Many of the sugarhouses have stores and sell crafts and other local items, but Massachusetts maple syrup is always the most prominent item on display, as is evidenced at Gould's Sugarhouse in Shelburne, Mass.
Photos by Winton Pitcoff
Decades before "local food" was a common phrase, Edgar Gould had the idea to open a restaurant as part of his maple sugaring operation in Shelburne, Mass. He built the sugarhouse and restaurant on Route 2, and for the past 53 years his family has been serving pancakes and other food to a loyal clientele who come for the food and appreciate the connection they can have with the sugaring process - watching the steam rise from the evaporator - while they eat.
"Edgar thought that farmers needed to do more if they were going to make it," recalls his wife, Helen Gould. "And he knew that people had to be educated about farming and food."
Today, Gould's Maple Sugarhouse is open daily for seven weeks every spring during sugaring season and seven weeks in the fall when the leaves are turning. The 80-seat restaurant is bigger than the original one, and the three pancakes that used to cost customers 99 cents are now $10.50, but other than that, not much has changed. On weekends during the sugaring season, four generations of the Gould family can often be found there, making syrup and greeting customers.
More than 15 farms in Massachusetts have restaurants connected with their sugarhouses, and no two are alike, but all of them are popular. When they open in February and March, it's seen as one of the first signs of spring by loyal customers, who will happily wait, often in long lines, for a table.
The seasonality of these restaurants helps generate a buzz, as devoted customers anticipate opening day for months, and each restaurant has special features. Some, like Gould's, are located on busy byways, where signs and billowing steam from the cupola attract passersby. Others have become destinations themselves.
Billowing smoke from the cupola at Gould's Sugarhouse in Shelburne, Mass., can be seen by drivers on Route 2, causing many to stop in for coffee and pancakes and to see syrup being made.
One example is Red Bucket Sugar Shack, located in the middle of a sugar bush at a dead end 3 miles off Worthington's relatively quiet main road. On most mornings you'll find the dining room at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, Mass., crowded with skiers taking a break from runs at neighboring Jiminy Peak. Cross-country skiers who come to enjoy the 20 kilometers of trails at Leon and Joyce Ripley's Maple Corner Farm in Granville, Mass., can begin or end their day of skiing with pancakes at the family's restaurant. And the third generation of the Aloisi family to sugar at Westhampton's Hanging Mountain Farms keeps the Strawbale Café open three days a week year-round, serving breakfast to regulars from neighboring towns. When the sap is running, all the restaurants offer customers a chance to see maple syrup being made.
Items like pancakes, waffles and French toast dominate the menus, all with the goal of highlighting maple syrup, of course. The simple menus also allow for a more streamlined kitchen and make it easier to keep ingredients on hand and reduce waste, since there's no need to keep specialty ingredients on hand for rarely ordered items. Most of the restaurants do have signature items that people remember and come back for, year after year. At South Face Farm in Ashfield, Mass., it's the corn fritters; Ioka Valley Farm has the mini corn muffins and "Uncle Don's Favorite" (waffles with strawberries, ice cream and whipped cream); and Davenport Maple Farm in Shelburne features Finnish Pancakes.
After having a look at the evaporator, sampling maple products in the store and petting the goats, customers at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, Mass., are rewarded with delicious pancakes, waffles and sausage made to order.
The restaurants work hard to efficiently serve customers and reduce wait times, but while they wait for a table, sugar makers have an opportunity to educate them about maple syrup production and agriculture in general. It's a chance to show visitors how an evaporator works, explain how the sap gets from the trees to the sugarhouse, and point out displays about the history of sugaring.
Ioka Valley Farm, among others, has games for children to play while they're waiting in a room where they can peer through a window at the evaporators, or walk through the door and climb a few steps to a platform where they can look down into the pan where syrup is being made. There's also an opportunity to walk to the nearby barn to pet the goats, toss some grain to the chickens and see the cows.
The walls of the waiting area at South Face Farm are covered with antique sugaring tools and fittings; there's a cross section of a maple tree where you can see how old tapholes have healed; and a video shows the history and process of maple sugaring. Coffee and doughnuts are available to tide customers over if they have to wait, and if the sap is running, sugar maker Tom McCrumm will answer questions as his evaporator boils away behind him.
