Sad, relieved, elated, surreal, proud and excited.
That is how Mary Schaffer described her feelings the day after Napa & Co. closed its doors after ten years serving some of the finest cuisines and the most exciting wines to hundreds of thousands of satisfied guests. During that time, Mary, with her keen instinct for great chefs, hired notables to oversee the kitchen at Napa, including Bill Taibe, Arik Bensimon, Adam Truelove and Dan Kardos. In the last seven years, CTbites, Mary and Napa have shared a unique relationship, Mary was kind enough to open her kitchen to our first Behind the Scenes Mushroom Iron Chef article, offered inside glimpses of the hamburger that changed the scene for hamburgers in Fairfield County and allowed us a visit with Celebrity Chef and world pizza champion Elizabeth Faulkner while she grilled pizza.
We could write a very long tribute to Mary, her team and the cuisine at Napa, but decided to ask a few questions and allow Mary to tell our readers what it was like creating the groundbreaking restaurant that changed it all in Fairfield County…
The big question on everyone’s mind is why now?
Ten years seems like a good number. It worked out for me last time! We sold Telluride at the 10 year mark and when Napa hit 10 years a few months ago, it just seemed the right time to find a fresh, new space. We’ve had a great run. The day we announced the news and it hit the internet, we sold out lunches and dinners for the 5 days left until closing. That response was overwhelming. It’s always been important to me, to know when to sell. I think people outside of this industry don’t recognize that selling a business is often the ultimate goal. It’s not a negative. We did what we set out to do here- change the dining scene, elevate and push ourselves from our last concept and make some great memories for people.
Closing Telluride and opening Napa was a big change. What did you see in the cuisine that Napa would offer that gave you confidence it would be as big a success as it was?
I knew there was an opportunity. At that time, there were mostly Italian restaurants in town. There were 1 or 2 Indian restaurants, Telluride and French but there was nothing like we had seen on our visits to Napa Valley over the years. Having wine take stage and be an equal focus to the cuisine was unheard of but I’ve always been passionate at sharing how great the marriage of the two can be when done well. I’ve taught wine classes from the first week we opened- long before anyone considered such a thing. I believe it was a great concept and still is. Our brand, reputation and business is strong.
You have hired some of the best chefs in the area and groomed others. You saw something in each of these talents. How did you see the talent in each of these young chefs.
Sometimes you’re not certain and you take a chance. Sometimes you see the passion and talent immediately. Sometimes you hope to groom and cultivate. Each chef has been unique in their approach to our concept, and therefore, putting their fingerprint on the menus at their time. We’ve been very lucky to have so many talented people behind our line- ultimately, we’ve always been picky that our reputation and brand were and are about quality. If that didn’t come through then the relationship didn’t work.
I have to ask since you know how much I love burgers. When you introduced the Napa Burger with its Wagyu beef and accompanying price tag, did you know how great it was and how long it would stay on the menu? Did you ever envision that people would order a burger on a Saturday night dinner with a great bottle of wine?
That’s an amazing piece of our history. I knew I wanted to create a decadent and delicious burger. I wanted a signature piece that would be our draw. I’m not certain, but I think we were really one of the first to take burgers seriously as an entrée and truly be creative in its execution and design. As always, quality ingredients were key. It had to be the best beef first, quality aged gouda, a delicious Brioche bun to capture all of the juices, etc. This burger was $26 because it cost us a lot to produce. Customers would ask for lettuce, tomato, no this and no that and we had to explain, no—it’s an experience. You don’t change it. It’s not your average pub burger. For a while, it even had its own Facebook page!
Napa was one of the first restaurants to have a highly-focused wine program. You are a certified Sommelier. Did this separate Napa immediately from the competition due to your training to offer incredible wine-food pairings?
At the time, there were certainly few restaurants that took chances with their wine programs. There were no significant wine-by-the-glass programs. There was no variety of choices. You would never have seen a Silvaner or Chinon by the glass. That was step one. The second step was getting people used to seeing wines at $25 a glass. They would pay $80 for a bottle but when that same wine was offered by the glass- the price became offensive! It was always important to me that we were never pretention. One tag line we used in the beginning was…Blue Jeans without pretention. Wine is supposed to be fun. Having well trained staff that are passionate about sharing their love of wine was step number three. That, too, was new at the time. It was rare to have a Somm on the floor locally but even rarer to have staff that knew and loved wine. I think those things, in addition to our wine classes and focus on wine & food, separated us from our competition. Ten years later, there are some amazing wine programs in Fairfield County.
Speaking of the wine and bar program. Would you have preferred a dining space that offered diners more seats at the bar to enjoy wine with a side of food?
As you know, the bar scene has changed so much in the last few years. So many people, of any age, prefer to dine at the bar. The informality and higher energy makes the bar more popular to today’s diner. Next time around, a larger bar would be great!
Can you share some of your favorite moments from Napa?
- Decorating a real 16’ Christmas tree with all of the trimmings, only to be told to take it down an hour later by the Fire Department because you’re not allowed to have real trees.
- Two weeks after hiring a new chef- they have a heart attack!
- Not having a babysitter one night when my daughters were young, I asked them to behave in the office during the dinner service. We walk up to find flour all over the walls and themselves!
- Dented-can-gate. Received a failing score from the Stamford Health Dept for a dented can and panic and accusations flooded the internet for a week.
- Receiving an “Excellent” from the New York Times (the only Stamford restaurant to date)
- Napa’s dining room on the cover of a trade magazine, Market Watch
- Robert DeNiro requiring a private room or Ron Howard dining frequently like a regular guy in the main room
- losing electricity in a packed house
- losing heat for three days during the dead of winter – we could see our breath!
- staff parties – some wild and crazy nights!
Do you have any immediate plans for the near term or are you planning on spending time with your family before moving onto your next adventure?
In the last few days, I’ve been contacted with so many offers from realtors to show me spaces and investors that want to partner. We will see. I want to explore other towns at this stage. I’ve spent twenty years as a restaurateur in Stamford. I think there might be better areas to explore. Municipalities that are more supportive of small businesses and zoning in place that protects those that invest in their town – key for me next time around.
For all of our wine lovers. What are the plans for the wine inventory? Will you sell it?
We’ve consumed a great deal in the last few days! I’ve gifted some to staff and customers. I’ve taken a few treasures to enjoy at a later date. Nothing went to waste!
From all of us at CTbites and the people you touched with great cuisine and wine over the years…
Thanks for the Memories!!!