On March 24 I started working on a project called Take-Out Only in response to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on restaurants in my area. In my work as a food photographer, I work with a lot of restaurants, both established and new. This is a huge hit for them. When most restaurants fail in the first year, something like this can put even a restaurant that has been in business for years out of business...fast. The impact of this virus has touched so many industries, my own included. I wanted to bring attention to the places that I've worked with, and the ones that I have never even been to. To let people know what they're dealing with, how they're still operating, what they're doing to stay safe, both for themselves and their customers. Using what I can out of my talent set, this is my way of saying thank you, we know you're struggling, how can I help.
The first time I went to Heirloom Market at Comstock Ferre was to photograph the wedding of a chef and an artist. Super creative people, laid back and fun, they chose a venue that allowed them to express their unique style. They decorated the exposed beam rooms with framed lace, painted mirrors, and starched thread balls. It all fit the feel of the classic New England buildings set in a historic part of our state, where George Washington and John Adams both spent time during major times of change in our country. They had food trucks come to cater the reception, parking near the expansive brick patio that spans the length and width of the buildings and beyond. I got to photograph the bride and her father spending some pre-ceremony time together in the soft, quiet light of a loft space. I tucked the bride in between the sturdy beams and next to the poured-glass windows for some portraits.
That was the night I also got to meet Spiro and Julia Koulouris. Good friends of the bride and groom, and the proprietors of Heirloom Market since 2016.
Both Julia and Spiro have food service backgrounds, mostly in bartending and managing in the Hartford and West Hartford area, at The Half Door and Fire Box for Spiro. Julia attended culinary school in 1999 where she quickly got into pastry. She took those skills to a variety of fine dining restaurants including the Simsbury Inn, The Hartford Club, and some of the Max Restaurant Group establishments. She furthered her education by earning a degree in hospitality and tourism management, then worked for the likes of the Grant Brothers at Bricco, among other places.
When parenthood came into their lives with the birth of their son, they started thinking about the future. In Julia's words, they looked at "What we were going to do in our careers and we didn’t want to be bartenders forever so we were always looking kind of on the side for a new project or a business that we could open. Heirloom Market was not the original plan but it came to be because of a lot of our different ideas and dreams and also very much the space, the building, and the history of Comstock Ferre."
Comstock Ferre is touted as the oldest operating seed company in the country, started in 1820 by James Lockwood Belden as the Wethersfield Seed Company. It makes sense that a seed company was started in Old Wethersfield. According to the Comstock Ferre website "The area has deep, fertile soil, the result of glaciers, and the annual flooding of the Connecticut River. As a result of this agricultural treasure, Wethersfield became in its early history a seed-producing area. Comstock Ferre is part of this tradition. We are located in a cluster of antique buildings in the Historic District."
Julia and Spiro honored the roots of Comstock Ferre when they opened Heirloom Market. They could have done away with the entire seed idea, just opening another café Maybe they could have sold some Old Wethersfield t-shirts, magnets, and the like along with food. But instead, they made the unique choice to keep selling seeds, specifically Baker's Creek Seeds These truly are heirloom seeds, dating from the 19th century and including many Asian and European varieties. I find it so interesting to be able to stop in and buy an amazing golden latte (a blend of turmeric and other spices that is just so good) and a chewy ginger-molasses cookie, and pick up your seeds for the next season too. The seeds are displayed in cases that remind me of library card catalogs. I challenge you to find another place like it anywhere.
I loved shooting that wedding at Comstock Ferre, it's one of my favorites ever. They don't do a lot of advertising about holding weddings there, but they do hold some small, rustic ones there for those that inquire. What they focus on instead is the connection between the local foods, grown from the very seeds they sell, and fresh, handmade food. In addition to the café and the sandwiches, salads, and baked goods they offer, they also have a grocery. Here they sell goods from many local farms. Local, fresh, and from your farm. Perfect.
I thought of Julia and Spiro when I started work on this project, like so many of my industry friends and acquaintances. Julia was super welcoming when I asked to come. When I got there, so much of what I saw was common to other restaurants right now. Signs were posted to remind us to wear masks. Traffic patterns were outlined in blue tape and roped off paths. Instead of the open passes for receiving your orders, there are now plexiglass partitions between the staff and customers, who try to smile with their eyes behind masked faces.
