Big Tree Hospitality has a winning formula for restaurants.
If Big Tree Hospitality has a lucky number, it must be three. The trio of partners, Arlin Smith, Andrew Taylor, and Mike Wiley, owns three restaurants. The chefs, Taylor and Wiley, have been nominated three times for the James Beard Award, the food industry’s highest honor. In May, they brought home that prestigious award in the category of Best Chef: Northeast. They were recognized for their work at Eventide Oyster Co., up against some heavy-hitters from the Boston area and Providence (the category also includes New York state, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Vermont). Best Chef nominees, according to the James Beard Foundation, have worked as chefs for at least five years and “have set new or consistent standards of excellence in their respective regions.” Onstage to accept the honor, Taylor thanked Smith, saying, “This award is 33 percent yours.” In addition to Eventide, the trio also co-owns Hugo’s and The Honey Paw—all in a row on Middle Street. The restaurants and the team are a trifecta of talent, thoughtful planning, and hard work. Getting Taylor, Wiley, and Smith together for an interview in the wake of their win, announced at a gala in Chicago, was a rare and sometimes rollicking occasion.
The trio came together several years ago at Hugo’s, when the restaurant was owned by another James Beard Award winner, chef Rob Evans. Evans had established Hugo’s reputation by combining regional and seasonal ingredients with innovative techniques not previously seen in this area. The restaurant became synonymous with a certain style of cooking—experimental, luxurious, groundbreaking. Both Taylor and Wiley had gone to college in Maine, and were looking for a reason to return. Smith arrived first, followed by Taylor, who came from Boston, where he had been working for acclaimed chef Ken Oringer, himself a James Beard Award winner. And Wiley, who had been in Colorado, answered a Craigslist ad seeking a fish cook. The three watched how Evans and his wife, Nancy Pugh, successfully handled two restaurants—the more refined Hugo’s and the immensely popular casual eatery across the street, Duckfat. “Rob would use the staff at Duckfat sort of as a farm team for Hugo’s,” Taylor explains. “They would get trained there, with the promise of being brought over to work at Hugo’s, if all went well. That model made a whole lot of sense to us.” Owning two restaurants also gave them more efficient and economical access to food and supplies. Adds Wiley, “Having two different price points captures a bigger swath of the dining public.”
Eventually Evans decided to focus solely on Duckfat and approached Taylor about buying Hugo’s. “I didn’t want to own that business at that time,” Taylor says. “Hugo’s is an amazing restaurant that does incredible food, but when it’s slow in the winter, it’s really slow. That’s why you need a second restaurant, to keep things going.” Then three things happened that changed his mind. Taylor’s wife, Rachel, was expecting their first child. “I thought, ‘I can’t be just a cook now. I have to really figure things out,’” he says. Then the space next door that had been occupied by Rabelais bookstore became available. “I came in the next day,” Taylor continues, “and talked to Mike and Arlin. It was time to think seriously about buying Hugo’s and opening another restaurant next door.” But it was the day the three of them were asked to host potential buyers from New York that their mission became clear. “There was no way we were going to let Hugo’s be sold to New Yorkers. We realized we wanted to see Hugo’s continue, and these buyers would have changed that,” says Smith. Like pieces in a kaleidoscope, it all started to come into focus for the three of them, and the project moved forward quickly. Smith credits Taylor with seeing the big picture.
“Andrew has an incredible brain for seeing things in a different light than most. He told us his thoughts and how the partnership would work, and the idea for the shared kitchen.” By March of 2012, Hugo’s belonged to Taylor, Wiley, and Smith. They formed a management group, Big Tree Hospitality. “Initially, nothing changed. We were pretty much running the place anyway,” says Wiley. But things did change in the minds of some diners, and the team had to figure out how to navigate that. “We knew we might lose some customers based on the fact that Rob was no longer here,” he says. “I felt a little terrified taking over this place that has such an incredible reputation, but pretty much like everything else, you just keep your head down and work hard.” Taylor adds, “I knew we could usher Hugo’s into the next generation.”
And they have, with a 2013 renovation that better reflects their personalities and goals. “We wanted to breathe a little more life into the dining room,” Wiley says. “And since Andrew and I are both cooks, we wanted to make the kitchen really nice and much bigger.” Now the curved bar wraps around the open kitchen, where the talents of the staff are on display. It’s fascinating and fun to watch the action, as dishes are created and arranged and cooks calmly execute orders. “We thought it would be better if guests could see the chefs and for the crew to learn to talk with diners while they work,” says Wiley. “The beauty of Hugo’s is that it’s always evolving,” adds Smith.
