The news that Paul Hanley is shuttering the Blue Heron Cafe has rocked the world of restaurant devotees of Chestertown and beyond. Not just because the BHC has been a staple of the Chestertown dining scene for 20 years, but because it is one less dining option in an area already lacking in that resource. The subject of the rapidly dwindling state of dining venues in our County Seat is being discussed all over town, and hopefully the idea that C’town could support a new eating place – or two! – will reach the ears of some young, energetic entrepreneur who is ready to make the move to the world of restaurant owner-operator. The healthier the dining scene, the more they will come – diners and employees both. Such a lack is not only hard on the hungry, it’s hard on the current crop of restaurateurs, since a lack of job opportunities does not necessarily bring in a lot of job seekers. But that discussion is for another day. Today we are going back in time.
Paul deserves a lot of credit for taking what was already a very vibrant restaurant and keeping it on that track for another two decades. The picture at the top of the page was taken of that first restaurant we started, the Ironstone Cafe, in April of 1987, 9 months after our opening on Cannon Street in July of 1986. We were young and naive, but we also recognized that we would be able to stand on the shoulders of giants of our industry, from whom we benefited much, and which would serve us in good stead in our new community.
Both of us had been working in the restaurant business for some 10 or 15 years already, in Baltimore, San Francisco, Annapolis, and we translated much of what we had learned from others – both the good and the bad – into our own business model. Our vision may have been a little grand for Chestertown in the late 80’s (creme caramel? bread made in-house? a small menu, sourcing local ingredients and changing with the seasons? how curious!), but it worked. We took off and for 10 years there was barely any looking back.
We had some good times there, and some good people were involved in our success. For instance, Eugene Bethel, who Paul credits on his FaceBook page. He has stayed on with Paul – as did much of our long-tenured staff, when Paul bought the business from us in 1997 – and remains one of the best people we have ever worked with.
We ran into Eugene recently at the Acme, and he looks just the same!
The kitchen at the Ironstone was teeny tiny teeny. As mentioned in the caption above, the dish area was the prep area, the line was maybe 6 feet long, the pot sink backed up on the salad station and the dishwasher, and the place was hot. (When we first opened we had no real wall dividing the kitchen door from the dining area – just a hand-made lattice screen! – which made for some really bad tables in the upper dining area! It wasn’t until a year or so into it that the LandLord allowed us to build a real wall to separate the two spaces.) That miniature kitchen was not a threat to Kevin however; he did his thing with his professional and creative training on full throttle.
Besides serving lunch and dinner five days a week, we did two major events every year out of that little kitchen – a celebration of the restaurant’s birthday each July and a prix-fixe dinner (prix-fixe? how curious!) on New Year’s Eve. Both were sell-outs. The Anniversary parties were held as a fund-raiser for a different local non-profit each year, from the Humane Society to 4-H, but the New Year’s Eve dinners were definitely for profit, and it was definitely our biggest night of the year. All of this took place long before the days of Instagram and FaceBook, not to mention phones that serve as cameras, so I have very few pictures of the food we served, but here are two shots of some plates as they were getting ready to go out to the diners on a couple of those Big Nights:
The things Kevin and his crew wrought out of that kitchen would be impressive even today!
We took the show on the road a couple of times, most notably to the annual “Taste of Maryland, held in Annapolis at the Governor’s mansion:
This was in March of 1992, where Kevin’s table displays an Ironstone tee shirt, a copy of the menu as well as a couple of pieces of Ironstone china, from which the restaurant got its name. That china – from a collection of my parents – decorated the sills at the Ironstone and continued to grow for many years.
Family was extremely important back in those early days and forever after. My brother worked the line and the bar for several months, his wife worked the floor. (Both have some stories to tell about those experiences!) My parents were regulars, and Kevin’s brother John came to visit so often – whether to help as needed or just to hang out – that he knew all the staff as well as we did.
