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Our Towns: Warner dads team up to bring food, nightlife to town

Chuck Austin works on the inside of a new restaurant that will open in downtown Warner in the coming months. Austin, along with his wife Bernadette O'Leary Austin, and friends Bill Meadows and his wife Tiffany are owners of the restaurant and are working to renovate the space together.

(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

Chuck Austin works on the inside of a new restaurant that will open in downtown Warner in the coming months. Austin, along with his wife Bernadette O'Leary Austin, and friends Bill Meadows and his wife Tiffany are owners of the restaurant and are working to renovate the space together. (JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)

Downtown Warner isn’t especially known for its nightlife. Most shops close by sundown, and the options for a quick, affordable meal are limited to a pizzeria and the McDonald’s near Exit 9. Anyone in search of a cold brew and some warm company ought to venture elsewhere.

But come the end of this month, there should be a new choice for thirsty residents and hungry passers-by: The Local.

The brainchild of Warner dads Chuck Austin and Bill Meadows, The Local will serve lunch and dinner, with, according to the owners, an emphasis on simple, quality comfort food served efficiently and at a reasonable price.

“Say you’ve got a baseball game on a weeknight,” Meadows said. “It’s 7:30, the kids have school the next day and you have to get them home and cleaned and fed. The obvious choice is McDonald’s. Which is fine, but you don’t want to be doing that every day. We want this to be a place with a local environment where you can come in and get a quick bite, something that’s portable even.”

“It’s all in the name,” Austin added. “The tagline we plan to use is: ‘It’s where your friends are.’ ”

The pair, who met through their children, said they have been planning to open a restaurant for years, but only recently felt the time was right to do so. They first scouted the East Main Street space when it became available early last year but eventually passed,

making way for another restaurant, The Runner Stone, to start its yearlong stint. When word spread that The Runner Stone was closing, they decided to go for it.

“One of the things we worried about the first time around was getting a liquor license, but when Sean (Harrington, Runner Stone’s owner) did, that told us, okay, that’s not going to be a problem,” Austin said.

Though this will be the first jump into restaurant ownership for Austin and Meadows, both have backgrounds in the food service industry. Meadows managed and tended bars in northern California before moving to Warner in 2008. Austin has a degree in hotel, restaurant and tourism administration from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He and his wife, Bernadette, moved to Warner in 2004.

Another asset that each brings to the project is heavy community involvement. Meadows has coached soccer and heads the local youth baseball program. Austin serves on the parks and recreation committee. Both men and their wives and children, who will help operate the restaurant, are known around town.

“The thing about The Local that we’re so excited about is the people who are getting this going are people that are really based in the community, raising their kids here, being involved in groups – baseball, Girl Scouts,” said Katharine Nevins, who owns MainStreet BookEnds. “They’re two families with oodles of restaurant experience and very aware and focused on supporting ‘local.’ They want this to be the local hangout.”

The community connections should help attract a core set of patrons, especially during baseball and softball season when out-of-town families travel to Warner for games, but Austin and Meadows said they realize that to survive financially they will have to do better than that.

“We’re going to have to work hard to pull people in here because this area doesn’t get a ton of foot traffic,” Austin said.

To start, they’ve built a Facebook page and have been spreading news about the restaurant through that. They’re also working on securing a spot for a sign near Exit 9 and possibly somewhere near the turnoff for Mount Sunapee.

“Exit 9 is a huge stop,” Meadows said. “Anybody going skiing or to Vermont from lower New England – everybody stops at Exit 9. That’s where the gas is, it’s where the McDonald’s is.”

Another challenge will be legacy; the space the two have leased has a long history of turnover. Cricenti’s Market occupied the building for decades until it finally closed in 1994, when a Market Basket was built near Exit 9. The space sat vacant until 1999, when Sundance Solar took over the lease. Sundance eventually relocated and, in 2004, a floral shop moved in. The lease passed to White Mountain Coffee in 2005, and again to a coffee shop called Clovis Moon in 2010.

But Meadows said that between his and Austin’s restaurant backgrounds, local connections and budget sense, he is optimistic that their venture will take root.

“We’re trying to do it right, from the ground up,” he said. “Buying the right things, the right equipment. Everybody says we’re on track because we’re behind schedule and over budget.”

That’s not entirely true. The two have in fact managed a relatively whirlwind turnaround, developing a business plan in about a month and planning to open roughly eight weeks after first acquiring keys to the space.

“Not getting into it the last time I think really did us some good,” Meadows said. “Because it gave us more than a year to really go over it in our heads. And that put us in a good position when we had the opportunity to hit the ground running, because we already knew what we wanted to do.” He and Austin added that the turnaround would not have been possible without local volunteers, who have helped paint the interior and install new equipment.

The Local’s menu will be fixed but will feature daily specials that may become staples if they receive a warm reception. Austin said it will include traditional lunch and dinner items, such as sandwiches, salads, soups and stews, but will not have traditional diner fare such as burgers, fries – anything fried or grilled – because the kitchen lacks an exhaust system. Meadows said they may be able to install a vent eventually, if the business takes off, but for now it’s just not in the budget.

“We’ve had to work creatively with the menu being that we can’t do a lot of the traditional stuff,” he said.

“It’s tough because we’re not going to have burgers or chicken tenders,” Austin said. “And chicken tenders are basically a favorite of kids. So we had to really go out and get a feel for what kids would really eat.”

To do that, Austin created an online survey for parents, which he linked through the restaurant’s Facebook page, asking what kid-centric items they want the restaurant to offer. The big winner: homemade macaroni and cheese.

Meadows said the restaurant will offer local produce whenever possible, but noted that he and Austin are also realistic about the difficulty of sourcing local salad greens in January. They plan to work with a local meat company full time, though, and source the rest of their food through a distributor based in Maine.

Craft beers and wine will also be offered, as well as more affordable draft beverages.

Though the restaurant will compete for lunch crowds with the popular Foot Hills restaurant down the street, Austin said The Local will offer several different options from its competitor.

The restaurant will seat 48 people – double its previous capacity because the two have installed a second bathroom. The restaurant will be open until 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and until 10 p.m. the rest of the week.

The staff, at least to start, will consist of family members. The wives of Austin and Meadows have helped develop the menu. They will each contribute with service and cooking. Meadows’s 19-year-old son is going to take on a number of responsibilities, too.

“He doesn’t have any experience so we’re going to teach him from the ground up,” Meadows said. “By the time he’s old enough to bartend, he’ll know the entire restaurant.”

Meadows said his and Austin’s long-term goal is to open a handful of similar small eateries in the region.

“While we can make decent money out of this place, it’s not enough for both of us to support our families comfortably,” he said. “But a few places that we could grow out of this, that would be.”

In the meantime, he’s not leaving his day job in telecommunications. Austin said he is competing for a new financial job in Concord and will keep that if he gets it.

Asked how the two plan to deal with workplace conflicts should they arise, both stressed communication. “It’s good to have several ideas,” Meadows said. “I’ve had ideas where the two of them (pointing to Austin and his wife, Tiffany) looked at me like I’m crazy.”

Austin said he’s just excited to finally jump back into the food world.

“I like to make people happy. I enjoy when we have people over for holidays, doing everything and letting people relax and fixing stuff for them,” he said. “I think a lot of people are drawn to the restaurant business. It’s kind of the American dream.”

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319,
jblackman@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JBlackmanCM.)

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