The Alvah Stone Creates Cuisine for Every PalateHoward Wein is sitting at a copper-topped table positioned directly above the Saw Mill River in the Alvah Stone restaurant in Montague. The view of the waterfall rushing over a rocky surface below is mesmerizing, and the blues music that echoes softly throughout the historic, carefully apportioned structure was carefully chosen by him to enhance the atmosphere.
“We want this to become known as a community-based neighborhood restaurant that is also the best restaurant in the Valley,” said Wein, who opened his eatery a year ago. “But it’s not a special-occasion place. It’s very casual and very comfortable, and we are providing a service and resource to the community that didn’t exist. We are focused on appealing to different people for different reasons at different times of the week, which is why we have such a flexible menu.”
The restaurant is only one of Wein’s undertakings (more about that later). But it brings together everything he has learned in his career, which includes extensive experience in some of the most competitive markets in the restaurant and hospitality arenas.
“I’ve always wanted a brick-and-mortar business in the community, and this is my dream space,” he said. “You could put this restaurant anywhere in the world, and people would find the setting absolutely spectacular. It’s the most unique location within an hour in any direction.”
Preserving the Past
Wein conducted an in-depth study of the building’s history before renovating the interior, as he felt it was important to retain its character. It is one of several establishments in the historic Montague Mill, including the Montague Bookmill and the Sawmill River Arts Gallery.
“Many different things happened in this building,” Wein told BusinessWest. “In addition to being a grist mill, the logo for Louisville Slugger bats used to be stamped on them here, and it was once home to Martin Machine Shop. But the mill was built in 1834 by Alvah Stone, so I took his name for my restaurant.”
He also kept original machinery related to the gristmill’s operation, some of which is still embedded in the floor, and added a few other historic pieces. But he also injected a modern flair into the space, which can be seen in details such as the citron color of the drink menu, which was created to match the hue of the overhead light fixtures.
Wein also built a bar that serves fine wines and draft beer, including Alvah Stone Ale, made for the restaurant by Lefty’s Brewery in Greenfield, as well as a full stock of liquor.
The Alvah Stone was designed to appeal to a wide audience, and its menus include the best meat and produce that can be found in the region, Wein said. “We are very focused on using local ingredients that are produced close to us. Sustainable agriculture is very important to me,” he noted, adding that he doesn’t limit his business to farms labeled ‘organic’ because he knows the certification process is costly and there are many “very small, talented local growers in the area.”However, he takes great care with the menu, grouping the selections into several categories. People can stop in at the bar and get a homemade pretzel and a beer or hot dog on a brioche bun, share a few items with friends, or order a full meal prepared with ingredients grown in the area.
For example, the restaurant serves Wagyu sirloin, which is the American version of the renowned Japanese Kobe beef known throughout the world for its quality. “We get it from Royalton Farms in Vermont. They are the only producer east of the Mississippi that breeds this beef. It’s very, very rare,” said Executive Chef Dave Schrier, adding that the farm also raises highly sought-after Berkshire and Mangalitsa pork.
Schrier loves all types of food, and although the menu is strongly influenced by Southern and American dishes, there are also items with a bold Asian influence, such as soba noodles and bok choy. “We don’t label ourselves farm to table, but 95% of what we use comes from local farms,” he said, adding that the menu changes frequently.
Wein said local ingredients, including fresh juices, are used in many of the cocktails, and herbs such as sumac and pepper are infused into vodka and other spirits.
“We give everything we do here a lot of thought. The Alvah Stone is not about me; it’s about the experience people have here and the team who serves guests from the moment they enter,” he said. “It’s also about the colors we use, the music we play, and the way tea is served. Every single detail, including every word on the menu, matters.”
To that end, even the menus are in distinct colors: black and white for the food and citron for the cocktail selection. New drinks are created frequently with names that reference the area’s history, such as the Machine, Scotch Shagger, Old to Alvah, and Gristmill Grog.
Fusion of Knowledge
Wein’s illustrious career has come full circle at the Alvah Stone. He chose to leave a high-profile position in New York City four years ago to move his family to Leverett, which is a six-minute drive from where he established Howard Wein Hospitality LLC in 2011.He met his wife, Jennifer, in 1993 when they were both students at Hampshire College, and after Wein graduated with a degree in culinary arts and business, he stayed in the area while she finished her studies. “I was cooking at Sienna Restaurant in South Deerfield and was also the executive director for food and beverage at Jacob’s Pillow,” he told BusinessWest.
But he wanted to own his own business, so he returned to school and earned an MBA from the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, which launched him on an ambitious career path. “I took a job at the corporate office of Starwood Hotels and Resorts in White Plains, New York, and was responsible for 400 hotels doing $2 million of revenue in food and beverages alone,” he said.
His next stint was chief operating officer of Starr Restaurants in Philadelphia, where he grew the company from a $40 million operation with eight locations in the City of Brotherly Love to a $120 million business with 16 locations in three cities. “It was amazing, but it was also exhausting. I was working seven days and at least 120 hours every week,” he recalled.
Four years later, Wein took a job as senior vice president of restaurants, bars, and entertainment for the Morgan Hotel Group in New York City. He commuted back and forth from Philadelphia each day and traveled frequently, as the group has hotels in London, Las Vegas, New York, Miami, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.
But after his daughter was born, he and Jennifer decided it was time to move back to Western Mass., where they wanted to bring her up, so they left and bought a home in Leverett.
“My wife and I grow all of our produce and like being surrounded by an agricultural community,” Wein said. “This is a very liberal, intellectually-minded area, and people here are content with what they do and what they have.”
Shortly after, he opened Howard Wein Hospitality LLC, in the Montague Mill. He said the business has been very successful, with clients including Iron Chefs Geoffrey Zakarian and Scott Conant, who both regularly appear on the Food Network show Chopped.
But when the restaurant space next door became available, Wein was finally able to realize his dream of owning a restaurant business he cares deeply about.
Wein is active in the community and serves on the Hampshire College board of directors. The institution was one of his clients before he became a board member, however, and he worked to connect the college’s food service with local farms.
As it has grown in popularity, the Alvah Stone expanded from a six- to seven-day operation. “This area is my home, and the restaurant is a big part of that. It’s an amazing place to work at every day, and we have built an amazing team and an amazing brand,” he said.
His statement is backed by positive reviews from both critics and patrons.
“This is a phenomenal place. It’s very calming and conducive to a fine dining experience,” said Nina Pollard from Hadley as she sat outside on a recent weekend and looked at the river rushing by.
Her dining companion agreed. “It’s a real retreat. The sights and sounds make it a moving oasis and work together to create a special ambience,” said Ann Kenny from Merrimack, N.H.
Wein is glad that people are enjoying his eatery and hopes it will grow and became a significant fixture in the Montague Mill’s history.
“We are trying to build something that will still be here in 50 years,” he said. “We are really committed to this, and everything we do is with a long-term vision in mind.”