Dan Meiser at Grass & Bone: Catherine Dzilenski, Idlewild Photo Co.
Two years into a job at the State Capitol, Dan Meiser asked Richard Rosenthal, owner of the Max Restaurant Group, for five minutes of his time. Dan was seeking a career change and was eager to enroll in culinary school. What he anticipated to be a short talk ended up as an in-person, hour-long conversation in Rosenthal’s office. He cautioned Dan on jumping directly into culinary school: “Have you ever worked in a professional kitchen before?” Dan left the office with his first restaurant job at Trumbull Kitchen in Hartford, Connecticut: “I started off in the basement making minimum wage, peeling potatoes as a prep cook and I loved it.”
Confident his interests aligned with a new career path, Dan enrolled in the French Culinary Institute in New York City, now known as the International Culinary Center. He went on to work at Café Boulud, and stayed in the city for the next few years. After leaving New York he knew what he wanted his career path to be— he wanted to learn the business of the industry. Calling up Rosenthal again, he went on to assistant manage Max Amore in Glastonbury, Connecticut. He knew his skills from the back of the house would translate: “I had never served before, never bussed a table, never gotten behind a bar, and suddenly I was managing a restaurant. I knew standards, I knew quality, I knew food. So, it worked out.” Dan managed Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford, Trumbull Kitchen, and later became General Manager of Firebox in Hartford, Connecticut. In 2009, after three and a half years at Firebox, he was invited to help open the Ocean House in Watch Hill, Rhode Island. This brought him to the Mystic area where he would open his first restaurant.
Dan Meiser at Oyster Club: Winter Caplanson
In 2011, Dan transformed an old clapboard building on Water Street into Oyster Club, a farm-and-sea-to-table restaurant with a rustic, elegant presence. Since it opened, it has garnered regional and national attention, has been recognized by Travel & Leisure as one of the best oyster bars in the nation, and in 2017, the Daily Meal placed it at #76 on their list of “101 Best Restaurants in America.” The New York Times wrote about the cuisine as a quintessential taste of New England that takes on worldly flavor and inspiration. Across the drawbridge is Dan’s second farm-to-table restaurant, Engine Room, which was named this past year, “best casual restaurant” by the Connecticut Restaurant Association. Down the street from Engine Room is Grass & Bone, Dan’s third farm-to-table restaurant and butcher shop that opened in the fall of 2017. It is already gaining attention and traffic.
Dan’s strong connection with good food and background in business have made his restaurants successful while benefiting the town of Mystic in a multitude of ways. They are not merely successful restaurants with a backdrop of the Mystic River and a beautiful downtown, but are rooted in the community and important to its livelihood. Dan said confidently, “I believe—I know the impact has been significant.”
The proximity of well-known, highly acclaimed farm-to-table restaurants may be common in larger, busier places like Hartford, Connecticut, but not as common in a small town like Mystic. For a small community, this sort of success has an outstanding impact on its level of tourism. Peggy Roberts, President of the Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said at the Mystic Welcome Center she is frequently asked about restaurants that people have seen reviewed in magazines or online: “We see that the high quality and diversity of restaurants have brought more people and people for whom dining experiences are important.” For many, Mystic’s restaurants have become a major attraction.
Downtown Mystic: This is Mystic
Busy restaurants mean a busy town and vice versa. Neighboring businesses are the first places where the impact is realized. Consider this, Dan explained; when a couple books a reservation at Oyster Club they may book a few nights at the Whaler’s Inn. The morning they arrive they stop at Sift for a coffee, sit down at Rise for breakfast, and shop around at Hope & Stetson or Tidal River as they make their way to Mystic Seaport. He spoke assuredly, “every other business gains traffic, makes money, and the town itself benefits.”
Meanwhile, other restaurants are stepping up their game. “The reputation of the Oyster Club alone has taken Mystic to a whole new level. But there are others too. Too many to name. We are becoming a destination town for great restaurants,” says Roberts. Other restaurants that have popped up over the years since Oyster Club and Engine Room opened include Red 36, M-Bar, Rise, and Chapter One. It is difficult to find an occasion in the summer when Red 36 is not swarmed with yachts and spilling with visitors. Even businesses like Sift, a bakery and coffee shop have become a hit and can remain busy all-year-round. “Competition is a healthy thing,” Dan noted, “In any great restaurant community there are restaurants and chefs constantly raising the bar and pushing each other… there’s simply more business to go around. We have created a destination.”
