When Pioneer Valley natives Aaron Thayer and Abby Fuhrman decided to open a restaurant, they didn’t think it would be in Northampton. Over the seven years the husband-and-wife duo have been together, they lived in bustling coastal cities like Boston and San Francisco. They’d spent the better part of a decade in more diverse communities paced faster than the sleepy valley of their youth. But when they decided to move back to Western Massachusetts so Fuhrman could pursue a graduate degree in social work, the place they left behind years before struck them as the ideal location to put down roots.
“It felt different being here as an adult,” Fuhrman says. “We could see the area through a different lens, especially during this time in our lives, when we knew we wanted to get married and have kids. We thought, ‘Okay, this could feel good to settle here.’ And it’s been amazing to have the support of our families here.”
Thayer and Fuhrman eventually bought a building in Easthampton with a plan to convert the commercial space on the ground level into a restaurant called Hunt & Gather. They hoped to build an open-fire hearth as its focal point. Then they got the renovation estimate.
“It was basically twice as much as what we had budgeted for,” Thayer says. “At that point, it was clear it was prohibitively expensive to turn it into a restaurant.”
Thayer — who previously cooked at Petit Crenn in San Francisco, Clio and Mooo in Boston, and Coco and the Cellar Bar in Easthampton — and Fuhrman, who is a social worker, had spent a significant amount of time strategizing. Over seven months, they’d developed a business plan, a budget, and a menu, only to have their plans dashed by that renovation estimate.
“Hunt & Gather was always what I wanted to do,” says Thayer. “When I was at Petit Crenn in San Francisco, we had an open fire, and it was such an incredible experience to cook on it. It gives you so much versatility, with the ways you can have your food interact with heat and smoke, which you really can’t replicate any other way. That was the big focal point of Hunt & Gather, and to lose that was a little bit disappointing.”
Their initial plan fizzled in September 2019, but Thayer and Fuhrman were undeterred. They salvaged much of their business plan and were ready to hit the ground running when Rich Madowitz approached them and asked if they wanted to open a restaurant in a recently vacant space he owned in the basement of Thornes Marketplace in downtown Northampton.
Thayer and Fuhrman knew that opening in the basement of a shopping center meant that building an open-fire hearth wouldn’t be an option, but they recognized that operating in a well-patronized marketplace with a captive audience was too good an opportunity to turn down. They took what they learned while planning for Hunt & Gather, figured out how a different restaurant would work in Northampton’s more established dining scene, and signed a lease in November 2019, planning to open by the spring of 2020.
And then the coronavirus pandemic struck. For the second time in six months, Thayer and Fuhrman had to put their restaurant on hold. Still, they were undaunted.
“This is kind of the way our lives have been for the past two years,” says Fuhrman. “We start planning one thing, and then we have to shift. It’s all taught us a lot about flexibility, and about putting our heads down and moving toward our goal and not getting discouraged. It’s set us up to just keep moving.”
Thayer echoed his wife’s sentiments.
“We’ve been staying flexible, as much as possible,” he says. “We’ve pivoted a couple times already. Our initial opening date was supposed to be April 3, so, obviously, we had a little more time to finish the space than we wanted. In preparation for July, when restaurants were reopening, we really thought hard about what we wanted to do and how we wanted to introduce ourselves to the community.”
The couple used that time to renovate. They outfitted the kitchens with all new fixtures and equipment, including two combination ovens and a pasta well, and made aesthetic changes to the dining room, bar, and lounge area. Fuhrman, who just accepted a full-time position as a social worker in a therapeutic high school, was on furlough from a previous job and used that time to redesign the interior, write the restaurant’s human resources handbook, and integrate the restaurant with various technology platforms, including OpenTable and Toast.
Thayer and Fuhrman also tinkered with the layout of the space, which Thayer described as “amorphous.” They created well-defined barriers between the dining room and the bar and lounge sections, and they closed windows that looked out into the marketplace to give the space a more intimate feel. In their eyes, the new look warranted a new name: Patria, inspired by Thayer’s mother, Patricia, as well as the Latin word for “native,” apropos given its owners’ local provenance.
