NEW MARLBOROUGH — Old Inn on the Green — the candlelit 1760 stagecoach inn turned fine dining restaurant — was recently voted No. 3 "Diners' Choice" in New England on OpenTable.com, the online reservation website and mobile app.
Chef and owner Peter Platt, who runs the Old Inn restaurant and inn with his wife, Meredith Kennard, has made a reputation for the rustic restaurant tucked away in a quiet corner of Berkshire County. Beloved for its vibe and its food, The Old Inn does a steady business of locals and non, who swear by the lamb, the wine list, and the charm that oozes out of the 200-year-old floorboards. We spoke to Platt recently about online reservations, sourcing local food, and citizen critics, among other things.
Q: You were just voted third place in the "Diners' Choice" in New England by OpenTable.com but you have some reservations about that site. Why?
A: OpenTable is by far the most popular reservations app, and if patrons make reservations online, they get reward points and cash back from OpenTable, and of course, that falls on the shoulders of the restaurants, who pay a dollar per guest fee for each reservation that comes through their system, as well as a substantial monthly fee for use of the equipment. It's also a reservation book, so to speak, and they offer a lot of features for the front of the house, so we pay them a couple hundred a month for that, too. It adds up.
Q: So in the end, do you think they're making you money or costing you money?
A: They provide a great service, but it's hard to say what that service is worth. They certainly charge more than is necessary because they make a good profit, and it's all coming from hard working small businesses. Everyone is frustrated with how much it costs, but everyone really likes the service. So it's like a necessary evil.
Q: There are so many sites that offer customers space to review your restaurant. What's that like, when everyone's a potential critic?
A: There are so many online review sites now compared to a few years ago so, it's a little watered-down. Whether its TripAdvisor or Google or Yelp, everyone wants to know what the customers think, because it drives traffic to their sites, so they make money off those reviews.
Q: Do you read those reviews?
A: We don't really. Bad ones come to our attention — we try to respond if we can, or if we see there's something to be learned from someone's thoughtful criticism.
Q: Do customers seem like they feel more empowered to air their grievances now that they have so many forums?
A: What's frustrating is when someone comes and they give you a bad review because their food wasn't prepared to their liking and they don't tell you while they're dining so you can't correct it. We're always happy to re-cook something or replace a dish if they're not happy. But sometimes people suffer in silence and then go home and write a bad review. So what are you going to do about that?
Q: Staffing a huge problem up here. Are you hiring?
A: Yes! Staffing is more difficult every year and this year is no exception. It's probably harder this year than any year. There just aren't people here to work. It's an older population in this area, with more second homers, fewer kids, and more expensive housing, so it's harder for seasonal labor to come here and live. So everything kind of works against having the help you need. And that's true for not just restaurants, but stores, and farms and any place where business picks up in the summer. Right now, we need dishwashers, waiters, a garde manger chef, a line cook for the vegetables, and an expediter.
Q: How do you get the food out with so much staff missing?
A: It requires a lot of coordination and being a little bit careful in taking reservations to make sure that they're spread out, and that we have time to prepare each dish.
Q: Do you tailor the dishes around the amount of staff you have?
A: Sometimes you have to make simpler food. We run a pre fixe during the week that helps make it possible to do more people those nights. Food can be simple and delicious. It doesn't have to be complicated.
Q: Patrons from the city might have a nice image of the local farmer supplying the restaurants who cook the fresh food and serve it to the customers. But it's a lot more complicated than that, right? Distribution, consistency, and pricing all play a part.
A: The best restaurants use an amazing amount of local produce, and some restaurants, especially those that are right in town, are able to take deliveries because the farmers can visit a bunch of different spots in a short time. We're not able to take advantage of that because of our location. Some local farmers do deliver to our door — Freddy Freidman and Jan Johnson — and my wife, Meredith, grows all my edible flowers and my herbs. But I generally shop for local produce at farmer's markets and Guido's.
Q: What percentage of the food you cook is locally grown?
A: It depends on what you think is local. If you go 100 miles out, then it's a pretty good percentage. We mostly buy from within the Berkshires. We use New England fish, Hudson Valley poultry. The beef and lamb are not local.
Q: What else would you like to see from farmers up here?
A: I'm a board member of Berkshire Grown, and we're always trying to encourage more farmers, more food. But I think the local farmers, what they produce is incredible quality. It's never been better and quantities are great. The hard part for farmers right now is finding a market for the food and getting a price that supports their business.
Q: What do you think of the local food scene?
A: For the restaurants that take their food seriously and buy local stuff, I think they do a pretty darn good job. It's hard in the Berkshires when it's so busy and you have trouble with staffing and the service might not be so great and you might have problems with stuff that comes out of the kitchens — but if you look at the effort that goes into it, and the seasonality of the business and the physicality it demands, you really can't complain with what happens here.
Q: What's one of your favorite local ingredients?
A: We get a great little micro mix of greens from Mill River Farm, which is run by Jan Johnson. They grow a crazy amount of things and they just dropped off some cucumbers last week that are fantastic. She also produces honey and wax products and she also sells chickens, pork, and goat.
Q: How would you describe the "Old Inn on the Green" experience?
A: We try to strike a balance between really excellent cuisine and a certain familiarity of service that's not as formal as you might find elsewhere. We are in a 1760 building — so we are what we are. We try to be true to our heritage and to the tradition of the restaurant — a seriousness of attitude about dining, and the food we serve, and a real commitment to quality within the constraints of our price structure and what we can afford to put on the plate. I think our reputation reflects that.