Aside from Mystic tourism, there are the positive impacts that come specifically with farm-to-table restaurants, especially when they value seasonality and locality as much as Dan’s do. He argued that despite Mystic’s consistent restaurant scene, “what Mystic hasn’t always had is a food economy.” Steadily, since the opening of Oyster Club, Engine Room, and now Grass & Bone, they have developed a network of industry; a local, sustainable, and healthy food economy.
In the kitchen at Oyster Club: Winter Caplanson
The use of local product between Oyster Club, Engine Room, and Grass & Bone this past year was astounding. In combined total of all three restaurants, they purchased just over a million dollars-worth of local product. This includes local meat, fish, vegetables, dairy, and artisan products like bread, cheese, and craft beer.
The benefits are endless, and Dan was fully aware of them all. Firstly, farm-to-table restaurants have the ability to keep local farmers and food artisans in business. Dan discussed the reality of supporting small, local businesses: “I know for a fact that there are farmers we work with that would not be farming if it weren’t for us. There’s nowhere to move their product. That has real impact, that’s real families, real jobs— that’s real numbers.”
I spoke with Todd Solek, the owner of Farm to Hearth Bakery in Haddam, Connecticut. He supplies bread to all three of Dan’s restaurants and many other farm-to-table restaurants in Connecticut.
I asked Todd if the largest profit comes from selling to restaurants. The answer I received was not what I expected. It is however, a different way of considering what these restaurants have done for the small business owners they support. He explained:
“it’s not necessarily larger, and to be absolutely honest with you, if I was out there hustling in the public and creating opportunities for myself, financially I could probably do better. However, that’s stressful. It’s a streamline process to be able to create your product and have its voice be heard through the experience of a farm-to-table restaurant.”
Todd not only worries about the business, but about the story and process of making his bread: “When you’re out there in the public, it can be challenging to constantly and consistently preach about who you are, what your philosophy is, and what your bread is about to every single person you come across.” He wants his methods and ideals to be translated to the consumer, which he can be sure will happen for guests at Dan’s restaurants. Todd buys his grain from farmers throughout New England, and won’t unless he agrees with their philosophies of farming. Yielding about 400-600 loaves of bread per week, he delivers orders to six different farm-to-table restaurants in Connecticut.
Local business’ support of farm-to-table restaurants emancipates the restaurant trio from its dependence on importing product. Without the need to import, food safety increases and the carbon footprint that is exacerbated when potatoes travel from Boise, Idaho to Mystic, Connecticut decreases exponentially. In the prep kitchen at Oyster Club, I have witnessed farmers hoisting bags of produce up the stairs, donning dirty work clothes from the morning’s harvest. This is a special thing. The produce they provide has not been sitting in a truck for days, losing flavor and freshness. Instead, it was plucked from the ground two hours earlier.
Greenhouse Stone Acres Farm: Courtesy of Stone Acres Farm
Dan and a group of like-minded investors reopened Stone Acres Farm last year. The farm is sixty-three-acres and dates back to 1765, currently supplying the restaurants all-year-round with produce from a few greenhouses that are now on the property. Their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) runs throughout the summer providing locals with fresh vegetables, flowers, and seafood. In addition, there is an on-site market open five days a week for the public. In the works are plans to move local artisans and their businesses to the property, and Farm to Hearth will be one of the first to move on site. Todd Solek spoke passionately, “I’ve been waiting patiently for that to come about since Stone Acres was a farm. It has just always made sense.”
Dan and the Stone Acres Board are awaiting approval for the Yellow Farmhouse Education Center, a non-profit, educational branch of Stone Acres. Former Director of Education at the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, Jennifer Rothman, will be the executive director of the Yellow Farmhouse. Education will allow the community to become even further immersed in the sustainability and locality of their food.
Dan’s passion for local, quality cuisine is what has persevered throughout his life. The values of Oyster Club, Engine Room, and Grass & Bone emulate his own. One personal anecdote in particular stuck out to me.
In third grade, at Martin Elementary School in Mansfield, Connecticut, Dan was chosen by one of his teachers for a program called PROBE (People Reaching Out to Broaden Education). Bright, passionate students were selected based on their potential to do something great someday. Part of the culmination of the program was an end-of-the-year project, which was open-ended to each student based on their interest. The title of Dan’s project was, “Cooking with Danny.” It was a homemade, mom-filmed cooking show based in his kitchen. His mother sat patiently as Dan braised pheasant that he and his dad had hunted together. He cooked wild rice, sautéed fresh vegetables, and baked a German chocolate cake from scratch, all while capturing a sophisticated ambiance with light music in the background. Little did he know “Cooking with Danny” would become a lifelong career.