April 19, 2018
About now Dean Carlson would be preparing for the busy season, when guests would flock to the picnic tables on his sprawling, pastoral property behind the Wyebrook Farm restaurant building to eat chicken breast and “grass fed” burgers and pork sirloin.
They would look out at the 360-acre farm’s pastures, where the animals were raised, while other guests would be eating inside the restaurant’s stone walls, where floor-to-ceiling glass panes offer the same views of this slice of western Chester County.
But the kitchen in Wyebrook Farm’s restaurant will be quiet and cool this summer. And perhaps every summer after that.
“At this point, we don’t have a plan to reopen,” Carlson said. For now, he said, the business is a casualty of red tape and economic realities.
Net farm income across the country this year is expected to drop 8 percent — $5.4 billion — from 2017 totals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That would be the lowest level in 16 years. As farmers look for ways to enhance their revenues, the “farm-to-table” restaurant concept “has promise,” according to Peter Furey, executive director of the New Jersey Farm Bureau.
But the restaurant business “is really tough” and the average net profit is about 5 percent, said John Longstreet, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Restaurant and Lodging Association.
“It’s a huge amount of work to get to that 5 percent,” he said. “And if you’ve got a successful farm, adding a restaurant to it adds to the degree of difficulty significantly.”
Sloane Six, owner of Quarry Hill Farm in Harleysville, Montgomery County, said she wishes someone would have warned her about that.
She bought her 110-acre farm in 2007 to leave behind the stress of working as a business consultant and entrepreneur. Four months later, she was diagnosed with cancer. That strengthened her passion for healthy living and eating habits. She opened her “farm-to-table” restaurant, Mainland Inn, in January 2015 a mile from her farm. Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan lauded the Mainland Inn a few months later.
Two years after that, Six closed the place.
“It was a financial drain and I couldn’t sustain it any longer,” she said. “And I had to make a very hard decision to close the restaurant and focus on the farm and keep that strong.”
She muses that maybe the area wasn’t ready for her restaurant. Despite the positive reviews, “I would say we never really hit a stride,” she said.
Carlson’s situation was more complicated.
The former hedge-fund manager bought Wyebrook Farm in 2010 through a foreclosure sale. He had been operating a meat market before he decided to open the restaurant in 2012, responding to public demand.
Then one day in summer 2016, an official at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection happened to be dining there and wondered whether the department had authorized the restaurant. DEP told Carlson he needed sewer permits he should have obtained before he opened.
Carlson said he did not know he needed the permits. A county health official acknowledged in an email to other government employees that the restaurant slipped through the regulatory cracks.
Carlson decided to close his restaurant in November for the slower cool season while he considered his options.
“The more I looked into it and the more I thought about it, I just wasn’t willing to do it,” Carlson said, citing “cost and red tape.”
The main problem, Carlson said, is that despite the time and money he would have to put in — he estimates meeting state regulations would cost at least in the tens of thousands of dollars — he would not see any additional revenue.
So he’s going in a different direction. On April 28, the farm will host its annual music festival featuring bluegrass, rock, folk, and other artists. This time, guests will eat from independent food trucks, not the restaurant’s kitchen. But all the meat the trucks serve will come from Wyebrook Farm, Carlson said.
“It was kind of a way to have something here without the problems,” he said.
Carlson said he may host other events going forward. He will continue to sell his meats at the market on his farm and at Reading Terminal Market.
He and Six, owner of Quarry Hill Farm, both said they were sorry to see their restaurants go.
“We both had really good intentions,” Six said, “about what we were doing and why we were doing it.”