, you felt like some kind of warrior. You were alone and unafraid, out there on your parents’ overgrown coastal property on Penobscot Bay. You were 28, and you were invincible. You envisioned yourself becoming the leader of a movement, reforming the way people in this country think about, prepare, and consume their food.
Now, at 34, you are mellowed and humbled, and when you describe your “delusions of grandeur,” it’s with a bittersweet smile. You still believe in reforming food systems, of course, but six years ago? You were borderline messianic. Everything in your life had seemed to lead you to this place, to this saltwater farm in rural Maine from which you would make your mark on the world.
It started with your parents, you suppose, with how your Italian-American mom cooked big, wholesome meals from scratch each night, with how your dad kept every issue of Saveur magazine and devoted whole Sundays to authentically preparing this or that ethnic dish. He traveled a lot for his job in the energy sector, and before your parents resettled near Milwaukee in the ’80s, you spent your early childhood in Johannesburg, South Africa. You remember visits to Mexico as a kid, how the food there seemed so exotic, the hand-pressed tortillas and the meat cooked over open fires.
Of course, your parents also brought you to Maine. Each summer, you’d stay a couple of weeks at the old blueberry farm in Dresden that’s been in your dad’s family for generations, swinging on rope swings and wandering the woods. At night, you slept in a log cabin that your dad built as a young man, back when he and your mom left the metro New York of their youths to spend their own summers there. Thanks to them, Maine has been your life’s one geographic constant.
Could you have built up your cooking school and restaurant without your parents? Not a chance. They’ve been a huge support financially, which has been hard for you to acknowledge over the years because of the stigma attached to it. But they did more than just provide you with land and capital. Your mom has been your emotional pillar. From your dad, you got your sense of discipline and maybe some of the competitive ambition that once fueled you. He’s a workhorse, constantly throwing himself into new projects and hobbies. When you were young, he’d come into your room at 6 a.m. to announce — only somewhat joking — that the day was already half over.
And in a sense, it was, since you spent six hours a day with a gymnastics coach then — this was how your drive to succeed first manifested. You were the Wisconsin State Champion three years running, on the path of an Olympic hopeful. You didn’t have friends or go to sleepovers or really understand what other kids did with their time. Then you hit puberty and had to walk away from it. And even though you coached some and played other sports, it left a void that you struggled to fill in your teen and college years. You had interests and passions, sure — travel, schoolwork, boyfriends — but there was nothing in life into which you could pour that same single-hearted dedication.
Not until you realized that you needed to change the way people eat.[I]n college, in Colorado, you wrote restaurant reviews for the school paper, and on Sundays, you cooked elaborate dinners for friends. You discovered you were happiest when feeding people, and on the heels of this came other realizations: That you’d been eating chicken all your life but didn’t really know how to take one apart. That you knew very little about the farming and slaughtering that brought produce and animals to your plate. And that what you did know about food and cooking was varsity level compared to many Americans, who couldn’t roast a chicken, let alone kill and butcher one.
After graduation, you left for New York with a single goal: to learn more about food in the country’s food capital. You got an apartment in Brooklyn and an internship at Saveur. You enrolled in a year-long intensive program at the Institute of Culinary Education, even though a restaurant career didn’t interest you. For six years, you worked short stints in as many disparate food jobs as possible: line cook, personal chef, food stylist, farmers’-market ingredient demonstrator, assistant to a culinary celebrity.
Meanwhile, you hatched a plan. Years before, your parents had bought a scenic but unruly parcel in midcoast Maine, right on the ocean in Lincolnville. They’d beat back at the underbrush and built a vacation cottage, and you’d spent a few college summers there, waitressing at a lobster shack and pulling kitchen shifts at a Camden bistro. When your parents floated plans to build a lofted barn with a nice attached kitchen for entertaining, you made a suggestion: What if they built a really nice kitchen and you ran a cooking school out of it, with a demonstration farm on the rest of the property?
