NAHCOTTA - The restaurant business is not all glamour and glitter. Even a Glitter Queen and a Kitchen Philosopher can't stay in the restaurant business forever, a business in which every hour of every day of every week requires your undivided attention.
You sleep, but not like normal people. You do other things, but not like normal people. You go to work early and stay late. It's like clamming or fishing or harvesting oysters. You do what you do when the time is right. You have to go with the ebb and the flow of the tide - in this case, the tide of tourists. So those busy, late spring, high summer, and early fall months on the peninsula, when every restaurant is open every day, you don't sleep, eat, think, plan - don't even mention play - or have a life of your own, not like normal people.
And even when you're not open every day of the week, you're thinking about it, planning, consulting with each other, hiring and training new people, ordering supplies, having the roof repaired, or trying to get away, looking for a little R&R in the city - pick a city, any city - or trying to get back to wherever you came from to see relatives who don't understand that some businesses just don't close for holidays - especially the restaurant business, which thrives on holidays and vacation times.
So Chefs Main and Lucas think about getting out of the restaurant business and doing something different. Not retiring exactly, but doing things they haven't had time for in the last 20 years or so. After those good years in a business that has thrived on the bounty from the sea, they'd sort of like to put a sign on the door that simply says, "Gone Fishin'"
When Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas talk about the highs and the lows, the ups and the downs, the good times and the bad, one thing stands out above everything else: people. For the owners of The Ark, there is a community of people here on the peninsula, and a community of people who have, over the years, become something of an Ark extended family. These are important relationships - with people who are living right here on the peninsula or people who have been drawn to the peninsula by something that everyone who lives here understands, but finds difficult to articulate. Whatever the mystique, it has kept the women of The Ark here on the peninsula riding The Ark along the edge of the bay for these past 23 years.
There's a garden out in front of The Ark with a little sign that says, "Faye's Garden", and that garden space is there to commemorate the memory of Faye Beaver. Chef Lucas describes her as the quintessential peninsula woman, a fiercely independent spirit who lived in Ocean Park near the beach approach in a pink house everyone called the Pepto-Bismol house.
"She was an independent elder woman," Chef Lucas says thoughtfully," a peninsula woman all the way - with an independent spirit - fiercely independent - and yet she let us tend to her and take care of her and honor her over the years. She had her special table. She'd come in for brunch, and, if someone was sitting there, she'd just walk right up to it anyway - because that was her table."
The women of The Ark saw to it that someone peeled Faye's strawberries for her. She liked them peeled. Chef Main produced a bread, called Beaver Bread, the recipe for which is in the first cookbook. Faye liked the special spices in it so the bread was named for her. Faye Beaver did things in return. She liked to needlepoint, and she did pillows for both of the owners of The Ark.
"That's one right there," Chef Lucas says, pointing to a pillow propped up against the low sill of the window looking out over the forest to the side of the house. Both women had a special rapport with Faye Beaver.
"I'd go over to her house sometimes and sit and talk with her," Jimella says. "She was a single woman and now and again she would talk personally about a romance she'd had. I believe she was an only child. When her mother became ill, the responsibility of caring for her fell to Faye, and her personal life went on the shelf."
Apparently, Faye Beaver had a career and earned her own way in the world. She worked for Zell Jewelers in Portland, a prominent jewelry store in the area, and became something of a jewelry craftsperson herself, making her own jewelry.
"She offered me something [she'd made] once," Jimella says, "and I didn't take it. I shrugged it off by saying, 'No, you don't have to give me anything.' I've kicked myself around the block for not accepting that gift because it would have been a special thing. She was such a mentor to me."
Once when Jimella was visiting with Faye, sometime before she died, Faye confided that she had made a decision to go into a nursing home. "I'm too nervous about being alone." Jimella offered to come cook her meals and to tend to her. "No, no. It's not that," she insisted. "I'm just nervous." Chef Lucas never questioned her anymore after that because Faye seemed to know what she wanted to do. "She'd already made up her mind. She thought she would live easier in a rest home," Jimella says.
After Faye went into the nursing home, Jimella started something of a tradition. Every Sunday, Jimella would direct one of the young men who worked in the kitchen to take Chef Lucas' very own little Peugeot and drive down to the rest home to pick up Faye and bring her to The Ark for brunch. That was a tradition they continued as long as Faye was alive.
