Steaming Tender Mixes Hearty Food and Railroad CultureRobin and Blake Lamothe like to dig through history — literally. And 26 years ago, they came across a historical project they couldn’t pass up.
“My husband was a general contractor; he restored historic homes and buildings, and he was also an antique restorer of Model A cars,” Robin Lamothe said. One day, while driving through Palmer, he discovered a Romanesque-style train station, built in 1884 based on a design by renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson.
In 1987, the run-down station was “a hodgepodge of businesses — a diner, a pool hall, a judo studio, a mechanic shop,” she told BusinessWest. “It didn’t look too pretty, but, being a restorer, he could see the inner beauty of the building and its potential. Then he saw the for-sale sign.”
So they purchased the building, intending to convert it to an antique co-op. “We had done our research, and because this was a historical property, we thought we could get some grant monies,” Lamothe said. “But in the late ’80s and early ’90s, those programs were getting cut, so we were left to do it ourselves. That’s why it took so long.”
She referred to the 17 years it took to restore and reopen the station — not as an antique store, but as the Steaming Tender restaurant, a railroad-themed eatery tucked alongside an active rail line.
“Neither one of us has a restaurant background,” she said. “As I said, my husband is a general contractor, and my background is in the marketing and advertising business; I was an event planner and coordinated events.”
Those backgrounds, however, meshed well for their current endeavor. The restaurant, which opened in 2004, is a mix of hearty American food and rail culture; train-related artifacts and antiques line the walls throughout, from the large bell overhanging the bar to a stack of century-old luggage near the entryway — not to mention the vintage train cars sitting outside.
“We’re consistently trying to reinvent ourselves, so that our customers come in and always find something new,” said Lamothe, who runs the day-to-day operations at the Steaming Tender. “We’re always being creative. If we find antiquities that we feel would fit with the restaurant, we bring them in.”
It’s all part of what the Lamothes hope will be not just a meal for patrons, but an experience. “People travel in from Boston, New York … they make it a trip. We’re a destination restaurant.”
Training Their Sights
“We lived in Spencer at the time, commuting back and forth, and that was getting hard, so we found a house and moved here,” Robin said.
The property they bought was filled with antiques — much of which she characterized as “junk” — but it had potential. So they started selling items out of the old station to help fund the restoration. “It was flashlight shopping, and we had no water line. And it rained in here more than it rained outside.”
As the restoration progressed, including major roof and structural work, they intended to continue the antique sales as a business model. “But it slowly evolved into a restaurant,” Lamothe said. They first planned to lease the property to a restaurateur, “but nobody could envision the dream we had, so we ended up doing it ourselves.”
But the journey to that point was a long, 17-year slog. “We didn’t want the work to interfere with the integrity of the building,” she said, noting that Blake preserved much of the original floors and original brickwork. That’s the kind of pace that might turn frustrating, but Lamothe said they didn’t get discouraged.
“We always had a goal. It was taking a lot longer than we thought, but we never gave up,” she said. “Today, sitting in the dining room, I still can’t believe we’ve done this. It’s amazing. People come in and say they appreciate all the hard work we’ve done. This was a blank canvas for us. We did as much research as we could.”
That research left some gaps. But when their design choices — a style of window used in the interior, a paint color — later turned out to be historically accurate, the Lamothes considered it a sign that they were destined to take on this project.
The first iteration of the restaurant, in 2004, was an outdoor-seating, counter-service-only model, which allowed restoration work to continue uninterrupted inside. “It was a little kitchen with fried seafood, pub-style food,” she said. In the fall of 2005, the Steaming Tender converted to an indoor, sit-down establishment.
Lamothe described the cuisine at the Steaming Tender as “American flair” with a few ethnic styles mixed in, adding that “I’m open to anything that tastes good.” Baked lobster macaroni and cheese is a house favorite, a dual nod to the extensive pasta and seafood sections of the menu. Diners will also find a broad selection of salads, sandwiches, steaks, pork, and poultry, as well as plenty of appetizer and dessert options.
