Thunderstorms of Change

There are so many ups and downs in this quarantine. This began as one of those down weeks. Struggling with the idea of opening, something that 65 days ago, when we were submerged by the knowledge that we would have to close our restaurants, we were buoyed only by the thought of when we could open again.
And now? Well, to put it mildly, it’s complicated.
It’s a complicated decision for every business, but particularly for restaurants. Our workers are in the front line of bodily functions so to speak and even with every precaution in place, you cannot control the actions of humans.
Add to that the fact that I am thousands of miles away from Danny while we make these decisions, well, it becomes more of a battle than a conversation at times. This is one of those weeks where our conversations have become monotonous for us both – the misunderstandings and communication problems that can happen over texts and internet calls with lags in conversations and mishearing the directional tone – needless to say we are both feeling a bit empty. We are at our best when we are in sync and this has not been a synchronized week.

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Michelle Moran & Danny Mellman. Early years in Blue Ridge, Georgia.

Anyone who knows us personally, knows we have these moments often, even in person. Normally, in conversation, we talk at the same time. We also have a tendency to get a bit loud when we “discuss” options. And so the past 10 days have been, well, frustrating.
Moreso for Danny, I am sure, as I can sit down and start writing or paying bills or research how to stay afloat for what I believe will be a crazy eighteen months ahead. Meanwhile, Danny is on the end of the phone that still has to make the face-to-face decisions.
In fact, today he has a meeting with the entire team to discuss reopening plans for dine-in Memorial Day weekend at Harvest on Main, Masseria Kitchen + Bar, and La Pizzeria – all the restaurants with the exception of Cucina Rustica which is still curbside and Blue Smoke Barbecue which we have put on the market to sell.
It is the first time I have not been by his side in over a decade of team meetings. In fact, I am normally the one who leads them. So, who knows, he may be relieved. I am sure the team will be relieved as I normally pull out a test or try some sort of new team-building exercise.
We would never open a new restaurant on a holiday weekend, such that it is, and reopening with the new restrictions and safety protocols is basically like reopening three new restaurants on the same day. So we are all a bit on edge.
In the midst of this I got an email announcing another repatriation flight this week – which would get me home for my nephew’s birthday and Memorial Day weekend craziness. I was immediately filled with angst. Every time they announce another flight to the states, I get this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, but I know I have to stay here and work.
In the days following Danny’s departure back to the states, I questioned my decision to stay in Belize over and over. Of course, I felt a bit nervous about staying since the island was the location of the first reported case in Belize. And then I felt guilty for second-guessing myself. Did it make me a bad person that I was now second-guessing my decision to stay because we had cases while sending Danny back to the States? Was I really a bad person for thinking, ‘Great, I thought Belize was the safest spot and now Fannin had no cases?’
Talk of repatriation flights made me even more unsettled. No one really had answers. How bad would Belize get if cases grew? What sort of care would I get in a third-world country compared to the US? What would I do with our dogs here if I could not get back in a month or so to get them back from the neighbors? How would I manage the rentals here and the small renovation project already underway?
Ugh, the labors of being human.
One particularly bad morning I sent Danny a pretty pitiful video chat missing him. I felt bad as soon as I sent it, I mean what good would it do? I wanted him to know how much I missed him but I certainly didn’t want him to feel bad.
After he saw it he asked me to not send one like that again, the one saving grace in all of this was him thinking I was happy in Belize and that I could write and get the house here ready for whenever things opened again.

Whenever. Who knew whenever would continue to be so far away.

