Taking a Simple Approach
By Kathleen Mellen
Tucked away in the tiny Franklin County town of Montague (population 8,437), is the Alvah Stone, a small-burg restaurant with a big-world sensibility — one that it comes by honestly.
Owner Howard Wein has been a major player in the hospitality business for many a year. Since receiving an MBA in hotel and restaurant administration from Cornell University in 1999, he’s built an impressive résumé, launching the W hotel chain and opening big restaurants, like Buddakan and Iron Chef Morimoto, both in New York City, as well as others across the country.
Most recently, Wein, 45, founder and president of Howard Wein Hospitality, created 10 restaurants and bars in eight months for the Diplomat Beach Resort. He finished that job in late April, when he launched establishment number 10 — Monkitail, an izakaya-style Japanese restaurant.
It’s been very exciting (and exhausting), Wein says, but all that corporate work has been for other people. He wanted to create a home where his heart is — in Montague, with his wife, Jennifer, their 8-year-old daughter, Lyla, 7-month-old son, Simon, and, for the past three years, his other baby, the Alvah Stone.
“I love this part of the world,” said Wein, who graduated in 1995 from Hampshire College, where he met Jennifer. “We wanted to come back, but, professionally, I was doing such amazing things. It was impossible to figure out how to ride the career wave from here. Finally we said, ‘we’re not going to figure it out. We’re just going to do it.’”
So they moved to Montague, and Wein set up an office next door to the Night Kitchen, a restaurant at 440 Greenfield Road. When that establishment closed in 2013, he decided it was time to create a restaurant of his own. So, in 2014, he signed a lease and opened the Alvah Stone.
“This is the only restaurant I’ve ever done that’s really, truly a reflection of me,” Wein told BusinessWest. “I’m everywhere. I did the design. I hired all the people. Doing this keeps me fresh, keeps me focused on the things that really drive success in this business, which is keeping an eye on quality and building a really strong culture of excellence.”
Wein shares the building with the Montague Bookmill, a popular bookstore whose tongue-in-cheek motto is “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.” And though the restaurant, like the bookstore, is decidedly out of the way, customers have increasingly beaten a path to its door, in search of its signature, all-local food offerings; creative, crafted cocktails; and spectacular view (the restaurant is perched high above the rushing Sawmill River).
They also find old-school hospitality.
“We have a simple approach,” Wein said. “The best thing you can do to build your business is to make sure that every single plate that goes out is great, and that every interaction is satisfying.”
The restaurant, which seats 65 inside and 40 on an a deck, weather permitting, is open seven days a week, from noon to 10 p.m., for lunch and dinner, and brunch on Sundays, year-round.
“In a destination like this,” Wein said, “you don’t want people wondering if you’re open. If you change the hours all the time, you’re going to lose people.”
Reservations are accepted, but the restaurant is never fully booked in advance, leaving room for those who stop by unannounced. “If you fully book, that’s the same as being closed to someone who just drove all the way here.”
The Alvah Stone is named for the first owner of the mill, which was constructed in 1834. It’s a name that firmly cements the restaurant in the building’s history, Wein says. “I didn’t want a trendy or hokey name — that’s not who we are. The Alvah Stone has strength. It’s unique to the place and to the story of where we are.”
That attention to detail extends to naming cocktails, too. Each is inspired by the history of the building, the geographic location, or a literary reference. Take the Seldom Heard, for example, which features bison grass vodka, maurin quina (a French aperitif), cashew, coconut, lime, and cardamom.
“We were working with this rye vodka from Poland, infused with bison grass, so we went for a theme based on lyrics to the song “Home on the Range” (“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam …’),” explained bar manager Lincoln Allen, one of 25 employees.
Wein says it’s important that his employees, like Allen, share in the restaurant’s creativity. “We have fun going back and forth about the cocktail names,” Wein said. “If there’s no creative process, then creative people don’t stay. And if we lose creative people, then we don’t have the product we want here.”
Wein calls his food “authentic American,” and says he puts the emphasis on quality and comfort. “We want to be known as one of the best restaurants in the Valley, but definitely not one of the most pretentious. Or serious.”
The menu, which is driven by chef Dave Schrier’s creative juices, features snacks and smaller items, like the li’l pork belly sandwich on a brioche roll with Alabama white sauce, iceberg lettuce, and a pickle; and beets with pickled shiitake mushrooms, toasted seeds, crispy wheat berry, and crème fraîche. Entrées on the menu that changes daily might include an Alvah Stone burger on an English muffin with onion marmalade, mayo, cheddar, and a pickle; and seed-crusted cod, served with a ramp condiment, coconut milk, and sorrel. Desserts and cocktails, wine, and “really local” beers are always available, too.
“The idea of the menu and the pricing is flexibility,” Wein said. “If you want to have a beer and a warm, soft pretzel, you can spend $15. Or you can eat traditionally, where you have a couple of snacks, and everyone gets their own entrée.”
Menu items are also determined by what’s fresh. Most vegetables come from the Kitchen Garden in Sunderland and other local farms, and there are also a number of foragers who pop in — including one who arrived on a recent afternoon carrying a tray piled high with pungent ramps.
“We don’t have a green salad with cucumbers and tomatoes unless it’s August or September,” Wein said. “You won’t get a bad tomato on a burger, ever, and we won’t give you mesclun mix from California.”
The biggest challenge to owning a restaurant is reacting to things you can’t control, Wein says, like rising wages and health-insurance costs for employees. “We’re in favor of always trying to improve the quality of life for workers, at any and all levels, but it’s really difficult when you have a small business.”
And then, there’s the weather. “The deck is an incredible setting, but if it rains every Saturday, it cuts the traffic down, and you’re talking about a dramatic impact on our year.”
But there are plenty of pluses as well, he added.
Before he opened, Wein composed a list of goals: to be a place where people want to work, to be the best restaurant in the Valley, and to have an incredible commitment to hospitality.
And he thinks he’s achieved all three.