Your parents signed on, and so you laid the foundations while working your motley New York food jobs. You visited Lincolnville as the kitchen was built, wrote a business plan, acquired insurance and licenses. By 2008, you were traveling to Maine nearly every weekend, and the next year, you moved onto your parents’ property to open Salt Water Farm Cooking School.
The farm-to-table movement was in its infancy then, and you wanted to show the world that it was more than a passing trend. The problem with food in America, you believed then and still do, is that most people are alienated from the origins of what appears on their plate. They don’t understand what it takes for a farmer or forager or fisherman to bring a cow or carrot or cod to market, and so they devalue the work of these producers. Supporting sustainable, non-industrial food production means eating what’s organic and locally available — and that means knowing what’s locally available and how to turn it into meals. Too many people are afraid of their own kitchens, you feel, so you set out to teach them simple techniques like how to bake bread, butcher a chicken, forage what’s edible along the Maine coast, and more.
Sometimes, a thing can feel right even when it doesn’t start smoothly. The cooking school had hiccups in its first year. It rained straight through July that summer, wreaking havoc on your vegetables and herbs, and you felt like the world’s worst farmer. You launched a series of monthly full-moon suppers, and during the first one, as guests sat down to a beautiful anelletti pasta dish, one of their cars caught fire outside. Two local fire departments came, and a fire truck got stuck in a ditch in the driveway of your parents’ property. You organized a glamorous, four-day teach-in with rockstar chefs from New York, and it filled up — even earned a mention in The New York Times. But the students were mostly deep-pocketed NYC foodies, and the chefs stayed up late, drinking, shooting guns at beer cans, leaving cigarette butts lying around. It wasn’t your goal to bring Brooklyn’s tragically hip food scene to the midcoast. It meant a lot to you to embrace Maine as more than a tourist or a summer person. It meant a lot for Maine to embrace you back.
And slowly, over the next few years, you felt that it did. You got to know your neighbors and local farmers in ways you never could during your summertime stints. Your classes filled up — and with a mixture of Mainers and people from away that felt just right. The full-moon suppers became a hit, selling out months in advance when you announced them to your rapidly expanding email list. Your parents’ property took shape as an attractive and successful hobby farm, and when they moved there in 2010, you found a place in Camden and kept running Salt Water Farm from the standalone kitchen on their increasingly idyllic property.
What’s more, you felt that old ambitious energy coming to a boil. Nationally, the farm-to-table movement was gaining steam, and Salt Water Farm was earning praise from big-league food and travel magazines. Food & Wine called you one of the country’s “40 Big Food Thinkers Under 40.” You filmed a pilot for a television show called Escape to Salt Water Farm, and you started looking for ways to expand off your parents’ property.
Then, one afternoon in late 2011, a man representing a national real-estate firm showed up in your kitchen and threw you a curveball. His company was investing in a block of historic buildings in downtown Rockport, he said. One of them, the 1856 Union Hall, needed a ground-floor tenant. So how would you like to run a restaurant?[W]hen Justin Barrett showed up in your kitchen in Lincolnville, you’d already interviewed seven potential chefs and had one in mind for the job. Justin didn’t even come to interview. He was an ex–New York chef who’d given up on restaurants and ran a small farm and supper series in rural Vermont, much like your own full-moon dinners, preparing family-style meals from homegrown ingredients for a couple dozen patrons each month. He’d heard of your success and stopped by for advice.
Today, you describe that meeting by saying that your minds “were like carbon copies of each other.” Justin remembers recognizing you as his “brain twin.” The more you talked, the more you realized you shared not just a passion for food, but a critique of a restaurant industry that privileged convenience, illusions of value, and novelty over food integrity, shared traditions, and sustainability. As you toured your parents’ property, you chatted about your vision for your new restaurant, and within minutes, the two of you were finishing each other’s sentences.
