A Former Goop Editor, a Maine Island, Two Cafés, and a Lot of Bad Blood

Ana Hito came to Vinalhaven last summer with a vision. But when the young, hard-charging restaurateur bucked community expectations, tempers on the island flared.

ana hito on vinalhaven
Ana Hito, left, with a staffer and a friend last summer, on Vinalhaven.
By Lindsay Crudele
Photos by Isabel Butler
From our June 2023 Island Issue

One evening last summer, music drifted out the open front door of Sonya, on Vinalhaven’s Main Street. The restaurant was hosting a private event — a birthday party. Guests clinked glasses, slurped oysters, and tore off hunks of crusty bread. Then, a few hours into the party, a man parked his white pickup out front and left it running. The exhaust wafting into the restaurant seemed to carry a pungent message: Go home. Soon after, the driver, Rob Miller, posted an open letter to Sonya’s owner, Ana Hito, on a community Facebook page. Miller, a Texas-based lawyer and part-time islander, wrote, “You owe the people who live on Vinalhaven an apology . . . . You have been arrogant and disrespectful to the working folks who call this amazing place home.” He accused Hito of a range of offenses, from liquor-law violations to food-safety issues, and he concluded, “I almost feel sorry for you that you missed the opportunity to understand and appreciate what this place is — almost.”

A month earlier, Hito had opened both Sonya and Bernice, a café just down the street. “I just thought it would be really nice to bring a little bit more life into the Main Street,” she says. “Not just, like, life that you see anywhere, but life that represents the life that lives in Vinalhaven.” Hito says she’d wander the island in search of atmospheric inspiration for ingredients and décor. “Is it the moss? Is it the evergreens? Is it the smell of the ocean? Is it all of it combined?” she would muse. “How are we going to translate that into a space?” At Sonya, the result of that questing was $85-per-person servings of roast chicken, salads, and bread, among a rotating cast of other locally sourced dishes. 

I’ve been a summer visitor on Vinalhaven for the better part of two decades, contributing to the seasonal quadrupling of the population, from about 1,000 to 4,000. One day last July, my husband ducked into what we remembered as Downstreet Market, an old standby for a quick lunch.  When he emerged, he commented that something was different. Our broccolini-and-hummus sandwiches were wrapped quaintly in parchment and twine, and the bill, with two iced teas, came to $50. That was Bernice.

Vinalhaven is a 75-minute ferry ride from Rockland, and Sonya and Bernice joined a downtown that had a grocery, a post office, some shops, and a library, plus a few low-key spots for lobster rolls, burgers, and pizza. Fine dining was nothing new to the island. Dot & Millie’s has filled that niche for several years, and other upscale restaurants have come and gone over the years. None ever struck a nerve like Hito’s. 

ana hito on vinalhaven
Ana Hito, outside her Vinalhaven restaurant Sonya. Photographer Isabel Butler worked for Hito on the island.

Judging from social media, Hito’s Vinalhaven was a rural idyll. On her Instagram, a tower of sandwiches awaits a picnic. A dog lounges amid cut flowers in the back of a station wagon bathed in waning daylight. Lobsters are boiled steps from breaking waves. One moment, she’s astride her Vespa, zipping through a golden field. Another, she’s standing on Main Street, beaming through fog and rain. She recalls a young Martha Stewart, all serenity and simplicity.

But her whirlwind three months in business on Vinalhaven proved neither serene nor simple. Discontent simmered to the surface — everywhere from newsstands to social media to Reddit — but many islanders who interacted with her were reluctant to rehash last summer’s events, eager to leave them behind. Those who did discuss them described a tense, painful episode in island history. People were frustrated, angry, and more than a little bewildered. Who was this unconventional entrepreneur? What did she want to accomplish? And why did the community feel so rattled?

Hito traces her origins to another island, Polynesia’s Rapa Nui — also known as Easter Island — some 5,500 miles away, in the South Pacific. Her parents met in Los Angeles, and growing up, Hito spent time on Rapa Nui, where her father is from, and in New York’s Hudson Valley, where her mother is from. She says she was kicked out of boarding school when she was 17, then decided to start a dinner series on a small farm her family owns in the Hudson Valley. Her grandfather, she says, was a “big developer,” and the property was just “lying around.” 

The barn dinners proved a hit with weekenders up from the city, and through a series of personal connections, she wound up with a job in Los Angeles as a food editor for Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow’s popular wellness and media brand that has taken flak for pushing some dubious products: coffee enemas, for instance. Hito kept the dinner series going, flying back and forth from LA, then left the job after four years. Afterward, she parlayed her Goop cachet into personal partnerships with upmarket brands, including J. Crew, DÔEN, and Frank & Eileen, modeling for fashion campaigns and cross-promoting them through her social media. She had never run a restaurant when, at 25 years old, she opened the two on Vinalhaven.