The highlight of the latter is the whiskey bread pudding, a staple from the early days that customers keep coming back for, Lamothe said. “We like watching their expressions: ‘oh my God, this is the best.’ It’s a phenomenal dessert. We sell pans of it around the holidays, and it’s becoming a tradition for some of the families.”
The key to the food quality, she said, is freshness. “We’re open five days a week, and we have seafood delivered three of those days. I’m always bringing in new product, keeping it fresh. I get trucks in every day, so I can keep the meats and produce fresh.”
Cleanliness is important too, she said. “We close on Monday and Tuesday, and those days are for maintainance, rethinking, cleaning, inventory, everything else … I probably work longer hours on Monday and Tuesday than when we’re open.”
And the bathrooms are not only clean, but works of art in their own right; each is adorned with hundreds of antique photos, mounted like a timeless, room-size scrapbook.
Off the Rails
Every aspect of the establishment, however, is dominated by trains. “Everything is railroad-themed,” Lamothe said, from the setting amid active rail lines to the antiques inside, to the overalls and red bandannas worn by the waitstaff.
With about 40 trains passing by each day, the Steaming Tender prints a schedule each morning, and Lamothe said the long, windowed wall parallel to the track is considered choice seating. “People want to know the schedule, so we have it on our website and give it as a handout. The peak time is between 1:30 and 3, when Amtrak passes, and the conductor gets off and does the track switching and maneuvering … it’s good for the rail fan.”
The Lamothes are always looking to buy old locomotives and cars to add to the ambiance outside the station, she added. “We bought a 1915 Porter steam locomotive as a marketing piece, and we bought a 1909 parlor car to hold private events and meetings. We do a lot of company meetings, bridal showers, and wedding rehearsal dinners in there.”
The restaurant’s location isn’t the most visible, at the terminus of the dead-end Depot Street off Route 20. “Many people still don’t know where we are, and we’re always tapping into new customers. That’s where my marketing background comes in. We’re always trying to get our name out there.”
Those efforts include a plethora of special events every month, from comedy shows to educational programs involving working trains. “Last week, we had a meet-the-engineer event. People got up close and touched the engine — we had about 60 people for that event. Another event, coming up on May 7, is a presentation my husband and I do on the history of the station. We have about 100 people signed up for that.”
The Lamothes have landed the occasional high-profile coup, like the day Good Morning America stopped by to film there. Other media outlets have done stories as well over the past decade. But mainly, marketing the Steaming Tender means constantly building buzz and positive word of mouth.
“We’re still getting the word out — about the architecture, the trains, the food,” she said. “There are a lot of positive things going on for us, and we play up all the components and build on that.”
For example, “we do holidays right here. Christmas is huge,” Lamothe said of the extensive decorations the staff puts up. “People have compared us to Disney World; we have music pumping out of the engine, and people feel like they’re coming somewhere special.”
Last year, that atmosphere included hundreds of nutcrackers on the tables and throughout the building, most purchased at Christmas Tree Shops, where store employees must have wondered who these shoppers were clearing out the entire stock, she recalled with a laugh.
This summer will feature a new draw to the old station: the restoration of the park and grotto originally designed by noted 19th-century landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
“We’re down in an industrial area. This will never be manicured gardens, but we’re almost there,” Lamothe said. “We did some research and found out it was a Frederick Olmsted park buried in gravel. After about 20 years, we finally bought the piece from the railroad, and three years ago, we began excavating and restoring this park. We’ve uncovered the grotto, and we’ve got some granite curbing to shape the park, and we’re in the midst of laying topsoil now so we can get some nice grass.”
It’s a natural progression, she said, from the fact that locals already come out on the weekends to sit along the roadway and watch the trains pass. “Having a park will enhance that whole concept here.”
Even as she recognizes the Steaming Tender’s somewhat nondescript location, Lamothe said she’s pleased that new customers are continually coming on board.
“Starting from nothing, being on a dead-end road, it’s amazing how much awareness there is out there,” she told BusinessWest. “And once people find us, the next thing you know, three days later, they’re back with a whole group of friends, wanting to show it off to people. People come in and say, ‘I can’t believe I’m in Palmer.’”
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]