So I buckled back down, continuing to push through unemployment for 97 team members. It was crazy, the calculations and timelines the state uses to figure qualifications out. I became an expert. And because of really amazing friends in government and the Chamber of Commerce, I was able to find someone in the state to bounce my roadblocks to qualifications by – this amazing woman put up with me – and still puts up with me 53 days later.
I promised myself I would only send her one email a week so as not to be one more thorn in her side. The work these government officials across the country face is maddening and without recognition. I wanted to be sure I was someone who recognized her for her ongoing efforts.
It was also difficult to not just play whack a mole with team members that were not getting their funds. This is where being in Belize was a Godsend. While I understood their angst ten-fold, as we faced the same disappearing income and uncertain future on so much greater a level than I could ever imagine – everyone on my team had their livelihoods changed in an instant. Being in limbo for weeks – and for some more than a month- as to where their next paycheck would come from was overwhelming. Keeping the same level-headed response to them regardless of whether they had completed all the paperwork as instructed or ever bothered to log into their state unemployment portal was critical.
Luckily, two of my team stepped in to assist – Susan Bell and Erin Hagan – kept at it with staff Stateside giving instructions on how to login and set up their accounts so they could monitor their qualification status. Erin ultimately became the unemployment whisperer and main point of contact or liaison between me and the team – an act of sacrifice I will forever be grateful to her for taking on.
And now, we are coming to the other side of it, for now. Some of my team still never received unemployment – a benefit I have to say is pretty overwhelmingly in support of the low- and mid-income hourly worker. The central government was very generous to add to the state unemployment bank with a $600 a week bonus payment to every worker who qualified, whether their state rate was $97 or the maximum of $365, the federal CARES mandate added another $600 a week to the pot.
That legislation was something that I was so grateful my team received. It meant the difference of them going out to try and find other employment to carry them through their furlough or simply not being able to make ends meet. For the other folks who did not qualify for anything, we set up a general account for funds raised through the sale of gift cards on GoFundMe. Of our $30,000 goal we raised $12,000 which we know we will still be tapping into as the months go on and business ebbs and flows. We paid rent, doctors bills, purchased gift cards for supplies, and more for staff. Anything remaining will be used as continued support and for PPE supplies and COVID19 testing.
The other thing the CARES Act allowed was partial employment, so as we work toward building our hours back, our team can still collect a portion of their unemployment benefits as we build back to full-time. The reason that is important is because, in spite of the fact that it’s critical we get people off unemployment, we still don’t know what the long-term effects of the changes will have on restaurants.
I believe, especially in Blue Ridge, we will be back stronger than ever. But it will take some time until capacities can be normalized and restaurants can begin to turn a profit. And the issue on top of that is most restaurants across the country had to take out loans to make their way through the pandemic shut downs, so in an industry with already tight margins we have a very short period of time to bounce back and begin making a loan payment on top of existing bills.
Our business was built on not having debt, so this is a particularly hard pill to swallow for Danny and myself, especially as Danny was looking toward stepping back a bit over the next 10 years versus going into debt for another thirty.
But these are unprecedented times.
This week, a group of restaurateurs were given a seat with the President of the United States. Never has it become so clear the part that restaurants play as one of the largest employers in the nation, nevermind the role our 650,000 restaurants play in the food supply chain. Our “down-time” has impacted so many other aspects of the nation’s economy that this industry has finally gotten some of the attention it deserves.
In seven short weeks, the independent restaurants across the country, joined forces for the first time ever speaking directly and honestly amongst themselves to get this crisis handled for restaurants of all sizes. I have been joining in and working with this incredible group – the Independent Restaurant Coalition – pushing out social media and writing letters to officials every day. So I know my time away from our restaurant group is paying off – being alone here has given me this gift of time.
Anyway, I digress.
My point is the variables on an average day in the hospitality business is mind-boggling. You have to love this business to work it for more than a decade. And you have to have an incredible understanding of it and passion for it to work it the forty-plus years that Danny has been involved.
And now, there are so many more hurdles and tightropes to walk to make it work out right. New equations to manage; protocols to maintain; and customer service improvements and impressions to navigate.
And while my team is up to the task and I am writing protocols and handbooks from Belize, I feel damn guilty not being by my partner’s side.
In the meantime, in my neck of the woods. I am learning to bathe from a temporary cistern outside as we emptied the cistern beneath the house to repair some cracks and clean it. Hauling 5 gallon jugs of water inside to flush toilets has been a learning experience. I mean, who knew how much water it takes to fill the toilet tank!
I have never been so grateful for a rainstorm. In one night we gathered 1,584 gallons of water into the cistern. So I am all in for more thunderstorms this week, although the dogs would prefer the rainwater be delivered without the midnight round of thunderous lightning.
So, as I sit here as a voyeur watching Danny and Addison give their insights to my crew on our security cameras back home, texting them information that I overhear them mention they don’t really have the answers to… and getting text messages back “are you watching us on the cameras?” – I take great joy and pride in knowing that these folks have it covered.
They are all my heart – Danny and Addison and Erin and Scotty and Jeremiah and CJ and Sean and Kelsey and Walter and…I can’t even begin to name them all. They are my family, fights and aggravation and misunderstandings and all – and it makes me smile and get a little teary-eyed knowing that I won’t be there this weekend to help them navigate the storm.
Here’s to hoping I am the only one with thunderous days ahead.
Until tomorrow, whenever that comes…please be safe out there.

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A Dream Postponed or Accelerated?

It was a scary dream come true. After a few years coming to this little island paradise in Central America, Danny and I decided to dive in. No looking back we took the last of our savings and put it down on what would become his “retirement”project and my writing retreat. 

A slice of heaven on Ambergris Caye, the beachfront spot has a small footprint for a house and one rental casita, along with ample room to design a small boutique resort where he could fish and cook and I could write the stories of the people and places we’ve traveled or whatever came to mind.

Belize continues to be one of the fastest growing Caribbean tourist destinations with the country reporting 503,177 overnight, land-based visitors last year. It’s a 2.8 percent increase over 2018 and the first time the nation hosted more than one half-million visitors in any year. Projections for 2020 were on a grand scale and the country, its government and citizens have been celebrating their newfound success.

I came down for the February 28th closing ahead of Danny’s arrival, leaving him to tend to our five restaurants back in Georgia. Ambergris is a lot like Blue Ridge in economics and infrastructure. Relatively small populations, near everything but still remote, and economically reliant on tourism. 

Within 10 days of that closing, the entire world would change. By Friday, March 13, back in Georgia, Fannin County officials knew our isolated mountain town was in the crosshairs of a not-so-newly publicized virus named COVID-19.

Local charities began cautiously postponing annual off-season events. The Chamber of Commerce sent out a notice they were monitoring COVID19 in the region. Reservations began to drop one by one, then fell into a quick slide as the virus took hold in Georgia. Phoning in advice, we asked the team to take out 50 percent of our seating to allay any fears amongst guests and staff. We put hand sanitizer everywhere and mandated anyone carrying food or cleaning tables wear gloves.

By March 17 our reservation system ominously reported they would be providing 100 percent coverage of fees for at least the next 30 days; by the next day we began calling all large parties to let them know we would not be hosting any large groups for at least 60 to 90 days.

Slowly, the surreal reality of the situation began to take hold. Staff members were nervous. We were nervous. Islanders were nervous. New from the States was erratic at best. And business advice was as consistent as island current.

Folks back home ran the gamut of it’s the flu to it’s the end of the world. And then one day one of our staff posted that she was afraid to come to work because customers were not paying attention to health standards, but she was also afraid she would be fired.That was it – we were already preparing an online meeting with the team getting the restaurants prepared for what we saw as an inevitable shut down – but we could not have staff believe the worst of us, that we were putting earnings over people. We knew we needed to close down the majority of the restaurants and reassess the situation. We called government officials and medical experts for advice.

We made the call the next day, explaining Danny would be back that weekend. And that I would remain behind. I had made him stay an extra week so that the US could get all it’s European travelers back safely and he wasn’t exposed to the lines of people at the airport. 

But during those 7 days, chaos seemed to be the only normal thought process anywhere. We had hours of arguments about who would leave – healthwise, Danny is considered in the “at risk” group – but occupationally, he was certainly more valuable in the kitchens and I serve more of a purpose behind the keyboard.

So it was decided. 

