Elmer’s Store owner Nan Parati awarded for entrepreneurship by Franklin County Community Development Corp.

The Recorder, May 22, 2015, Richie Davis.

Nan Parati never expected to buy Elmer’s Store when she first came to town for a visit in 2005 from New Orleans — where she also never expected to live for more than 25 years after visiting immediately after college.

And she certainly never expected to be presented the annual Haas Entrepreneur of the Year award by the Franklin County Community Development Corp. in a ceremony Thursday night. In fact, when she got the email last month, while she was back in New Orleans working as art department co-coordinator of her 31st New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, she thought the CDC was calling because she was in trouble on her loan.

By the time the CDC Business Development Director Amy Shapiro was able to follow up on repeated emails about the need to talk with Parati, the winner recalled, “I’d worked myself into an absolute state: ‘She’s calling in the loan, what am I going to do?’ That’s aNan ll I could imagine. Why would Amy Shapiro call me otherwise?”

Parati, who’d had a difficult winter because of the effect of the harsh winter on her business, was so frantic by the time Shapiro told her she was being honored that “I burst into tears because I was so worked up, I just knew it was going to be bad news. I couldn’t even hear it. I couldn’t imagine what she was telling me.”

Parati, who is known for infusing her small adopted hometown with a “Big Easy” spirit through special Cajun-spiced events, was selected by the CDC to win its fifth annual award honoring “business owners who make Franklin County special by balancing entrepreneurship, family and community,” in Shapiro’s words.

The North Carolina native escaped Hurricane Katrina by pure chance when she decided in July 2005 to take a six-week vacation and visit her friend, Anna Fessenden, in Ashfield. Katrina struck while she was gone, destroying nearly all of her possessions, with a friend telling her as she was driving back that Aug. 28 to delay her return because of the city was being evacuated because of Hurricane Katrina.

“I loaded up the trunk and thought I was just going on vacation, to see what else was out there, but I ended up staying longer than I thought,” says Parati, who also had enough of a premonition, after a robbery a year earlier, to bring her photo album and her great-grandmother’s quilt along in her truck in her one-way trip. “I thought, ‘I’m going to go have an adventure, and here I am 10 years later, still having an adventure.”

Shapiro said of the award, named for Hillside Plastics founder Richard Haas, “Nan was selected because she is an example of how someone can reinvent themselves after a disaster and enter an unknown community, ask them what they want and deliver it, plus more. Nan focuses on the customer experience connecting in the Nan way to customers through weekly e-blasts, as well as a monthly article in the Ashfield News.”

Parati, who found when she arrived that the vintage 1835 country store had been vacant for three years and decided on a breakfast-focused gathering place after polling town residents about what they’d want Elmer’s to be, later bought the Inn at Norton Hill across the street, adding catering and entertainment by bringing her “laissez les bon temps rouler” experience to Ashfield with a Cajun festival at the store and crawfish pasta at the annual fall festival.

“Elmer’s Store is a central meeting place for the community to come together for all kinds of things,” says Shapiro, adding that Parati supports other businesses by buying local products and providing exhibit space for area artisans, as well as serving several local advisory committees and designing signs, T-shirts and other artwork for the annual Green River Festival in Greenfield.

”Nan has reached out to assist throughout the region with her creative talents and connections. Elmer’s is a unique place that has become a local asset and destination.”

One anonymous person who nominated her for the award told the CDC, “Nan’s spunk and energy has brought a level of economic interest in Ashfield and the hill towns in the last several years that did not exist, which makes for an interesting shot of life in a small town.”

Parati, who early on during her visit “started looking at Elmer’s, thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a little store?’” said she has no training in business or restaurant management, but instead trained at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill to teach and had lined up a job after graduating to teach English and French. Instead, after taking what she thought would be a quick visit to New Orleans, decided to stay there and begin working at the jazz festival instead of teaching.

After Katrina, when she finally did return to New Orleans to her center-city house, which had been under 8 feet of water and eventually had to be demolished, she had to crawl in through a window and found that her only salvageable belongings were the books that were on the top shelf because they were the ones she cared for least.

“There were so many things that came together to start Elmer’s.” said Parati, who has benefited from articles in The New York Times, Yankee Magazine and others “It’s always been kind of a magical time in my life.”

With a background in festival planning and decorating — including the Crescent City’s French Market at holiday time — Parati has brought Mardi Gras flair to Greenfield’s annual Christmas decorations. She’s since been invited to do the same for Brattleboro, Vt., Hyannis and now Keene, N.H. But it’s Elmer’s, where chef Paul Randall has been known to cook up catfish po’boy sandwiches and other New Orleans dishes, that’s won Parati’s heart. Her father, who has also moved to the area, is a regular.

“I’m from the South, so I know how to show people a good time. And I’ve done festival work, so it’s kind of like a festival all the time, you’re always creating a good time for people to come and share. So that’s the fun part. And then’’ — as with running any restaurant — “there’s everything else.”

Parati posts on Facebook and sends out emails each week describing the menu specials “and whatever else is in my head. … People all over the country read it, including people who’ve never been here.”

After drawing on what townspeople said they wanted Elmer’s to be and involving local touches — like the traditional pancake recipe from the old Gray’s Sugarhouse, she credits her success at the store to “running it from a customer’s point of view. I want people to come and feel comfortable, like it’s their happy place.”

But that hasn’t kept her from returning to New Orleans each spring to help create “the look” of the jazz and heritage festival.

“That regenerates my creative side. And it’s good for my soul.”

The CDC event also included presentation of a “Walk the Walk Award” to Becky Caplice of Shelburne, who recently retired as president of Greenfield Savings Bank.