Hito started visiting Vinalhaven a few years earlier, boating over from neighboring North Haven (where she stayed again with friends last summer). Over time, she had befriended Sharon Mrozinski, who owns a Main Street antique shop and splits time between Vinalhaven and France. Early last year, Mrozinski met Hito for dinner in New York. Over the course of the meal, Hito hatched plans for Sonya and Bernice.

“I love what Ana did,” Mrozinski says. “I love her spirit. I love her talent. I love her fight.” But Mrozinski couldn’t ignore the backlash that built throughout the summer. “She came in and really ruffled the feathers of a lot of people.”

At first, local consensus was that filling empty storefronts could only be a good thing. And in a place where a nose-to-the-grindstone attitude is valued, Hito’s hustle was apparent. “She would send me random texts: ‘Do you have 100?’” recalled Adam Campbell, a North Haven oyster farmer. “I didn’t know who it was. And then she could come in, like, no talking, just throw money in the box and disappear, wheels screeching. She was just on fire, you know, running around, making this restaurant happen.”

But Vinalhaven residents also put a great deal of stock in modesty. On an island awash with wealthy summer people, showiness is nonetheless taboo. In Hito’s case, islanders perceived some early red flags: Instead of recruiting staff locally, she brought in past collaborators on her dinner series from across the country. She enlisted other uncommon resources too: chartering a flight to Augusta to file last-minute paperwork with the state, or flying in supplies rather than, like other island businesses, using the ferry. Then, a camera crew — an atypical Main Street spectacle — arrived on Vinalhaven to shoot Hito for a Cole Haan ad campaign.

Hito chatting with Foy Brown, owner of Brown’s Boatyard, on North Haven. She lived on North Haven last summer, boating over to Vinalhaven for work.

There was also the matter of the food. Lucian Burg, formerly a chef at San Francisco’s acclaimed Zuni Café, cooked at a Vinalhaven restaurant, The Haven, every summer from 1984 to 1991 and now owns a home on the island. “Ana had a lot of good ideas,” Burg says, “but I didn’t feel like the food that came out was that well executed. One day, we went into Ana’s and there were salads just sitting out kind of wilted on the shelf. It’s not what you expect in a good restaurant.”

The staff at Sonya, he noted, seemed poorly trained. “I’ve been around a lot of restaurants in my life, highly functioning restaurants . . . I didn’t feel any of that,” he says. “I felt that she just didn’t have the deep experience that makes these things come naturally.”

Hito, certainly not the first restaurateur to get off to a rocky start, blames some of the difficulties on her landlords. Sonya’s space was billed as a turnkey restaurant — “no investment” and “everything you need,” an advertisement read. But Hito says the range hood hadn’t been inspected and thus couldn’t legally be operated, so she was only able to serve baked and cold-prepped foods. (The owner of the building didn’t respond to requests for comment.) At Bernice, Hito says, the landlord had promised a working kitchen, but when she moved in, the kitchen had been stripped of most equipment. The owner says Hito knew equipment was being moved out. Regardless, to serve food at Bernice, Hito had to get a catering license, allowing her to shuttle food over from Sonya.

The community anticipated two fully functioning new restaurants. But even if Hito inherited two operational kitchens, she had different ideas. “I don’t think of myself as a chef,” she says. “But, like, a person who is creating a feeling in a space.” To her, Sonya and Bernice weren’t so much restaurants as extensions of her old dinner series. “Can it just be something that I can create in a different place wherever I go?” she wanted to find out. “It all just kind of happened super quick. And that was that.”

The breakneck pace that first looked like hustle had started to look like heedlessness to some islanders — a my-way-or-the-highway disregard for local rules and conventions. Hito butted heads often with Faye Grant, the town’s code-enforcement officer. “We were all excited to have new restaurants,” Grant says, “but you must follow proper channels.”

When Hito served oysters on a bed of foraged moss, Grant gave her a verbal warning — it was unsafe because a dog or human could have peed on the moss, she said. Grant also alleged that Sonya’s outdoor seating, for which Hito did not get the necessary permission from the town, blocked the sidewalk to an extent that violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. And although the town requires a license to serve alcohol at sidewalk tables, Sonya, which was a bring-your-own establishment, sold tickets for a dinner that included a complimentary cocktail. At one point, Grant ordered Hito to stop work, because Hito hadn’t provided copies of food-safety certification, fire inspection, and other licensing.