The plan would be for me to stay and manage the business from the island, while overseeing our investments here. And to fly back in a couple weeks depending on the virus pattern and flow of business. Worse case, Danny would go close things up and fly down for a couple of weeks while the country got things under control. 

At least that’s what the optimistic goal was – in the next 24 hours things quickly deteriorated in the U.S. and I cried all day believing I was sending him back to a war zone and I would never see him again. The guilt was overwhelming. But of course Danny’s response was well if that’s the case someone needs to survive this thing so basically we are hedging our bets. Plus, he argued, I was pretty safe on a secluded island.

His sarcasm was a bit too close to reality to calm my nerves.

The day before his flight we headed to town for supplies for me – and to lock down our original little house in the more populated bayside of the island. 

We ran into a few friends on the way back from town. They were hustling golf carts from one end of the island to the other for safe-keeping as resorts were shutting down with tourists heading home. My friend Angie remarked that I looked sad, I explained Danny was leaving in the morning. She said the international airport would be closing the following Monday. 

When I asked for how long, everyone just shrugged – two or three months? Six months?

“Probably by the fall,” Angie said. I started to cry. Startled she reached out to hug me and said, without much conviction, “I am sure it will be sooner.”. 

The day after he left, the first case was reported in Belize. It was on Ambergris. 

The international airport closed as planned, but so did our island. Ambergris was shut down and an immediate 30 day lockdown was enacted for everyone on the island – no one on and no one off.

The lockdown made no difference to me, for the next 2 weeks solid, I buckled down to make sure our team at home would have unemployment wages for the period of time we would be closed. The first round of instructions I sent them went out the window as quickly as I emailed the instructions. Georgia’s rule pushed the partial unemployment filings to the employer. I divided restaurants into management groups getting my key employees to create the files I would need to upload.

The Department of Labor site was kicking me out for days on end. I assumed it was the overwhelm of companies logging on, only to discover it was my location. A VPN solved the issue quickly and I was in and filing. I learned more about unemployment than I ever knew in my 53 years. To this moment, I certainly hope I am still doing it right, but I know the team is doing well, a bit better than expected, and that alone allowed us to focus on the next challenge of determining the future of our businesses.

When I read articles now eight weeks later I realize our little company accomplished much more than many companies across the country did for their staff. The majority of the team is receiving benefits, even those who did not originally qualify based on their employment history – lack of work history, out-of-state jobs or former employers who did not accurately report wages. I was amazed at how many of those folks we had in our employment. 

Our incredible customers helped with our team as well, quickly augmenting our assistance with boxes of food for the crew to take home with dollars in a GoFundMe campaign that assisted with rent, mortgages, medicine and more.

That same fund will convert to helping us get our doors open when we come to grips with what the world of food and restaurants will look like tomorrow.

 

The Sound of Silence

I have been writing in my head for eight weeks now. Or I guess ranting would be a better word. Maybe ranting doesn’t even describe it. Each day I wake up and remember where I am and what’s going on in the world, well I don’t remember straight away.

Sometimes if my muscle-bound American bulldog climbs into bed unbeknownst to me, I stir from sleep feeling a warm body running the length of my back. And for a spit second I don’t remember where I am – or more precisely, I think my partner is lying next to me. And I smile for a moment before I realize he is thousands of miles away. 

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I am sure that Danny will love the comparison to a muscle-bound dog.

It’s not like he is off in a war zone. Well, not really. But considering the idyllic setting I am stranded in – his daily routine navigating the COVID19 world of restaurant operations in the state of Georgia – could be considered a bit of a battlefield. 

Anyway, I am blessed beyond measure that my handsome chef partner is keeping his social distance foremost in his mind. 

I like to think he is being conscientious mainly because he wants to get back home to me – whenever and wherever that might be in the future. Honestly, it’s probably the case. But he’s also an extremely cautious chef and his concern for our staff and guests has always been top of mind.

Anyway, back to the writing. For a variety of reasons, which in the weeks to come, will be revealed in my stories, I am in Central America right now. Stranded with no regularly scheduled flights back to the states. I say regularly schedule, because the U.S. Embassy has provided, along with the cooperation of U.S. airlines, a handful of repatriation flights.

I considered the first one, but after some long discussions and tears Danny and I  both agreed I should stay put for a while. It’s not like I would be of any help in the States and we have some properties here that need managing and oversight – something we cannot afford to outsource right now with the state of the world and our own restaurant empire.

I say “empire” because that has always been everyone in Blue Ridge’s joke with us over the past decade. We are relatively  well-known in the small town of Blue Ridge, Georgia where we – until recently – operated five restaurants in a small 4 square mile area. We also have a 28-acre farm that hosted a children’s farm to fork camp each summer and irregularly scheduled farm dinners.

We never liked that empire reference. We just kept opening businesses that we believed served a need in the community. Some worked well, others struggled. It was not a “get rich” effort and it did not provide a “get rich” end. Afterall, we operate restaurants – the smallest profit margin business around – and the majority of our funds went back into our restaurants or into the community. So the empire reference struck a particularly hollow note with both of us, as if we were living as kings and queens.

But I will say that when we pause and look back at our years in Blue Ridge, Danny and I are amazed at how much we were able to accomplish and provide to the community. We also lost a lot in that time, like time alone with each other, real quality time with our kids, and all of those things that fall to the wayside with folks that run their own independent business. 

My Dad was an entrepreneur and it killed him – well that and a lot of alcohol and cigarettes – but really the loss of his businesses was his demise. They were his world – not his kids or his wife or his grandchildren – his identity was his business. The past few years, Danny and I had started to realize we didn’t want that same epitaph. 

We looked, unsuccessfully, for some successors. Calamity would always befall those people we felt had the potential to step up and take over. Recently though, my nephew Addison was beginning to take notice of the opportunity. Being a new Dad made that opportunity more appealing to him and so we began the focused efforts of downsizing our businesses so that this young man could lead along with a new team we began to build. 