At this point in my project, I see that everywhere. What interests me now is how people like Julia and Spiro are experiencing running their business. Heirloom Market is unique because it's not just a restaurant. It's a grocery and seed business as well as a café. All this is part of the income stream and had to be put on hold, or changed to keep serving its customers.
Like so many of the places I've visited, Julia and Spiro pivoted. She told me "We have had to do a lot of adjusting, creating the online store was a huge effort and continues to be. Staying in business during this time seems to consist of a lot of hard work for a lot less return. We have been lucky though and considering the circumstances are still doing OK. We are just rolling with it, as things change we change. We talk a lot about the long term effects of the virus and how our business and businesses like ours will change in the long run...Our customers have been great, our employees too, I consider us one of the lucky ones."
When I was there the staff was busy taking care of masked customers coming in. The three college students working the café were making latte's or bagging beautifully made baked goods (shout out to Gena Golas' pretty-pretty strawberry pancake donuts). Some showed people where to find the particular seeds they were searching for while other customers took their food to the front or back patio to settle at socially-distanced picnic tables to enjoy. Everything seems pretty "normal," albeit spaced out.
In the kitchen Chef Ed Jones was busy prepping ingredients. He took from the hot oven the most amazing tray of mushrooms. They were cooked to a perfect golden brown and drizzled with olive oil. He added them to a bowl of bright orange-red sauce that I regrettably didn't get the name of. When added and tossed, the mushrooms looked just like pulled pork. He had containers of bright green pickles and mixed bowls of cabbage, zucchini, summer squash, and peppers that were dotted with herbs and glistening with a light coat of oil. I imagine many of these ingredients could be grown from the very seeds that they sell in the store, supporting the "seed to plate" philosophy that they promote at the Market.
Alongside Ed, Julia worked on a new recipe for a banana cream pie. She was making a crust out of chocolate chip cookies as the base for the pie, repurposing a crispier-than-usual batch. I watched her perfectly temper the ingredients for the cream, envious of her skill. As she whisked, I asked her what was most challenging for her during this time. For her, one aspect of it was online ordering. As she mentioned earlier, they had to learn how to manage the orders as they came, how to time things, and deliver. How to set up curbside pickup and basically being personal shoppers for people. She said one day at a time they figured it out. Ed shared that as soon as they figured it out, things started to get back to something close to normal. "It's good now that we have it," Julia said. They got busier as they did more grocery orders for people and sold less café food than normal while balancing feeling scared and emotional, not knowing if they were going to stay open or even get sick. They tried to balance not doing the regular activities they were used to as business owners and working fewer hours than usual.
One thing that Heirloom Market has done during this time is to move forward. Julia and Spiro have just purchased the property this past July and have set some goals for the future. In a recent Hartford Courant article they explained that they are planning "an event space, an expanded menu, and a bar. Some small events have already been held in the former antique store, which is to be renovated to make a more flexible and friendly space. The renovations also include a new kitchen, and upgraded counter for the café, and a bar that will feature Connecticut wines and beers and signature cocktails.”
I can imagine that this time has been so incredibly challenging for people like Julia and Spiro. The restaurant industry has been hit like no other time in history. Many established restaurants have closed, some temporarily, some for good. The impact has struck deep. Adapt or die. Survival of the fittest. It all applies. No matter what happens, people want to eat out. They want food that they can't prepare themselves. They want to experience food that they can't make. The artistry of a perfectly made pie. The skilled hand present in a flavorful dish of seasoned summer vegetables. A chewy perfectly spiced cookie and a unique and surprising Tumeric-spiced latte.
You can find all these things at Heirloom Market and more.
Heirloom Market at Comstock Ferre:
263 Main Street, Old Wethersfield, CT l 860.257.2790 l heirloommkt.com
263 Main Street - Wethersfield, CT
263 Main Street - Wethersfield, CT
263 Main Street - Wethersfield,
Please note: I practice social distancing guidelines, shoot with long lenses to look like I'm closer than I am, get in and get out to stay out of the way and do not go into kitchen's unless invited, stay far back from food and I check my temperature before going out