Apart from the regulatory trouble, prospective customers bridled at Sonya’s unforgiving cancellation policy, which required prepayment in full, no refunds. Others saw in Hito’s decision not to use sugar — or even to offer it for coffee — a lifestyle judgment. In my conversations with her, she didn’t mince words when it came to nutrition. “If you eat shit, you think like shit,” she said. “Like, if you’re eating terrible nutrients for you, you can’t possibly have an evolved mental capacity.”

When a post about island life, laced with insults and sexual gossip, appeared on the personal blog of one of Hito’s employees, matters were made worse. The employee deleted the post, but not before it had been shared around Vinalhaven, angering many in the community who might not have had strong feelings about Hito and her staff before then. Goodwill toward Sonya and Bernice only waned from there.

Hito says she still doesn’t understand why the community didn’t embrace her project. Her efforts could, she thought, only be a positive for the island. “Most towns and states and places have a whole tourism board where they have to like, pay for things like this to happen,” she says. “They don’t want to be found, but they’re disgruntled because nobody sees them.”

Hito felt bullied and says she picked up on racism, ageism, and sexism, but she didn’t provide specific examples. In September, Hito closed up shop and left Vinalhaven. In an Instagram story, she superimposed the words “See you next year!” across an island tableau.

“I’m proud and happy with everything that we did,” she says, “especially the fact that we were able to produce amazing content.”

Content, some on the island had started to suspect, was actually what Sonya and Bernice were all about. “It really was a sort of aggressively narcissistic project that was not really in tune with the expectations or needs or hopes or desires or hungers of the community,” says John Feingold, who ran the restaurant Salt, a previous occupant of the Sonya space.

“It just seemed like more of a production than anything else,” says Phil Crossman, a local innkeeper whose family traces back to the island’s first settlers.

Hito could hardly disagree. The promotional shoots, she says, bankrolled her restaurant operations — on their own, restaurants generally don’t make money for at least several years. At one point, Hito emailed town officials threatening legal action if Grant didn’t ease up. Photo and video content, she wrote, is “the life blood for my various endeavors.” She came from a family of lawyers, she added, and they were helping her enlist counsel. 

She never did sue, and she says her summer was, ultimately, profitable. “I put on a performance, and I had a really enjoyable time,” she says. “Yeah, I had big camera crews come in, and I shot big campaigns. That’s what I do.”

But profit is hardly the only measure of success, from islanders’ vantage. “I don’t think there’s one person who would say we don’t want to see businesses in those buildings on Main Street,” says Kris Davidson, a real-estate agent who owns Skål, an island bar and music venue. “What makes this place tick is about understanding the way it works and being a part of a community. It’s not just about getting the food from a place, it’s understanding the place where the food is grown.”

Last fall, the Cole Haan video appeared on Hito’s Instagram. It opened with an ad slogan — “Work for what you believe in” — and included wispy scenes of Hito scribbling a menu on Sonya’s window, lighting candles, and modeling Cole Haan boots.

In December, the Portland Press Herald ran a story about Hito’s time on Vinalhaven. In it, a local sign maker alleged that Hito wrote him a bad check. (She told me it was an accounting error and that he refused her offer to cut another check.) “I would love to say they were lovely people trying to do something good,” an island seafood supplier told the paper, “but it . . . turned into something completely different.”

Hito, who’s also a brand partner to Auberge Resorts, was slated to put on a $175-per-person fundraiser dinner for LifeFlight of Maine — the air-ambulance service — at Auberge’s White Barn Inn, in Kennebunkport, but the event was canceled at the last minute. Hito says a large group pulled out on short notice. 

Over the course of the off-season, she sounded less and less likely to reboot Sonya or Bernice. She went back to Rapa Nui, posting photos of herself riding horses, camping in caves, and cooking freshly speared fish. She has been toying with the idea of a project on North Haven. “I don’t believe in the future,” she told me.

Whatever she tackles next, whether in Maine or somewhere else entirely, she aims to do it her way. “It’s my money, it’s my time, it’s my experience,” she said, as a storm in the South Pacific rattled our call connection. “If you resonate with that, then you resonate with that. And if you don’t, then you don’t. You’re never going to please everybody, so you might as well please yourself.”

Still, she admitted that last summer could have gone better —  that she missed signals about what the community wanted. “Doing things wrong is incredible,” she told me. “You learn so much more than when you do things right.”

April 2024, Down East Magazine

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