In the midst of all of that, we began to make some passive investments in a little island off the coast of Belize – Ambergris Caye – a quick enough plane ride from Atlanta to make it possible to continue with the businesses and still get that sense of a complete change of scenery.

96594363_1520587238122793_2005232673299103744_oAnyway, that’s a quick explanation of how I have become “marooned” on an island in Belize during this global catastrophe. Catastrophe is not the word to describe COVID19 in all the world. Some countries have handled it better than others. I am amazed that this tiny country in Central America has handled it as beautifully as it has – which is one of the reasons I have remained here. We have no cases now. We had a total of 18 with two deaths and the remainder recovered.

The country is really reliant on Canadian and American “expats” – and so now we are all sitting quietly with a stalled economy watching the news, checking our borders (Mexico and Guatemala have increased caseloads) – and praying the United States gets a handle on the pandemic so that we can all feel safe inviting residents back to the country, to their homes here, and tourists to the hundreds of resorts that rely on them.

Anyway, back to the writing, ranting, storytelling.

Every day I wake up and chastise myself for not living up to my full quarantine potential. I mean eight weeks in and I haven’t lost a pound; run a marathon; written a novel; mastered the Spanish language; successfully learned plumbing (there have been attempts); created my new online business (yes, one is in the works); finished my 15-hour real estate CE; or taken my ServeSafe class.

I am constantly reminding myself that I need to accomplish these things before this quarantine ends or I will really just solidify my self-prescribed “I never complete anything’ mantra.

And then I start to think, well when will it end? How much time do I have? 

And then I have to stop pondering that question before I go crazy.

Some days fly by, others seem to last forever. And there are times when I have no plans or immediate activities that I begin wandering the beach with the dogs and get this surreal imagery that I am the only one left on earth. 

I mean there are lots of people on the island. But I can go a day or two without really seeing anyone. In fact today, the only other human contact I had was a rogue motorcycle driving the beachfront early this morning and two small fishing boats.

Other than that the only noise is the roar of the waves breaking on the barrier reef that protects us; the oscillating fan giving me waves of air; and the twitching of two wet dogs who I can only guess are dreaming of finally catching their pelican nemesis.

It is both a dream come true and a panic-inducing nightmare. 

I am finally getting that moment I have always wanted – the time to write and exercise and learn to paint (well, not really) – but you know that TIME thing we were all so short of pre-pandemic that now…we have so much of that I feel guilty for not accomplishing anything.

So I have decided to chronicle my time here. Finally, a use for our blog. There will be no semblance of timeline. And I am not staking any political claim or ground, but I may mention politicians by way of governmental actions taken or not taken to aid businesses, people and the world in general during this pandemic. If you don’t like that I mention the news, don’t read what I write. There is plenty of other shit out there for you to read. 

Really, I am just taking note of what is happening around me here; and Danny there; and following the demise or rebirth or recreation or reinvented world of restaurants and of relationships and of life.

None of my posts will be in any particular order. I may write about the present day. Such as it is today, Mother’s Day, when I am launching this verbose platform. Or it could be the day we realized the world was coming to an end and we had to take action. Or it might recount Danny’s 60th birthday weekend, where our friends reminded me just how much we love Blue Ridge and the people there who made it our home.

Until tomorrow….whenever that comes…

 

Fishing for a Future

There are so many things I love about Belize. The wide-ranging shades and depths of blue; the sunrise on an open horizon of the sea; the ingredients and food; but what secures Belize firmly in my heart are the people. They are – as many people in the world are who are left to make good with the resources at hand – so ingeniously industrious and creative in finding solutions.

Every day we spend on Ambergris Caye, we learn something new from our neighbors. And in doing so we learn more about them and how they came to be where they are in life. My partner Danny is constantly impressed by the construction our neighbor and friend Marvin completes with his crew –  the tools they create, their way of working without so many of the things we take for granted.

I am always meeting someone on the island with a great story to tell, an obstacle overcome, or a seemingly impossible journey to their present circumstance. And this particular day was no exception, as I scoured the island to find where to get fresh fish and lobster (there are no fresh fish markets since most people fish for themselves), I met a family of fishermen coming in from an afternoon of lobster fishing. 

 

 

The small white fishing boat was packed with five men, sandwiched between coolers and buckets. As they headed toward the docks, the crew was breaking off the tails and tossing the bodies in another bucket. Everything is sold separately, unless you special order the whole lobsters. I followed the crew down a road into a little alley where they began weighing out lobsters to run to the area restaurants and to hand out to the few lucky patrons like me who figure out where to find them. 

I began chatting up Lucia Nunez on the dock as I waited for the captain to step off the boat. What began as a social hello, became a discussion of family, history, and growth as most of my conversations on the island turn. 

The Nunez family has fished for generations, Lucia explained. His brother David is the captain now, Lucia was home for a break from medical school in Cuba. 

 

 

“My father and grandfather were fishermen. We are a family of fishermen. But I decided to go to medical school through a special program with the government.  I am the first in my family,” Lucia began. “I am on my last year and then I will return home and work in the public system for 7 years before I can go into private practice.”

Belize has a shortage of doctors, their agreement with Cuba, medical students and practitioners provide for Cuban doctors to come to Belize and provide services. In exchange, Belizean students go to Cuba and work in their medical facilities.

While the practice has been argued against in the political arena in the U.S. and Brazil, the agreement for the tiny country of Belize with its approximately 380,000 residents nationwide is essential in both the short and long-term.

“From the first day, you get hands-on training,” Lucia said. “Other schools I would not get the practicals right from the start. It can be hard in Cuba, but we are like a small family at school.”

I asked him what made him decide to become a doctor and break from his family’s tradition.

“Everyone is getting older and they need someone to take care of them,” he said simply.

Those matter-of-fact answers are what I love about the Belizean soul. Solutions are simply what they are, the next right step. No quick fixes, no excuses, simply solutions with a positive and grateful heart.

