Valley Bounty: Sylvester’s Restaurant
Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 7, 2021
By Jacob Nelson
Sylvester’s Restaurant has been a bakery, breakfast, and lunch joint serving homemade meals on Pleasant St. in downtown Northampton since 1983, and a key supporter of the Valley’s local food economy all the while. “Local before it was cool,” their tagline says.
Like any restaurant that’s survived 38 years, it’s had its ups and downs, but nothing compares to the past year and a half in the shadow of COVID. The pandemic catalyzed changes in their space, staffing, and operations – some out of necessity, most hopefully for the better. What hasn’t changed is their commitment to supporting their neighbors, from the farms they work with to other restaurants and businesses that all make up our region’s cultural fabric.
Sylvester’s was brought to life by Pete St. Martin and Maureen “Mo” McGuinness. Recently, longtime employee Jillian Duclos joined the management team, followed by her partner Chris St. Martin, Pete and Mo’s son.
Their breakfast and lunch menu shifts seasonally, and leans towards sandwiches, omelets, classics like pancakes and French toast, and specials that capitalize on local produce.
“We also have a full bakery,” says the younger Chris St. Martin. “All our breads are homemade every day – sourdough, oatmeal sunflower, multigrain – as well as pastries, muffins, and a few rotating things. Our baker, Bonnie, has been with us since the early 90s, and she makes the best scones I’ve ever had in my life.”
Customers can sit inside, outside, or order online for curbside pick-up. “The city was very helpful as we created a nice patio,” says St. Martin. Separated from the street by dividers painted in joyful colors by local artists and brightened by potted flowers, this outdoor seating is the first visible difference from pre-pandemic Sylvester’s.
Stepping inside, the homey décor remains the same, but the service has shifted. “You’ll still be greeted and seated by one of our hosts,” says St. Martin. “Then once you decide what to eat, you’ll either get up and order at the counter, or you can order from your phone.”
Part of that switch was an effort to strip away busywork and focus on customer service. Says Duclos, “when staff aren’t spending time taking orders and putting them into a computer, it frees them up to ask customers how their meal is and make people feel taken care of.” Yet the change was also driven in part by the pandemic. Lower sales support less staff, so they had to reconfigure their service to accommodate a leaner workforce.
As Duclos explains, they used the opportunity to also reimagine a more equitable compensation model. “We worked with our core staff to envision a new way of doing things,” she says, “like paying people a fair hourly wage above tipped minimum wage, and pooling tips among front-of-house staff so it’s more of a team work environment.”
She also credits the integration of technology, like ordering online or via smartphone, with enabling them to employ fewer front of house staff but pay a more reliable wage. And these days in the service industry, that’s been a necessity.
“We are still contending with many effects of COVID, including a serious labor shortage,” says St. Martin. “And supply chain disruptions are still happening all over the world.”
In navigating the latter, Sylvester’s has a leg up via their existing relationships with local food producers. Says St. Martin, “when you’re buying from a farm down the street, you’re much less susceptible to those disruptions. If we can build a strong local economy, that creates a more resilient community that can weather storms like COVID.”
Many of their staple ingredients travel just a short distance from farm to fork. “Our eggs come from the Country Hen in Hubbardston, we get our milk from Mapleline Farm in Hadley, our goat cheese from Thomas Farm and Dairy in Sunderland, hamburger from Roaming Farm in Deerfield, and maple syrup from Snowshoe Farm over in Worthington,” explains St. Martin.
Other seasonal delicacies rotate in. “Now we have a homemade peach jam that we do, and a summer harvest omelet with local zucchini and summer squash, with gruyere and pesto,” he continues. “Heirloom tomatoes are coming up next, so we’re thinking about how we can use them.”
“Our goal is to give these farms and businesses a stage,” adds Duclos. “We hope that when people eat here, they leave knowing about these businesses and seeing that they could be buying more food from their own backyard.”
One thing St. Martin and Duclos are clear about is that their business cannot exist in a vacuum. That applies to their connections with suppliers, and other eateries.
“Within half a mile of us, we’ve got dozens of other great restaurants,” says St. Martin. “We all know and support each other, and we need each other. Sylvester’s can’t be the one restaurant that people come here for, there’d be no draw.”
Though local restaurants compete, they all want the same thing, and it’s through their collective effort that communities develop an identity linking people, food, and culture. In other words, Sylvester’s is just one tile in the mosaic, and it shines brighter as a part of the whole than it ever could on its own.
“What would we do without local restaurants?” asks St. Martin. “I think we just witnessed that. We love to go out to eat around here, but for much of the last year that was missing, and our lives were poorer for it.”
As the world spins on, Duclos and St. Martin hope Sylester’s can continue as a celebrated local meeting place for years to come. “We love working with food, we love working with our hands, and we love working with people,” says St. Martin.
Duclos continues. “We do what we do because we can support a strong community by buying local, giving back, creating sustainable employment, and bringing joy to people who love food as much as we do.”
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To find more restaurants serving up local food near you, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally