Twenty years after his purchase of Bob's Clam Hut, Michael Landgarten was ready for the next challenge. He loved his hut, but he wanted to offer patrons something different down the street, something elevated. Robert's Maine Grill, which was built to replace the Quarterdeck Restaurant, thrives on summer and fall tourist seasons just as Bob's does, but Landgarten is always looking for ways to deepen the connections to locals and the community. That started from the ground up, literally, when constructing the new restaurant, which includes a storm water management system, solar heated water, and composting or recycling of 95% of waste.
Another avenue Landgarten explores is the classic notion of community suppers, which Robert's hosts twice a week (Tuesday and Wednesday). For $14, guests receive a three-course meal at a casual, creative farm-to-table restaurant, and a portion of the proceeds go to a local charity. The community supper description on the restaurant's menu is tongue-in-cheek, with a parenthetical reference to the insanity that is required to offer such a deal. Landgarten sees it as a responsibility.
Robert's is also committed to that farm-to-table practice, and the farm in question is less than two miles away. Greenlaw Gardens, which now supplies about 90% of the summer produce for Robert's, is owned by Rick and Holly Greenlaw, a young, welcoming, enthusiastic couple. The two started small a few years ago by leasing a garden plot from Rustlewood Farm, Kittery's last dairy farm.
Rustlewood was founded in the 1940s by Holly's grandparents. Her parents, Richard and Beth Johnson, run it now, and were instrumental in the creation of a conservation easement purchased by Kittery Land Trust. The easement protects 300 acres from non-farming development. Walking with their granddaughter through their daughter's rows of greens, the Johnsons see the value in preserving their land for future generations.
The Greenlaws give a tour of their gardens and greenhouses, relating their origin story: A first-year farm stand proved less-than-successful, but when they reached out to local restaurateurs, Landgarten was the only one who returned their calls. He and his chef, Brandon Blethen (whose house is practically next door to the farm), agreed to take whatever produce the fledgling operation could provide. The partnership was fruitful, Greenlaw Gardens continues to expand, and it now supplies a dozen or so additional area restaurants.
Landgarten offers employees of his three establishments a paid day off each week to work the fields at Greenlaw Gardens instead. This arrangement proved so popular that the Greenlaws could barely manage the number of eager volunteers, and they now follow a rotating schedule. On a warm, sunny Tuesday in early October, around ten helpers were quietly, efficiently going about their work, weeding and outfitting new greenhouses.
Later that day, Robert's Maine Grill, winner of this year's Lobster Roll Rumble Editor's Choice award, was the site of a freshly-harvested meal prepared by chef Blethen. While cold-sensitive plants like tomatoes and peppers had been devastated by a mid-September frost, they were still producing fruit against all odds. Aside from hardy greens like kale and chard, Blethen paraded out treats like a rainbow-hued assortment of grape and cherry tomato varietals. The Greenlaws jokingly refer to this colorful mix as "Skittle salad (all rights reserved!)".
The restaurant was no longer peak-season full, when Landgarten says they can have over 1200 guests through the front doors, but the parking lot was jammed and the large interior was by no means empty. Just down the road, business at Bob's was brisk. His newest business, Lil's Cafe, is serving as an anchor in Kittery Foreside, an area on the cusp of greatness.
"Every good neighborhood has a cafe, where people can gather and relax and chat while exploring or shopping. Like with Robert's, I didn't want to see that building fall into the wrong hands at such an important time, so I bought it to preserve it for the community," Landgarten shares. The cafe, busy and well-regarded, bakes fresh sandwich rolls for MEat, the building's whole-animal, all-local butchery opened this year by Jarrod Spangler.
Despite all of this hustle and bustle, Landgarten showed no signs of stress. He intends to continue improving upon his success, but in the meantime, he has every right to be proud of the mini-empire he has built. Its practices are as admirable and enviable as its success. The blogger who wrote "The world needs more businesses like Bob's" was only half right. By extension, the world needs more businessmen like Michael.
Lil's Cafe, 7 Wallingford Square, Kittery, (207) 703-2800, website. Open Monday - Friday 6:30 a.m. - 5 p.m., Saturday - Sunday 7 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Robert's Maine Grill, 326 Route 1, Kittery, (207) 439-0300, website. Open Monday - Thursday 11:30 a.m. - 9 p.m., Friday - Saturday 11:30 a.m. - 9:30 p.m., Sunday 11:30 a.m. - 8 p.m.