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The Central American country of Belize is nestled between Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala with Caribbean Sea shorelines to the east and dense jungle to the west. Offshore, the massive Belize Barrier Reef, dotted with hundreds of low-lying islands called cayes, hosts rich marine life. Belize’s jungle areas are home to Mayan ruins like Caracol, renowned for its towering pyramid; lagoon-side Lamanai; and Altun Ha, just outside Belize City.

Join us this December to discover your Belize experience. Lit’l Pond Adventures is hosting a culinary-adventure package to Ambergris Caye the first week of December. The all-inclusive package is $2,880 per couple including in-country transport to Ambergris, meals, activities, and cooking demonstrations. For more information, email michelle@litlpond.com .

 

Belize & Blue Ridge: Miles Apart, A Heartbeat Away

There are few places in this world that stole my heart on the first visit – Lisbon, Tel Aviv, Blue Ridge and San Pedro, Ambergris Caye. And when I mean “stole my heart” – I mean the moment I first wandered the streets of these places, I knew I would return.

And return often. 

When it came to Blue Ridge, my partner Danny agreed with me right off the bat. On our first visit to this beautiful Appalachian town we put in an offer on a house. We’ve been blessed to turn that second home into our first home, moving permanently there 11 years ago from Florida. 

As the years rolled by, we talked about a new second home somewhere in the world. I was hooked on Portugal; Danny on Italy. And so I dove into looking at homes in tiny towns in both countries. 

And then my pal Shannen Oyster made us come to Belize. Yep, she literally made us. Booked the trip. Paid for it. And wouldn’t let me cancel. It was in July 2015. I kept telling Shannen there was NO WAY we could leave our restaurants in July.

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And here I sit, in July 2019, in our second home in Belize. Giggling. It is the opposite of what we thought we wanted. Tropics. Oceans. Salt and Sand. Heat. Sun. Storms. 

And it’s everything we wanted. Small town, great local people, daily shopping, real ingredients to cook, tiny stores, roadside street food, and new friends. 

Belize won our hearts on the first trip here – the genuine souls of the people here, hard-working and humble. Gracious and grateful to provide hospitality. A new language to learn, while still speaking mainly English so I could get my Spanish lessons underway. And most importantly for the Chef – incredible seafood and a two-hour plane ride.

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As we do with everything, we immediately began talking about how we could build a small business here. Well, I say small, Danny’s desires are always much bigger. But one thing we agreed on was to start sharing our love of this country – and in particular this island – with our friends and clients.

It’s been a dream of mine to get back to planning, organizing and leading travel adventures. I used to create tours such as these when I was Editor-in-Chief of food industry publications. I led groups of our readers to Germany, Spain, France, and Italy.

I also led food tours and seminars in cities across the U.S. Our goal in these trips was to immerse ourselves in the food history and culture of the locations. It’s is something Danny and I have always been passionate about and one of the reasons we are so focused on the foods of the Appalachia where our restaurants are today.

We decided to do something similar in Belize to celebrate the 10-year Anniversary of our restaurants opening in Blue Ridge. I know, crazy idea, but we wanted to share our love of the food and adventures of Belize with our friends and then head home for a bang-up party in Blue Ridge at Harvest.

When I began to plan our first Belize tour, scheduled for this December, fate stepped in. A long-time friend Sara Baer-Sinnott reached out to me from the non-profit Oldways, asking if Danny and I would step back into teaching and travel in the cultural food traditions world. 

So, it appears our food adventure travels are definitely off and running. We will be working in two locations – Italy and Belize. Each year we will create different tours in varying regions. I hope to expand our travel to Portugal, Israel and Spain in the coming years as well.

After the Belize adventure in December 2019 and February 2020, we will be headed to our first Italian region of study – Emilia-Romagno. We were just there three years ago and can’t wait to return and see some of the great people we learned from then. But that story is for another day.

Today, the story is about how we accidentally discovered a new home in Central America. We are so grateful to be here, just as we are grateful for our home in Appalachia. It is the best of both worlds and we’re looking forward to sharing it with you all.

Here is our preliminary itinerary, you can book on Eventbrite or with us directly. A 3% credit card fee will be passed on to the traveler, if you want to pay by cash or check you will save that 3% charge. Single and double occupancy rates are available.

We have vetted all tours, all guides, the resort (which we will take over the entire property) – and we have known the majority of the people we are working with for three years. Some of them are our neighbors, all of them are our friends. We look forward to introducing you to them all.

 

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/an-unbelizable-food-fun-adventure-tickets-63500512743

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Fall on the Farm

 

Ah, Fall is here. It’s about time.

I am longing to wear sweaters and warm snuggly boots.

I lust for loud snow, crunchy beneath my boots as I wander our pastures capturing images of worn barns that have fed and housed generations of families and livestock. I love how they look stately holding snow off the charges they house.

I long for chilled fall evenings around the fire holding hands, toasting marshmallows and laughing with family.

It’s been a long, hot, wet summer. Before I know it, I know I will be longing for summer days again.

Such is life. We often find ourselves craving what’s next instead of realizing what’s important is right before us.

Maybe it’s age, my time simmering here on Earth, listening and learning. God’s way of giving me just enough insight to realize it’s time to pay attention.

My dog Moose and I recently took a road trip. Moose is a rotund, eight -year old hound dog that’s become a couch potato since he’s been confined from running free and hunting at will. He is a great cuddler. I set out on a mission to surprise my mom and family in Connecticut and also give the old dog his first long road-trip.

It turned out we both got so much more from the journey.MVIMG_20181005_144520

Moose got a renewed love for life. Perhaps it was visiting the beach for the first time.  The vast ocean ahead of him, he ran on sandbars and was allowed to wildly chase the birds (an action he is sternly scolded for on the farm).

Perhaps it was a new smell every day from the farmlands of Virginia to the city smells in Philadelphia to the shore smells of Long Island Sound and Cape May, New Jersey.

Whatever the case, I came home with a newly energized dog.

And me? I filled my soul with the sounds of family around the table. I celebrated my mom’s 83rd birthday over three separate dinners with nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters, friends that are family and new grand nieces and nephews. It was great to pause and celebrate them all.