Missy Leab welcomes visitors to the "Calf-A" at Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, Mass.
Waiting areas are also prime spots to sell merchandise. The shop at Ioka Valley Farm features samples of everything from pure maple syrup to their maple mustard and maple barbecue sauce. There's also someone available to answer questions and offer cooking tips. Some of the farms report that as much as 30 percent of their annual retail sales of syrup and other maple products comes from sales to customers at the restaurant or customers who come in during restaurant hours exclusively to buy products.
The restaurants can be an important way to generate some income during a season when most farms are spending more than they're taking in. Williams Farm in Deerfield, Mass., opened their restaurant 18 years ago and serves breakfast six mornings a week for eight weeks in the late winter and early spring. Revenue from the restaurant "has typically helped us get our vegetable growing season going," says Chip Williams. "A little extra to go toward seed and fertilizer at the beginning of the season can be a huge help."
Challenges to these enterprises abound, of course. The restaurant industry is known for being a hard one to succeed in, rivaled perhaps only by farming. To take on both at once requires a certain set of skills and a lot of preparation to handle two different and labor-intensive businesses at the same time.
Serving pancakes to as many as 5,000 people during just eight or nine weekends requires a lot of staff, and some of the restaurants are busy enough to employ as many as a dozen people during the season. The human resources work for a staff that size is time-consuming, and is definitely different from farm work, says Missy Leab of Ioka Valley Farm.
"It's hard being a farmer and then trying to cross over to what is a totally separate business," Leab adds. As for the staff, she says, "We're used to growing and making and harvesting, but for the restaurant we need to find the right people, and that's not necessarily the same people who work on the farm."
People come from far and wide to enjoy the famous corn fritters at South Face Farm in Ashfield, Mass.
Serving food and having customers on the farm mean dealing with a complex set of regulations and inspections, but most sugar makers report that the barriers aren't insurmountable. It typically means visits from a building inspector once a year, as well as visits from the fire chief and local board of health.
"As long as rules and regulations are followed there are no problems, [but] as soon as you try and cut corners, problems arise," says Williams. Understanding and adhering to details like safety signs and posters that need to be hung, battery-powered emergency lights (even if the restaurant is only open during daylight hours) that must be operational, regular water tests, and ServSafe and Food Allergen certifications for staff are all part of the cost of doing business, and it is up to the owners to stay on top of the regularly changing rules.
"Allergies are becoming more prominent and challenging," says Leab. "We need to be very cautious about what products we have in the building." Trying to keep up with a growing array of dietary demands can also keep restaurant operators on their toes, she says. Ioka Valley Farm now offers gluten-free options on their menu, and Leab has found that she needs to keep a bottle of imitation sugar-free syrup on hand for people with sugar restrictions, and oatmeal for customers who can't eat dairy.
While waiting for a table, customers can watch syrup being made and talk with sugar maker Tom McCrumm at South Face Farm in Ashfield, Mass.
Weather plays a big factor in the success of these restaurants each year. "We get the most people when it's nice enough to be outside, but still too muddy to work in the yard," explains Leab. Since part of the experience at many of the restaurants includes a walk through a sugar bush or from one building to another to see the sugaring operation, or even just waiting outside for a table, cold rain can put a big damper on a day's business.
Many of the restaurants advertise in local newspapers, but most rely on word-of-mouth and, increasingly, social media and websites to get the word out to customers.
The key to success for these restaurants is having quality food coupled with an educational component that, without being heavy-handed, connects people to agriculture through the alchemy of making maple syrup. "Whenever you get into agricultural tourism and inviting people to your farm, you have to have a unique story out there," says Leab. "People can get pancakes anywhere. You need to find your niche and serve your own high-quality products." Each farm does this in its own way and, as evidenced by the loyal customers who come back year after year, they do it well.
A directory of sugarhouse restaurants can be found on the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association's website at www.massmaple.org.
Winton Pitcoff is a freelance writer and coordinator of the Massachusetts Maple Producers Association.