The place you described would recreate the vibe of your monthly suppers by focusing each night on a single meal served on shared platters. You would minimize waste by not stocking for a multi-entrée menu, focusing your saved effort on local and ethical sourcing, on things like baking your own breads and making your own condiments. Moreover, your restaurant would feel like a friend’s welcoming home, where anyone in the community could be comfortable ordering a drink in the morning or coffee at night, where they were free to partake in whatever you happened to be serving that evening. It would be a restaurant that existed to benefit local farmers, foragers, and fishermen as much as its patrons, teaching those patrons to better value those producers.
This would be your contribution to the place where you live, you thought: a restaurant that taught people restaurants could be more.
You didn’t know it then, but the ferocity of his agreement actually made Justin uncomfortable. Usually standoffish, he’d never in his life felt so in synch with anyone so quickly. Restaurants, he believed, were driven by the ignorant desires of consumers and the egos of chefs — not by the thoughtful collaboration of those who cook and those who grow. What the industry needed, he thought, was for diners to abandon the notion that they could have anything they wanted, whenever they wanted it.
Justin told you that he’d studied architecture, so you offered to show him the space. It was full of potential, you both agreed: a stately brick building that nonetheless felt warm, a spacious corner room with all-day light and a breeze coming in off the bay. The real-estate firm would pay to build it out to your specifications — an offer that you couldn’t pass up.
Were you too impulsive in offering the executive chef job to Justin, right there in Rockport? He told you he’d think about it and spent his drive home feeling like your brief time together had excited something in him. He considered the offer for three weeks, during which time you shared long phone conversations. He had his own project going in Vermont, and his fiancée had a great job there. His previous work in restaurants had left him feeling chewed up and spit out. And yet, for weeks, he drove up a mountain to find a cell signal and talk with you — about food, farming, the future — and to him, those conversations felt intimate. He agreed to the job.
You went to Europe together for two weeks, touring farm-restaurant operations that seemed like models for what you wanted to accomplish. You bought Justin’s plane ticket, and when you asked him to sketch his ideal research trip, he listed all the same places that you had in mind. It could have been a disaster — before your rendezvous at the Dublin airport, you’d met just once. Justin didn’t tell you, but he thought of the trip as a way to feel you out, figuring he’d back out if things didn’t go well.
But the trip only amplified your connection. It was like traveling with a sibling or an old pal, except neither of you got on the other’s nerves. Day after day, you ate together and talked excitedly about food and fine-tuned your vision for the restaurant you would call Salt Water Farm.
When it was over, Justin abandoned his farm project, his fiancée left her job, and the two of them moved their lives to midcoast Maine.[T]he staff members you and Justin hired came from all across the country and were something like a dream team. Their résumés included stints at pioneering farm-to-table restaurants like California’s Chez Panisse and New York’s Blue Hill. Most were in their 20s, and most answered a listing you placed on a website dedicated to ideologically driven food jobs. Many had uprooted their lives to come to Maine because they shared your and Justin’s criticisms of the restaurant industry: the avoidable waste, the kowtowing to diners’ whims with no regard for what’s sustainable. When you gathered the staff at the cooking-school kitchen in April of 2013, the excitement — and the camaraderie — was palpable. You felt like a family.
“We believe that when everyone is gathered around the table, eating the same thing, passing the same platters, their experience is enriched with discussions about food and the time and place it represents,” read the manual you circulated that week. “We also strongly believe that a singular ‘Tonight’s Dinner’ menu allows us to be a much more sustainable restaurant. . . . This is much more than a concept. It is an ethos that we all stand strongly behind and try to incorporate into our lives.”
When you opened Salt Water Farm on May 8, you and Justin were already ragged with exhaustion. For weeks, he’d been training, menu-planning, and taking the staff to meet the restaurant’s farmers and suppliers. For months, you’d both been active in the design and preparation of the space. There were loans and financial matters to deal with, and you’d been promoting the restaurant with every resource you had — from tapping your formidable list of culinary and media contacts to dropping by the neighboring boathouse, inviting workers to stop in. Of course, all the while, you’d also been running your ever-more-successful cooking school.