 

It was great fun – just Moose and me – driving familiar roads of my youth; sitting in my best friend’s living room where I grew up. There were no locked doors between our homes as kids, whether I was in her house or mine, I was home. Her mom reminded me of the time she was in the tub and three-year-old Michelle opened the door to ask if Alice was home.

“I was sitting in the old claw tub. Do you remember? I said, ‘no Michelle, go back home.’” she laughed.

I suppose my three-year-old self-figured I was home. I can still remember plenty of times sitting in their kitchen at the green Formica breakfast table eating snacks while waiting for someone to come home and play with me.

My trip was filled with such memories. And great bear hugs. And laughter.

Next, Moose and I loaded the car with a New England seafood feast and set off for New Jersey to catch up with Danny’s family. More laughter. More joy.

And it warmed my heart to have his brother pause to take a family photo, adding that their parents, sister, and brother –  would have been proud to see them all sitting around and sharing a familiar feast. Something their mom Janet would have loved. Danny grew up in a large family of cousins and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles. Through the years, life has taken many of those people from the table and left them only in their family’s hearts. They come alive again when they gather at the table. For me, that was another miracle of the journey. I love to hear Dan and his brother tell their sister’s girls about their mother Rebecca who died when the girls were young. I love to watch the “boys” and catch a look on their face as a laugh or a glimmer in their niece’s eyes brings Becca back to life in the room.

Again, I had a moment of feeling blessed to have so much family to celebrate. I used to think my family was a little on the small side – we didn’t often connect with cousins and aunts and uncles. This next generation of Moran’s is different. I am grateful for their connection to family – because around the table it is a sight to behold.

My only regret is that my Dad died when I was young and his branch of the family tree became neglected. Some of my fondest memories as a kid was visiting them and playing with the huge Irish Catholic brood my Uncle Pat and Aunt Mary brought into the world. And the startlingly honest and funny conversations I would hear at my Aunt Ann and Uncle Vincent’s house.

My drive gave me time to relax and remember all these things. I had time to hear my own thoughts. Now, I am looking forward to pruning and feeding those connections to my Dad again. I look forward to a warm Spring with new buds and blossoms. And as winter approaches, I feel less a sense of loss of another summer and fall, and more a time of celebration preparing for a new year of family and friends; births and deaths; joy and sorrow. No longer will I mark another year gone by with regret, but look forward to gaining more appreciation for each moment, each person, and my own mark on the world.

My only hope is that decades from now, when those I have touched in this life sit around a table to celebrate is that they remember me fondly. I know I will do the same.

Barbecue, BBQ, Bar-b-Q, Barbeque

What is Barbecue? Is that one of the most loaded questions in the South?

I must admit, I was born in the North. And while my heart is Southern now, I am still one of those uncommitted barbecue enthusiasts.

I have a confession to make, and I will apologize now, but growing up, barbecue to me meant grilling hamburgers and hot dogs. You really must forgive me, but the reality is that when Dad really spiced things up we had Italian sausage patties or Polish Sausage.

There wasn’t a lot of red sauce in my house growing up other than ketchup, and well, red sauce.

Simple BBQ Ribs Recipe and Video - Simply seasoned ribs are boiled, then oven baked in the barbeque sauce of your choice for easy BBQ ribs.
Mom’s Country-Style Chinese Ribs.

And when my mom made ribs – it was with those big, chunky country-style ribs with that sticky sweet Chinese barbecue sauce that comes in a glass jar. I can still remember her brushing it on with her little basting brush she used for chicken. And I remember giggling with my sisters at the name “Ah-So” sauce.  “Say it five times fast,” my sister would dare.

 

Mom cooked those big ole stocky “spare ribs” in the oven. Man, I loved them, even though they resembled pork chops more than the slab of baby back ribs I know and love today.

So, when I am asked to judge barbecue greatness? Well, my ratings are somewhere between the Texas comparison of dry rubbed, bark-o-luscious beef ribs from Black’s and the green tomato kimchi topped pulled pork sandwich at Heirloom BBQ in Atlanta.

It’s all simply beautiful food. And to me, what matters most is the time and love that goes into the preparation.

BBQ is very personal, regional, and always argued about. Everyone has their way of doing things and bitter fights and rivalries go on all the time. BBQ politics are unbelievably intense.

Kansas City versus Texas versus North Carolina versus Georgia. It sounds like a college football gameday. It may as well be on that level since the argument over who’s barbecue is best is really the equivalent of the hottest college football rivalries. Like Georgia and Alabama.

I love them all. To some people that is sacrilege, but to me, each region has its pros and cons.

Sorry.

Personally, I think it’s all about the meat and the smoke. A good dry rub is essential. The best BBQ has no sauce at all, just a hint of spice from the dry rub and the intensely sweet, meaty smokiness of good care and technique. The best BBQ is made with slow-burning woods logs and chunks. Also, the meat should be cooked slowly, smoked more than seared. As much as 12 or even 18 hours, and if it’s less than four forget it, you’re getting fast food.

Lovers of Barbecue argue there should be no sauce on the meat. I am with that one because to me that is the difference between great and everything else. Great BBQ doesn’t need help. Sauce is help. I am of the camp that sauce belongs on the side.

Some places care about the sauce. They’d serve meat like my mom would fix up with a yummy secret-recipe sauce. If I am going to pick a saucy side, well I must admit I am a mustard girl or even sometimes a white sauce girl, but then there are my Georgia tangy sweet heat moments.

Okay, whatever. I like them all if they are good.

White bread versus Texas toast is another quandary for me. You must have bread with BBQ, but should it be toasted? I just can’t decide here. I like that slopped up Wonder Bread on the typical southern plate, but I would rather eat Texas toast. My only problem with the toast is then I want a sandwich.

One of the things I have no opinion on is Brunswick Stew. It makes no sense to me and everyone has their own crazy interpretation. I am sure there is some purpose for it, but whatever it is I don’t get it.

