For Salt of the Earth, a new restaurant in Union Springs, COVID-19 wasn't just salt in the wound. It was the wound.
Partners Mike Boise and Nancy Gable had the misfortune of opening their restaurant on March 11, 2020 — mere days before the state restricted them to takeout and delivery services.
But with the support of the village, and strong partnerships with the local food and beverage producers who supply most of the restaurant's menu, Salt of the Earth grinded through the pandemic. Now, with the state's restrictions fully lifted as of this week, Boise and Gable are finally poised to offer their refined and local fare the way they intended when they opened 15 months ago.
"We're pretty much trying to find our identity again," Boise told The Citizen on Thursday. "Which is someplace to go and have a good meal and delicious wine."
Both from the Rochester area, Boise and Gable come from backgrounds in food and wine, respectively. He's worked in food service, including catering and restaurants, for several years. She's a graduate of the viticulture program at Finger Lakes Community College, and is now studying for certification from the Wine Spirit and Education Trust.
The two began organizing dinners at Finger Lakes wineries, and soon looked to open their own brick and mortar location. Union Springs was their leading candidate for a few reasons. Gable spent summers in the Cayuga Lake village because her family owned a cottage there. But more importantly to them, south of the village is Heart & Hands Wine Co. Members of its wine club, Boise and Gable regularly drove to the winery from their small cottage in Romulus. He called its owners, Tom and Susan Higgins, "the biggest inspiration on us" as they opened Salt of the Earth.
Heart & Hands was just the first of many local partners for the restaurant. About 80% of its desserts are created by Union Springs-based Little Cow Ice Cream, Boise said, using eggs from owner Michelle Meyers' chickens and milk from local dairies. Sources of produce — and additional inspiration — include Silver Tree Forest Farm in Owasco and Farm Girl Greens in Sennett. And much of the beef served at Salt of the Earth comes from Rosencrans Natural Beef, of Seneca Falls, which is opening a market in the former Indelicato's Meat Market in Auburn.
"There's a dedication and a certain passion with the local growers and farmers and producers that's attractive to us," Boise said. "And small businesses survive with other small businesses."
Because those producers are local, and therefore also seasonal, the menu of Salt of the Earth changes in kind, Boise said. This weekend, the main courses were lobster rolls, halibut filets, New Zealand rack of lamb, classic flatbread pizza and Cubano sandwiches, with standards that include a Rosenkrans burger and a burrata salad with Farm Girl Greens. Among the beverage options were wines from Heart & Hands and Bloomer Creek Vineyard in Hector, and beers from Young Lion in Hector and Aurora Brewing Co. in Ledyard, which Boise called another important partner.
Over the last 15 months, Boise and Gable have shaped their menu with takeout in mind as well. That, along with catering, has been the crux of their business during COVID-19. But as the pandemic recedes, they're eagerly returning to dining at Salt of the Earth. The space can seat 16 now, but it will soon expand into former neighbor Bee Happy Café. When that happens — sometime after the Fourth of July, Boise said — the restaurant will likewise expand its hours from its current Friday and Saturday evenings to more of the day Tuesdays through Saturdays.
If starting a business during a pandemic wasn't daunting enough, starting one in a small village like Union Springs might have outright scared most restaurateurs. Nor did Boise and Gable qualify for any state or federal COVID-19 relief, they said. Because theirs was a new business, with no 2019 figures and no payroll for their staff of about four, they had no basis to make any requests.
But in Union Springs, Boise said, he and Gable found all the support they needed for Salt of the Earth.
"This community was here for us, and still is," he said. "We took a chance on Union Springs, but it became the opposite. Union Springs, and Cayuga County, took a chance on us."