You might have held off until June, when vacationers descend on the midcoast, but it was important to you to show the community that you were a year-round establishment, to signal to your neighbors that this was a place for them and not just for a moneyed summer crowd.
The opening weekend’s execution was spot-on. You opted for a two-night soft opening, inviting friends and contacts and offering the nightly prix fixe menu for free, asking diners what they’d be willing to pay. The room looked stunning, warm and airy and bright, and service went off with surprisingly few hiccups. And Justin? He excelled, turning out beautiful dishes of braised rabbit with green garlic dumplings, roasted turnips, and a head lettuce salad with mustard dressing and herbs.
But sometimes a thing can feel wrong even when it starts well.
How much were people willing to pay for the dinner you served? The answers varied wildly, from $15 to $150. As you wandered the room that weekend, greeting each table and introducing the staff, you heard consistently that the food was superb. Beyond that, feedback ping-ponged in all directions: Shouldn’t there be more choices on the menu? Why didn’t you serve a burger? Was the whole table really supposed to share one big wooden bowl of turnips? What your restaurant needed was live music. What it needed was more imported beer. What it needed were tablecloths.
When the soft-opening weekend was over, you started your full service: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, six days a week. That’s when the trickle of critical feedback became a torrent. Diners pressed you relentlessly with polite suggestions and less-than-polite demands. Didn’t you have a different kind of meat they could substitute for the pork on tonight’s dinner menu? One protein per night, you’d explain, because a beautiful pig is what your supplier had provided. Why was it so expensive if they couldn’t pick what they wanted? They could certainly order off the supplementary small-plates menu, you told them, and $35 for three courses represented the cost of buying meat, cheese, and produce from devoted, small-scale, local producers — rather than shipping it frozen on a wholesaler’s truck from who knows where.
But why couldn’t your breakfast service be more like the diner that had been across the street? And how come there wasn’t any ketchup on your tables? Why couldn’t they get their eggs scrambled instead of poached? How come you didn’t have a vegetarian menu? And really, how come you didn’t serve a burger?
Within a week or two of opening, you found you were spending all of your time doing something like damage control, trying gently to explain that beautiful local eggs cost a lot of money, that scrambling them is like paying for a superb cut of steak and then cooking it well-done. Sometimes you gave up and asked Justin and the kitchen to scramble an egg or two, which ruffled their feathers, since deviating from the day’s menu ate up time and energy they didn’t have. You found you spent much of your time playing peacemaker with either guests or the kitchen, tiptoeing so as not to alienate either one.
But the feedback didn’t stop when you left the restaurant. At the grocery store, acquaintances grabbed you in the milk aisle to say, “You really should expand your menu and lower your prices.” Strangers approached you at the gas station to tell you that you simply must carry sriracha or simply must have a Mexican night. A regular customer set up a meeting on a park bench to tell you that he hadn’t gotten his coffee within 30 seconds of sitting down. Any good restaurant, he said, must deliver coffee within 30 seconds of a guest sitting down.
Within weeks, it started to wear you down. Your singular goal became leaving as few people unhappy as possible. This is a nice place, a guest might tell you, but you can’t be a serious bar without cocktail onions. So you’d run off to Hannaford to buy cocktail onions. The restaurant would run out of house-baked croissants at breakfast, so out you’d run for more croissants. Before long, you were sometimes making four or five desperate trips to Hannaford in a day.
This bothered Justin — Justin who was badly overworked. Three meals a day right out of the gate was absurdly demanding. But it was part of the terms of your lease and, what’s more, part of your vision for a community space. He powered through the long hours. What he couldn’t understand was why, when you ran out of croissants, you didn’t simply stop selling croissants. There would be more tomorrow. Wasn’t the restaurant’s whole identity built around simplicity, minimal purchasing, and not trying to please everyone?