One Sunday shortly before Faye died, she was at The Ark for her usual brunch at her usual table with the usual peeled strawberries and Beaver bread. Jimella knew she and Nanci would be gone the next weekend - teaching a class or doing something that would have them gone somewhere - and she walked out to the car with Faye to tell her that. As Faye settled into the Peugeot, she said just out of the blue, "I hate this. I can't see. I can't needlepoint. I'm just tired of it all."
Jimella, chef and kitchen philosopher extraordinaire, knelt down beside Faye and said simply: "Well, you know, you don't have to hang around for anybody, Faye. When you're ready to go, you can just do that."
Faye died while Jimella and Nanci were in Seattle, but they found out later that Faye had made her exit in her own style. She had had a party, her own farewell party, in her room at the nursing home. Five or six elder women with whom Faye had "life-long been with" helped Faye to celebrate as they gathered there with her in her room. According to one of the attendants, there was a lot of laughter coming out of Faye's room that night. They were all telling stories and having a grand ol' time. Faye died that night - but not until the party was over.
We sit in Jimella's living room looking out over the fall foliage and holding that image of Faye Beaver hosting her own farewell party, maybe individually wondering what our own farewell party might be and where and with which special friends with whom we have "life-long been with."
The kitchen philosopher breaks the silence. "We've had some really close relationships with some of our customers, really good customers, really good relationships. My relationship with Faye was probably as long as my relationship with Nanci."
Nanci nods in silent agreement. Faye's story resurrects talk about other memorable customers. "Jack Downer was another one, "Nanci says. "Jack and Lucille. The Downers came in every Sunday night. It was part of the training regimen for the service desk. Whoever was on the desk Sunday nights had to know what they liked to drink, what they liked to eat, everything. They were part of The Ark family. I had a lot of conversations with Jack." She looks off toward the waning light of the forest. They didn't close on Sunday nights, Nanci says, until the kitchen got the message. "The Downers are in. We're down."
"It's a big loss for us," Jimella adds, "to lose any customer who has been a significant person in our lives."
"Dale Little doesn't come in anymore," Nanci says, "but she has been a very important customer. We've had a lot of wonderful times with Dale coming in. Always wearing a hat. She's famous for her hats. For years and years she would come into the restaurant."
These are only a few of the friends of The Ark. There have been many, many such friends over the years, too many to list. Some such friends go back with Nanci and Jimella to the beginning, before the women of The Ark were the women of The Ark, back to the time when they were the women of the Shelburne, their first restaurant venture as co-owners. Sid and Betty Snyder, to name two, go back that far. The Snyders have been customers, staunch supporters, and long time friends from the very beginning. The women of The Ark know exactly the way the Snyders want their chowder served, they know Betty likes her German nut bars, and they know all the other little particulars of the Snyder tastes. With good reason, the Snyders enjoy V.I.P. status when they come to The Ark.
There have been young customers, too; youngsters who have virtually grown up in The Ark, or so it seems.
"We've had some meaningful customers who were young," Nanci says, and then she tells the story of one couple that had a young son, not very old, not yet in his teens even. When the mother, father, and son came into the restaurant, Nanci invited the young boy back to the kitchen to help cook his own dinner, something they do from time to time.
"You're going to go somewhere your parents would give an arm and a leg to go, but you're the only one who gets to go," she tells the chosen child. Then the child goes right on the line and gets to help cook his own dinner. Sometimes people come in and remind Nanci that they were there ten years ago, and then they recount something that Jimella and Nanci let their children do.
"They never forget that experience," Nanci says with a bit of awe in her voice. "For years that couple would come back. They lived up near Seattle, and they came back regularly. We watched that little boy Josh grow up." One time they came in, Josh had just gotten his driver's license, and that was all the discussion. Then the father got cancer and died."
Jimella nods. "Yes, we went through the cancer with him. The last time they all came in together, we knew it would be the last time we saw [the dad]."
"Yes," Nanci says thoughtfully. "Then within the next year we got an invitation from Josh because he was getting his Eagle Scout Badge. I went up for the occasion. I represented both Jimella and me. We do that a lot. One of us represents both of us if one of us stays behind to run the restaurant. It was an honor to be invited to that ceremony. His dad was gone, and Josh had worked real hard for that honor. [Josh and his mother] were so touched that I had driven all the way from the beach to be there for that. That personal connection we had with that family had been built over the years with their coming to the restaurant. Lots of connections happen that way."