Now, mac cheese on the other hand. I am specific on my likes here. Creamy and smooth is a must at a proper BBQ and topped with slightly toasty breadcrumbs for some added texture. Not at all the same as baked mac cheese that I want to get at a southern table service restaurant.

Speaking of table service. A good BBQ place rarely has table service. In fact, some of the best ones I have ever been to are like long cafeteria lines and you’re just happy to get a tray.

Texas has the beef going for it. From brisket to beef ribs, I gotta say my best beef was in Texas. I can still taste those first bites of Black’s Beef brisket in Lockhart and the near-immediate feeling of my heart valves clogging from the rich beauty of it all.

Massive Smoked Beef Rib On Butcher Paper.
Texas barbecue with pickles and onions.

Then there are places like Heirloom Market BBQ in Atlanta in a small place next to a liquor store, along a busy service road for the Perimeter. Heirloom is not the easiest restaurant to find, but it’s worth the journey.

The food at Heirloom is simple and honest – my kinda food. They fuse both Korean and Southern flavors, the natural product of two chefs with two very different backgrounds working together—Jiyeon Lee was a young pop sensation in South Korea, Cody Taylor a self-described hillbilly, raised in Texas and Tennessee.

And now, I would like to know what you think.

What’s your take on meat versus sauce? What’s your favorite side? Do you have a favorite region? What MUST a BBQ restaurant serve on their menu? What is the best fuel source? How long should meat be smoked? Dry rub? Brine? Oh, there are so many questions to ponder!

Send me your photos of your favorite places from around the world – from barbeque to barbacoa.

And now, let the arguments begin….

Neighbors & Nations

Do I want to really say I have been pondering my next blog post for a year?

No.

But well, I have.

And I have had great thoughts and major subversions.

And finally, I am here. Computer keyboard and a blank slate. And babbling words.

The past year has been a whirlwind. No, not really. It’s been a tsunami, followed by a hurricane.

And yet. I am at peace.

We have opened two new restaurants. Fought floods of criticism from old clientele and old-timers. Everything on arguments about the proper way to cook veal to the proper way to hay a field.

But the main argument of late is how to be a good neighbor.

And really this final argument is the one that matters most.

Fence In Disrepair At Sunset On An Autumn Evening.

Whether it’s nations or neighbors its all the same subject and somehow we have really lost sight of the importance of it all.

And that is our word.

I was raised in a town where we knew our neighbors. And well, as it happens, turns out my Dad had a neighborly conflict I had no idea of while raising me at the beach in Connecticut. Seems folks who had been around the area forever were part of a neighborhood beach association. He thought, when we moved there, our house was part of the same block. It was, after all, in the neighborhood. So I guess he figured he had the same rights as the landowners who came before.

He was wrong.

I don’t really know all the ins and outs of it – but I guess the families who I know now as my childhood influencers and best friends – let him know in no uncertain terms that we weren’t welcome to visit the beach.

From what I understand from my best childhood friend, there were some words. And Dad did what he always did he talked and persuaded his way into the association. Don’t ask me how. He was a charmer.

Fence In Disrepair At Sunset On An Autumn Evening.

But it’s odd because I always felt there was something different about our family the whole time we grew up there. Like we had something to prove.

I guess the neighbors were not as welcoming as I thought, maybe my young empathetic mind caught the story that was being tossed to me.

And it’s a shame. I always felt as though my Dad kept trying to prove himself and I never understood why. He was successful and handsome and a good provider. And no matter how, at the core, we were different from these people born and raised in the neighborhood. We were great neighbors.

And despite how I felt. I was still raised to be a good neighbor. An upstanding member of the community. A business person who gives back more than they receive – and I hear my Dad whisper that in my ear every day.

My partner is the same way – we were raised on your word is …well…your word.

There is nothing more important.

And while we all continue to argue borders and neighborhoods and walls and fences and guns and well – argue everything – I guess I have been searching for a story in all of this. Some sort of meaning I can tell my children and they can tell theirs about these years.

But I have nothing. Because even in these beautiful hills and mountains, I have discovered that sometimes walls are more important to neighbors and neighborhoods than a simple word.

And that is sad.

And so I take solace in my animals. My chickens, passersby can attest, know no fence line. And my pigs, well they yearn for open pastures and one blade of grass is as delicious as the next.

And my Pyrenees guard and respond with one word from me – or even one look. We know we can trust each other.

Because, after all, that’s what it’s all about.

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The Perfect Adoption

This New Year brings us exciting news. We worked to create a vision for the next 10 years for our company and part of that was building our restaurant properties to a place where we could own the land beneath our business. Along with that goal, comes many other desires for both creating a place where our staff can learn alongside us, and a place where our guests can come and relax for more than a meal.

As we were working on these concepts, an opportunity arose. Our friends Isabella and John Molinari decided it was time for them to take a break from the business. We’ve known them for more than 20 years. We all operated restaurants on the same small island in Florida decades ago.

When we first bought a second home in Blue Ridge nearly 15 years ago, we were excited to be able to escape to such a beautiful place. The only thing lacking in our visits was a food scene in the county. But we were happy to relax and cook at home.

After a couple of years of traveling to town from Bonita Springs, Florida, my friend Lisa Mitchell told me about a new restaurant. It was Valentine’s Day and I wanted to surprise Danny with a dinner out. I must admit I smirked when she told me I needed reservations in Blue Ridge!

But I jotted down the name of the new place – Cucina Rustica – and I called for reservations when I got back to the cabin. This loud New York voice came on the phone. I started to spell our last name M-E-L-L-M-A-N … ‘What!” the voice on the other end said. I started to spell it again and he interrupted, “Mellman? Danny Mellman.” I handed the phone to my husband and he and John began one of their normal loud conversations back and forth.

And that was that.

Dinner, of course, was fabulous. And whenever we got to Blue Ridge without the kids we’d stop in and grab a bite.