But Justin didn’t grasp the stress you were under — the anxiety, the insomnia, the knowledge that you were, in fact, not pleasing enough people, that finances were precarious. He didn’t understand having to smile at guest after guest, explaining that, yes, there really was just one entrée, or that, no, you’d run out of bread for the day, and that this was simply a necessary evil to minimize waste. He didn’t understand the toll it took to have people put their hand on your shoulder and tell you your restaurant was too exclusive, your staff too hip looking, your menu too fancy, when all you’d wanted was to honor local farmers and create a welcoming space. He didn’t understand the impact of phone calls from neighbors saying, “This wasn’t the restaurant we wanted you to open,” when you’d worked so hard to be accepted by those neighbors, to show you weren’t just some New Yorker playing farmer on her parents’ land.
Justin didn’t understand that it just wasn’t working. And at the end of your first month, he didn’t understand it when you told him you were abandoning the single-meal concept that the two of you had conceived.[S]omething else you remember about those first few months: the feeling that you’d let everyone down. In the evenings, you smiled your way across the dining room, but your heart was gripped with fear. Your costs were high; you needed more revenue. At staff meetings, you put on your calmest face and said things like, “There are things we’re not getting right. We just need to figure out what they are.”
But you knew your staff saw you backpedaling on your vision, all of these people who had picked up their lives to come join you in Maine, and that broke your heart. Justin didn’t say much, but he didn’t have to. When you told him you were changing the menu’s format, he stared at you and said, “But that was the whole point of this thing.” You knew it would mean more variables, that he’d have to rethink all his systems and logistics, but you didn’t see any other way. You’d printed your mission statement on the menu. You’d asked your farmers to talk to their friends, spread the word, fight for your cause. But it wasn’t changing people’s perceptions.
There was nothing left of the warrior in you. The collapse of your confidence happened so fast it left you reeling. By June, you were so bombarded with outside opinions and ideals that your own had simply been steamrolled. So you abandoned the prix fixe concept and redesigned the menu with more options. You did away with baking bread in-house. You had a Mexican night. You stocked ketchup and scrambled eggs.
And all the while, you knew Justin felt betrayed. In your staff’s eyes, you knew you were becoming what they hated about restaurants, what they thought they’d left behind. The atmosphere at the restaurant became strained, and you took refuge in your cooking-school classes.
You felt indescribably alone.
Then, for a few hours one Sunday afternoon, the clouds seemed to lift. It was July 14, Bastille Day, and the restaurant was hosting a party — a special brunch you and Justin had planned during your European trip, what seemed like ages before. Justin had prepared a menu of roasted poussin (small young chickens) with peas and spring onions, along with stations serving oysters, charcuterie, and more. The food was breathtaking. You hired a local string band to play Quebecois music, and some 100 people were dancing and laughing and playing pétanque outside. It was the sunniest, breeziest day of the summer, and the whole restaurant felt pregnant with life and music and activity.
Your staff had been working so hard. Justin had lost 20 pounds since the day you opened. So in honor of Bastille Day, you waived the alcohol policy and, after brunch service, encouraged everyone to have some champagne. People were laughing, feeling loose. One of your managers was gliding around on roller skates. You remember feeling the family vibe that you hadn’t felt since gathering around the cooking-school table back in April.
As the day wore on and guests started trickling out, someone tapped your shoulder and told you the chef wanted to speak with you downstairs. When you walked into the basement, you found Justin waiting there, clearly upset. You didn’t realize it, but for all the fun the staff was having, he’d felt unappreciated all day. His kitchen staff had risen to the occasion, Justin said. They’d gone above and beyond to pull this off, at a time when things were in crisis, and he thought they deserved more gratitude than they’d been shown.