Little Nathan is another example. Nathan came to the restaurant when he was just a little tike. His picture is in one of the cookbooks. The picture shows a little tiny kid with a big smile who has just made his first bear claw in The Ark bakery. Right next to it is another picture of him years later wearing a tuxedo with his beautiful bride next to him, and they are cutting the wedding cake that Nanci Main made for them. So there's a cycle of relationships born out of The Ark.
"There is a lot of that kind of thread woven into the fabric that is The Ark," Nanci says, "woven out of a lot of rites of passage that have come through The Ark."
There are many customers who are considered regulars, people other people say you can set your watch by. As the Downers did, the Macks come in every week. If the women of The Ark don't see the Macks' name on the reservation sheet, "Well, now we've got them trained to let us know if they're not coming in," Jimella says. And the Macks are well trained. They call ahead now and say, "We have an engagement. We'll be gone."
"Yes," Nanci says, "there are people who have to call to not have a reservation. And then there are all those people who have their favorite tables," she adds laughing, reminding me that my own favorite spot at The Ark is either number 15 or number 16, one of the big booths at the back of the dining room between the entrance to the bar and the in-and-out swinging doors of the kitchen, easily accessible if Chef Lucas happens to step out for a quick hello. Well, of course. It's like sitting at the same place at your table at home. It's just where you like to sit. You wouldn't feel right sitting anywhere else. When you're at home, you sit at in a certain place at the table. When someone turns to look in that direction, they expect to see you sitting there. So it follows naturally that if you're at The Ark, you want to be sitting at what you consider your place at your table.
That kind of attention to customers is another thing the hostess has to keep track of if Nanci is not there. They have a whole system of writing in a book and keeping track, and a lot of people have their favorite little space where they like to sit. Making sure that happens is a formidable task, and it's become something of a tradition.
"The Krugers like 15 or 16, too, for brunch. That's it. You see some names, and you know where they're going to go. The exact table."
"That's true about the menu, too," Chef Lucas adds. "Like the Krugers. They always have eggs Benedict, but [Mrs. Kruger] will have hers scrambled hard."
"Then on the last menu," Nanci points out, "I had masa bread. It's no longer on our menu, but the Macks love our masa bread, so I make masa bread just for them."
"And the Caswells," Jimella reminds her. Nanci nods emphatically.
The women of The Ark have broadened what any frequent customer suspects: Chefs Main and Lucas will accommodate almost any food craving if you ask - and often one doesn't even have to ask. They know and remember what you like, and frequently that specialty dish appears when you come through the door. Such warm attentiveness is reason enough to come back time and time again, whether you're hungry or not.
Spending some time with the women of The Ark, one begins to understand what attention to detail really means. In the restaurant business, they point out, there is an incredible attention given to detail, and you can't let up on it - even after 23 years. In the restaurant business, they believe, you're providing an example to people who work for you, and you have a clientele and customer base that comes to expect that kind attention to detail. This is what they do, and this is what their reputation is built on.
"So even when we're really, really tired," Nanci Main points out, "we go past being tired to do what we've always done. It's very important to do that. It's part of our commitment. It's what we are. It's who we are."
So, The Ark is on the market, but the women of The Ark have developed an unusual perspective on the business of selling or not selling. The timing has to be right, and both of them have to be ready to let it all go - the business, the people, and all the camaraderie and adventure that comes with it.
"We've been here 23 years," Chef Lucas says, "and we have not just run a restaurant. We've been part of the community and done all these other things, too. I'm just now asking myself to slow down a little bit and not do all these things at one time."
When they sell, the way will open up for new adventures. They want to teach more classes, maybe do some catering, perhaps revitalize their program of teaching youngsters about food and cooking. Surely one or both of them will write a book that tells the whole story of their adventure as the women of The Ark. Certainly, they will remain committed to the community here on the peninsula and probably continue to widen that community. Certainly, they will miss their customers, old and new. Most certainly, they will ponder for some time to come the anomaly of loving their work and leaving it to move on to something new.
With new ownership of The Ark, there will be a new day with new people at the helm, people who themselves will become part of the history and tradition of The Ark.
Nonetheless, there's a certain irony in it all when you consider the challenge of preparing yourself to release your business to someone else and feeling okay about it at the same time.
"And that," Nanci Main points out, melding the glitter queen and the kitchen philosopher into one voice, "is an interesting lesson in itself, isn't it?"