Next door, Eventide Oyster Co. was in the process of establishing a reputation and earning a following. “It was a fire-breathing dragon right out of the gate,” says Wiley. The team had done research in Boston and New York, and were surprised to find little in the way of creativity at oyster bars. They realized there was an opportunity to provide a unique and exceptional experience. “It’s what Portland was missing,” says Smith. Over Belgian beers and wings at the Great Lost Bear, the three met to strategize. “That is where we decided how the oysters would be presented and the idea for ices to go with them,” Smith says. “The first two courses on the tasting menu at Hugo’s have almost always been crudo, so we knew how to do that food,” Taylor adds. “But we knew we needed to nail down a good lobster roll. We didn’t want to do a traditional version.” A steamed pork bun had been on the menu at Hugo’s and was a starting point for what would become Eventide’s signature item. “We started playing around with the dough, but we knew if we were going to use it, it would have to be split-top, a nod to traditional New England style. There was a brown butter period at Hugo’s, too,” he says. By putting those two elements together, a superstar was born. The rest of the menu changes nearly every day, but the wildly popular lobster roll remains a constant. In fact, when asked why the team won the James Beard Award for Eventide and not Hugo’s, Wiley’s answer was simple: the brown-butter lobster roll.
But you don’t win a Best Chef James Beard Award on the strength of your lobster roll alone, however phenomenal it might be. The entire Eventide menu calls out for exploration. The lobster stew with green curry and coconut is a sweet and savory revelation with a fathomless depth of flavor. A crunchy battered hake with housemade tartar sauce may not sound all that exciting, but it’s hot, crisp, and addictive. Crudo and ceviche dishes celebrate Maine’s best resource, simply prepared to let the fresh seafood shine. And the oysters, of course: Displayed in an enormous, ice-filled granite basin atop the bar, they are mostly local. Cocktails are carefully considered as an extension of the food. The savory celery gimlet complements seafood beautifully, and the ET Cooler refreshes the palate with gin, cucumber, sake, and lemon soda. An extensive list of sparkling wines also enhances the Eventide experience.
What else could a massively successful venture like Eventide need? More kitchen space. “We searched all over the peninsula for a commissary,” Smith explains. “But nothing felt right. Then we found out the corner space next to Eventide was becoming available.” Wiley adds, “We weren’t out to have a third restaurant, but with the available space, we stepped up to the plate. Again, we asked ourselves, ‘What does Portland not have?’” This serendipitous opportunity was the birth of The Honey Paw, a hip and casual Asian noodle joint.
“There was already an Asian sensibility to our food. And Mike was nerding out with all kinds of noodle ideas,” says Smith. “It’s a rare thing for a restaurant to make all their own noodles,” Wiley says. “But we do it all, and we’re proud of our technique.”
With the establishment of The Honey Paw, Big Tree Hospitality could build a kitchen that stretched the length of all three restaurants, servicing each one separately, but with easy crossover of basic ingredients, ideas, and more. The group might receive a whole tuna, prompting one of the chefs to call out for tuna on every menu. “It’s a wonderful experience for young cooks who are excited to break down a huge fish,” says Taylor. There’s crossover among the kitchen staff as well,
an advantage to all. “When someone takes a job at one of our restaurants, they’re really taking a job at all three, with 14 different positions to learn from,” he explains. “Having the three restaurants together creates a sense of loyalty among cooks, and creates opportunities for them to learn different roles. It might be the best thing about having all three restaurants together.” As an example, Taylor’s cousin, Lars Taylor, has come up through the system, working at every station possible and earning himself the chef de cuisine position at The Honey Paw. “The biggest benefit to the one kitchen is definitely the ability to move people around,” says Wiley.
This month, Eventide Oyster Co. will expand beyond Maine’s borders. Big Tree Hospitality is opening a fast-casual, counter-service version of the restaurant just a block from Fenway Park. Bostonians who have visited Portland are looking forward to indulging in all of Eventide’s greatest hits, including the brown-butter lobster roll. It’ll be a more streamlined, but no less delicious, model, and one that the group hopes to replicate further, if it works as well as they expect. In order to expand the brand, a true commissary with production facilities became a necessity. They found their space not in Portland, but in Biddeford at the renovated Pepperell Mill complex. “It was important to us to have a place with some aesthetic beauty, that the people who work there could be proud of,” Taylor says. The commissary acts as a central distribution location, a test kitchen, and a lobster processer. “When the Boston location opens, we could go through as many as six thousand lobsters each week,” he continues. At the facility, they’re steamed and the meat is picked. The Asian-style buns are also produced there, making this spot command central for the essentials of the beloved lobster roll.
When Taylor and Wiley accepted the James Beard Award, the first thing they did was thank their staff. There are more than 100 employees, and everyone plays a vital role in maintaining the quality and reputation Big Tree Hospitality has worked hard for. “The award was gratifying for all of us,” Taylor says. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a million times; we have the best staff. Everyone has a part in this.” Smith continues, “What happened with Eventide was totally unexpected. We wanted to do a little oyster bar, but every aspect of it was carefully considered, from the color on the wall to the material of the bar, the look of the menu, and the beverage program. All these things really matter. Nothing was an afterthought.” That diligence is evident, has been well documented, and is now being rewarded. It’s fascinating listening to the trio describe their evolution and hopes for their future. The James Beard Award affirms what we in Portland already knew. Three is a lucky number.