Standing in the restaurant’s dim cellar, surrounded by construction materials, the two of you laid out everything you’d been feeling. Neither of you like to talk about what was said that day, but it was raw and emotional. When Justin came upstairs, he was flush and flustered and quickly left the restaurant. You walked outside and down to the water, where you stood by yourself a while. You stared out at the dark stretch of the Atlantic along which you’d chosen to make your home.
The next morning, Justin came in, and with tears in your eyes, you told him, “I’m so sorry. I have to fire you.” He left without saying much, and the two of you haven’t spoken since.
The guests kept coming that day — and the day after, and the day after that. You promoted your sous chef, who ran things ably for the rest of the summer. But by fall, of those 25 staffers who’d sat around the table with you in April, who had been drawn here by your vision, only two or three remained.[S]ometimes, a thing that feels wrong can be made right again with patience, humility, and sacrifice.
Altering the structure of the menu? It made a big difference. Even before that first summer ended, guests were approaching you to say, “Hey, you’re on the right track.” The change, you realize today, wasn’t even that substantial — you were serving the same food, just presented in list form for diners to choose from, rather than as a single option. If you’ve learned nothing else from three years as a restaurateur, it is just how far a little familiarity can go.
But you have learned more than that. You say now that it was presumptuous of you to think you could evangelize from your restaurant, as if it were a preacher’s pulpit. The culture of a restaurant isn’t the culture of a supper club or a cooking school, you explain today — people don’t come to learn, they come to enjoy themselves.
And while it’s okay — even necessary — to have high ideals, you also need to listen and adapt. You need to silence the tiny gymnast in your head who’s so afraid of failure that she sees it in harmless compromises.
After a slow winter, you went into 2014 with a new attitude and a new chef. The two of you met every week to ask each other, how can we do things better? What can we tweak? Together, you built a new and more recognizable menu: You included multiple protein options, along with approachable New England comfort foods — smoked fish, brown bread, baked beans — that matched your simple, local, sustainable ethic. You included a Sunday brunch service during which your kitchen devotes itself to cooking eggs a dozen different ways. You included a burger — and lo and behold, it is a terrific burger. You eat it all the time.
By offering more options than your initial vision allowed, you actually increased the numbers of local producers that you work with, from 30-something to 50-something.
But the hardest part of your comeback story? Swallowing your pride and literally going door to door, new menus in hand, asking your community to give you a second chance. In the spring of 2014, you walked into beauty parlors and bars and bookshops — nearly every storefront in Camden, Belfast, and Rockland. You put on your sweetest Midwestern smile and said some version of, “We are not what you may have heard we are.” It was painful but necessary. You handed out business cards with stickers offering free drinks. You invited every B&B owner in the area for a free dinner. You wanted to show them, more than ever, this was truly their place, and that you understood that in ways you might not have before.
Earlier this summer, as you headed into the restaurant’s third year, it dawned on you that you were finally running the kind of place you had always wanted to run, the one that feels like a friend’s comfortable home. It’s not too often anymore that someone says, “I heard some negative things about this place, and none of them are true” — but boy, did that feel good to hear for a while. Sure, running the restaurant is still an exhausting, one-day-at-a-time, emotional roller coaster. You still have staff turnover, you still have slow nights, and you still run to Hannaford from time to time. You know that nearly 60 percent of restaurants don’t last three years, and you are not out of the woods yet. Last year, you closed for three months in winter; this year, you closed for fall too. The closures are a departure from your original vision, a reminder that your vision is still evolving.
But everything evolves. That’s the restaurant business for you.
You don’t feel like a warrior these days, but you know you’re making an impact. Business is booming at the cooking school, where you’re adding classes and thinking of bringing on a full-time assistant. The full-moon suppers still sell out, and you’re working on a cookbook for a popular boutique publisher. Lately, you’ve been thinking about writing a letter to Justin. It’s been more than two years since your fallout on Bastille Day. You heard he moved back to Vermont and revived his farm-supper series. You hope he’s doing well.
Annemarie Ahearn contributes recipes to the magazine.