My father loved to tell the story on his sister Frances, who, for several years, refused to come into the new restaurant run by her niece, because said niece was not married to the man she not only ran a business with but also lived (in sin) with. My father told her not to worry, “they don’t need your five dollars”. Eventually however, we won her over. The fact that everyone she knew was coming to the Ironstone probably had something to do with her conversion…
We had some great times and we worked with some great people, another of whom is owed a boatload of gratitude for bringing to us one of the most famous menu items of all time.
Sylvia Sherry came to work with Kevin relatively early on, and one day she brought in a recipe suggestion for the menu – an oyster fritter that she had made in her prior life. She and Kevin tweaked it, it went on the menu and it never left. It stayed behind with Paul and Eugene – after all, Eugene had the recipe! – and while we took it with us to our next two projects, we have always given credit to Sylvia for bringing that now iconic dish into our
mouths lives. Another example of standing on the shoulders of giants! I will post the recipe in my next installment (once I figure out how to link to a PDF….).
(Don’t you love that peek in the old Ironstone Kitchen, with the sign on the door for “in” and “out”? I wonder how many crashes occurred before we thought to put that up?)
Lots of other cooks passed through those doors, including these two:
Standing with Kevin is Chuck Reeser, a reliable member of the local restaurant scene at the time, and a very young Jeff Carroll, now the owner-operator of the very successful Fish Whistle. This picture was taken in late 1995, shortly after we opened the Kennedyville Inn. Chuck was the newly minted Chef of the Ironstone and Jeff was his sous-chef. Eventually Jeff moved to the KVI with Kevin, but for awhile he and Chuck were manning the stoves at the Ironstone while Kevin was up in Kennedyville starting a second business.
That second business is why the Ironstone became available to Paul. We had tried to get out of our lease – I think we had only a few years left, but it was enough and the LandLord would not let us go – and so we went ahead and thought, why not? We can run two places. We just need to get a Chef for the IC. Well, that was not so easy – we first hired a fellow from Washington DC, who lasted all of ten minutes in rural Kent County, then a local cook who quickly came to the realization that working for us was not his cup of tea. Finally we were able to get someone who understood the game plan and for eighteen months we worked both jobs. It was an absolute nightmare. We had purposefully made the KVI a completely different type of restaurant from the IC – featuring BBQ, no reservations, no white tablecloths, no tipping – so as to not cannibalize the existing business. We did not take any of our IC staff with us – although in hind-sight, we should have – because we knew that we needed our already experienced employees to stay with the Mothership to help her new captain keep her afloat. But it proved to be too much. We are too hands on. We traveled back and forth from one to the other, primarily putting out fires. After too many tumultuous events, about a year in, we fired the dining room manager at the IC , which then meant that I would work day time at KVI, making desserts, come work the dinner service at the Ironstone and then go back to Kennedyville to help with nightly closing there. There were several months of 90 hour weeks for me during November and December of 1996, and so, in early 1997 we stopped serving lunch at the Ironstone. We promoted one of our most senior servers to Manager and life became a little saner. Finally in August of that year, Paul and Kevin had a conversation at one of the Martial Arts classes they both attended and the rest is history. Paul saved our lives and we handed our fully-staffed, fully-equipped and fully-established restaurant over to him for something like $57 grand. We couldn’t have been happier!
There are many, many more stories, many more people and pictures, many more things to be grateful for. We had a lot of help getting started in our quest for success, from my mother the realtor who steered us to the property originally, to Kevin’s dad who loaned us the initial funds when the local banks refused to take a chance on the two newbies, to our previous co-workers who offered advice and invaluable support. And a lot of people thought we’d never make it. Not on Cannon Street, of all places. Not with our menu ideas. Not in Chestertown. Not ever. But Cross Street was bringing change to Cannon Street and Kevin was changing Chestertown’s thoughts about food. Before you knew it, weekends were booked up a week in advance and we were saving money so we could buy our own building and be our own landlords.
That is a whole other tale to tell!