After a few years, we sold our restaurant in Florida. I told Danny he had to take three years away from restaurants. I continued running the magazine group I worked with in New York, and Danny began writing, traveling and catering. And then his restaurant bug came back.

You can’t keep a chef out of the kitchen.

Many of you know our story. Danny wanted to open again in Naples, Florida. I wanted to move to Blue Ridge. Somehow, my prayers were answered and our friends Randy and Janice Durden offered us the opportunity to create a restaurant downtown. And Harvest on Main was born.

Never, in my wildest dreams, did I think I would somehow become so involved in Danny’s business. Now, our businesses.

Never, did either of us imagine we’d be creating the vision that we now have for our restaurant group, our staff, our family and our community.

But here you have it. John and Isabella have decided to retire (I am sure for just a moment or two) and we have been blessed with the opportunity to adopt their restaurant babies and add them into our growing family.

As of Jan. 4, 2017, Cucina Rustica and La Pizzeria are now part of the Lit’l Pond Hospitality Group – joining their sibling restaurants – Harvest on Main, Masseria Kitchen+Bar and The Blue Ridge Fry Shop. Along with our 30-acre farm, the new property completes one portion our Vision 2027 plan.

We are excited for John and Isabella. We are excited for our Group. We are thrilled to be continuing the traditions that John and Isabella have created both at Cucina Rustica and La Pizzeria at Cucina Rustica – from great food, to great family to great fun. They have created a destination and we are so inspired to be building on their vision and traditions.

As fate would have it, we had also planned a trip to Italy with our Partner-Chef Ryan Beadnell to learn more about pasta, cured and aged meats, and traditional methods. We hope to inspire Ryan with the sense of place we feel when we are in Europe. We want him to find motivation in the emotion of days spent immersed in Italian life. We look forward to bringing all this new knowledge back to our group.

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And so, it is from a coffee shop in Parma, Italy that we write this note. It’s still crazy to imagine that just a few short days ago, we closed on the purchase of two new restaurants and then boarded a plane to Italy. Crazy and nerve-wracking juggling whether to stay open or close with a snowstorm headed toward our businesses. Fielding calls and e-mails, coordinating the call to close up shop and preserve the safety of our precious staff at all our locations.

What a whirlwind.

And so, we pause here in Italy and think of Isabella and John. We hope the snow gave them a chance to stop as well. I hope they are relaxing at home sitting by the fire celebrating the fact they don’t have to shovel the driveway to the restaurant or call all the staff.

We hope that all our guests and friends in Blue Ridge are as excited as we are about our new family members. We hope the loyal friends of Cucina and La Pizzeria are thrilled for Isabella and John, and have no anxiety about our new role in their former business. We want only to continue what they have started. We welcome your advice, your friendship and your ideas. We are excited to have the Molinari’s talented staff join our team and we cherish each of them as well.

And with that we want to share with you part of our Vision 2027, to give you a sense of what we envision. The vision is what we see for ourselves and our business group 10 years from now. Cucina and La Pizzeria will live and grow where they are now on a property we have named Terra Madre:

Blue Ridge itself has continued to grow and developed into a creative landscape of food and art. There are breweries, wineries……. The train continues to entertain, but a wealth of additional outdoor and indoor attractions have come to fruition that continue to build and strengthen the economy of the region. The old town main street continues to thrive along with the outdoor adventure area- but the food and art scene is building and driving the new growth and customer-base.

Terre Madre is the center of the energy. Our properties evoke a sense of place. Our central location is reminiscent of a small, town center with gardens, chickens, bees and entertainment. Guests come for the experience of not only great food and great service, but to connect their food to a sense of place.

And that is what we see for ourselves, for our business family, for the county, and for all of you – our friends.

Cheers!

 

Danny, Michelle & Ryan

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Dreaming of Castles & Clams

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There is such a sense of place for me in Portugal. I have never been able to explain why – it’s just a comfortable feeling like going home. I recognize the people as they pass by me as if I have met them in some other life. I somehow was raised on their cuisine. I crave the classic Portuguese dishes of Bachalau and traditional Amêijoas in garlic, wine and butter. And while I have never been a fan of the cheese danishes and pastries my husband adores, well, don’t get me started on Pastéis de Belém or Queijadas de Sintra

And still, I have no explanation of why everything in this country is so familiar to me. And why it beckons me home.

When I was a little girl, I would argue my unwinnable arguments with my older siblings explaining that “when I was big” I had done all these things before and knew all this information. It was only because I was reduced to being small again, that I had forgotten what I once knew.

It’s like that for me in Portugal. I feel like a small child again ready to have that same strange argument that would explain it all – When I was big … I was Portuguese. I have been here before; had these conversations; devoured clams on the beach. It’s odd.

I don’t speak Portuguese. I do understand bits and pieces – mostly because my Portuguese friends toss in words of English so I can almost follow the conversation. But the language has never been a barrier for me. The Portuguese are a friendly tribe, the nearly always break into a smile when you pass. And that is such a thing to see especially on older folks with weathered faces who smile true greetings every new person they meet.

The countryside itself is a mix of children’s fantasy and grownup dreams, Old World charm and amazing natural beauty. Everything and everyone is embodied in this country.

I am inspired by the water. By the care that’s put into securing each stone in the sidewalks. Being raised in a disposable economy, I have always relished in the care and love I see in restorations of old buildings and spaces. Portugal embodies this sense of pride in its history, construction halts when Roman ruins are found in the base of building renovations. Excavations are often done bucket of dirt by bucket of dirt, so that the structural integrity and history of the building is not impacted. The bones remain strong ready to support the next generation.

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The castles are well-preserved visions of my own childhood dreams. Romantic turrets where the prince can climb up and rescue me. Draw bridges to keep marauders at bay; and even complete cities walled behind their own comforting blanket of stone. In a day and age when building a wall has become such an awful metaphor for exclusion, Portugal’s walls are art and history. The invite you in. They sooth my soul with the stories they tell.

Every time I return I am home again. And every time I return home, I bring a piece of Portugal with me.