Patria is open for business now, operating in a space in Thornes Marketplace previously occupied by ConVino Wine Bar, and Dynamite Records before that. Thayer and Fuhrman don’t believe it’s safe to serve customers inside just yet, so Patria is only offering patio service for the time being. When Patria finally does open for indoor dining — Thayer told Eater that time will come whenever there’s an effective vaccine for COVID-19 — its capacity will be for 69 diners. For now, it can accommodate 32 on its patio.
“The outdoor space looks like it was always meant to be a patio,” says Fuhrman. “The seating isn’t on a sidewalk or set up right next to the street.”
It has felt great to provide guests with a secluded, spacious escape from the chaos of life under a pandemic, she continues.
“We’ve heard so many people saying, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the first time I’ve been out’ or ‘This is the first time I’ve been away from my kids for a nice night out in six months.’”
Thayer says that finding enough people willing to reenter the restaurant workforce has been challenging. As such, Patria opened with a limited menu of small plates — including oysters served with umeboshi (preserved Japanese plums) ice, charred jalapenos, and shiso; furikake Parker House rolls; gougère stuffed with a kind of cheese foam; and steam buns filled with a choice of smoked short rib or crispy duck confit — and drinks.
Thayer says he has some friends from Boston who will be joining the Patria team in the near future, at which point the restaurant will transition toward offering entrees in addition to small plates, as well as takeout and to-go cocktails. And come fall, Patria will have a fixed seven-course tasting menu. Service will be by reservation only. Thayer also stresses that operating in its current capacity has allowed him and his kitchen staff to make sure everything on the menu is perfect, especially those items that will feature on the fixed menu.
Patria’s bar manager Bowen Kirwood previously worked at the Green Room in Northampton and specializes in classic cocktails (think Old Fashioneds, aviations, penicillins). Its wine director, Jeffrey Bagnell, worked at Spruce in San Francisco and Beacon Hill steakhouse Mooo and has developed an eclectic list that features a variety of reds, whites, and rosés from various wine-producing regions in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United States, as well as sake.
Thayer and Fuhrman both say that service during a pandemic has been challenging — how close should servers get to diners when approaching tables? How will diners react to servers wearing masks and gloves? How can they limit the number of servers dropping food at tables to one person? And on and on and on — but that diners have been more than amenable.
“It’s felt fine,” says Fuhrman. “Being outside, wearing masks and gloves, being clear with patrons about the rules, which people have been following very well.”
In terms of sourcing, Thayer and Fuhrman are trying to be as true to their name as possible, relying on local producers and suppliers for many of the menu’s features. A Tuesday farmers market in the same courtyard as the Patria patio makes that a lot easier — it’s where Thayer gets tomatoes, onions, shiso, okra, and various other produce items. The biggest problems in terms of sourcing have, perhaps unsurprisingly, involved personal protective equipment.
“You can’t get gloves right now,” says Thayer. “They’re sold out everywhere, or they’re exorbitantly expensive. But that’s something you just can’t get around, right? Like, if you’re going to be open during COVID, you have to have gloves.”
For Thayer and Fuhrman, being self-aware and actively thinking about how they’d have to navigate a community’s evolving needs in the midst of a pandemic was common sense. They always aimed to be mindful of who they would serve, but they were also acutely aware of where Patria sits in the broader context of Western Massachusetts. Hampshire County is more than 83 percent white, and Thayer is a Black chef cooking for an overwhelmingly white audience. That’s not lost on Thayer, who acknowledges that it influenced why he hadn’t planned to open a restaurant in the Pioneer Valley until recently.
“For years and years and years, I never thought this was where I was going to open my restaurant,” Thayer says. “But moving home three years ago and seeing the shift in culture was really eye-opening for me. ... You know, there are Black Lives Matter parades here now. We’re the only Black-owned restaurant in Northampton, and the outpouring of support we’ve already felt from people has been amazing.”
And asked what he and Fuhrman plan to do when the cold weather comes and they can no longer serve diners on their patio, Thayer remains optimistic.
“We are firmly in the camp that we don’t want to serve people inside; we just don’t think it’s safe,” says Thayer. “We’re going to get as much out of this season as we can, and we’re going to continue to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. We’ll continue to work with our landlord, and hopefully he’ll work with us to stay afloat until there’s a vaccine and it’s actually safe to continue doing what we all love.”