As gratifying as the spate of recent stories proclaiming Worcester an “it” city on the rise may be, they often sound a bit like Columbus “discovering” America. There were people here, people. Just because you decided to come west of Swellsley, doesn’t mean we weren’t already here working the landscape for the better. But truth be told, the food landscape in Worcester has evolved tremendously here over the last decade. And one location that seems to pop up in most stories – BirchTree Bread Company, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in the Canal District in 2019 – has evolved with it.
Which is why it might sound surprising that Avra Hoffman, who co-owns BirchTree with Robert Fecteau, answered my question about what’s changed since they opened not with a look to the future and the Worcester Public Market rising out the southwest windows but a nod to its past: “A group of 70-year-old-plus women came in, and I served them sandwiches. When they realized I was one of the owners, they told me that they grew up in the neighborhood and it was their first time here. And I’m thinking, welcome to your neighborhood? They were the sweetest. The first to run here when we first opened were the hipsters, professors, students, and families who still come. But now these women are coming which is really cool.”
And very Worcester: It takes time – apparently four-plus years – to establish that trust with long-timers. Rob smiles as Avra tears up telling this story and another about a group of knitters who in 2016 started coming in every Thursday. On Christmas, they presented the entire staff with hats and mittens. Then she talks about the moms who came in pregnant when they opened and now have kids who can say “Avra.” “She just loves this place,” Rob says.
They both do. This is a couple that cares deeply about its community, staff, and the restaurant they have created. Which may be the biggest change for BirchTree since it started. That one word: restaurant.
Like so many, I have eaten my way through BirchTree’s lunch menu. I have munched pizzas when they started being offered on Wednesday and Friday evenings, washing them down with beers from the bar that arrived in 2016. I have even attended monthly dinners, including a wine and cheese dinner featuring terrific pairings from Ruby Wines and dishes incorporating and meant to be eaten with the fabulous cheese from Couët Farm in Dudley.
That dinner (the first not to feature beer – a direction BirchTree plans on pursuing more and more) included a ham Rob cured himself over eight months from a Chimney Hill Farm in Charlton, sliced thin, and paired like a prosciutto with melon and sprinkled with seeds. Other highlights included a local mushroom bisque topped with duxelle and a gougère, and a Royal Crest Farm sirloin finished with a Couët Carolina cheese and butter compound and served on a pomme puree. (The most decadent mashed potatoes you will have and should only have once a year: equal parts butter and mashed potato with some heavy cream added to keep them from breaking … mon dieu.)
Those dishes are the stuff of a chef, but still I had never used the word restaurant to describe BirchTree before. Bakery, yes. Café, sure. Eatery? Please, no. None of those truly describe what BirchTree is now. Avra laughs whe she hears this: “We’re in the middle of something that maybe café was appropriate but now it’s more. Still we need to keep this authentic to what it is.”
Rob couldn’t agree more: “Obviously the neighborhood is changing. As business owners, we need to be smart. We started the business very simply with a limited menu and staff. That’s what we could afford to get the ball rolling. That’s how we’re looking at our future. We don’t want to over-speculate on what’s coming with the ball field and other changes. But we need to be ready to grow this business and add to the layers we already have. Do more evening things. Open on Mondays maybe. But we will stay true to our brand. We started with naturally fermented breads and supporting local farmers and that will be true no matter where we go in the future. I’m not interested in changing the concept of what and who we are, but now we are capable of doing interesting stuff. You’ll start seeing a lot more specials as we think more about the next phase and what makes sense for the neighborhood.”
That future, Rob speculates, might even include a burger (please, lord, yes and let it be on one of his bacon fat buns) or the smoked pork chop that popped up in January. And fries too, cooked in the fryolater they added this year along with a new hood, broiler, and grill that will afford the opportunity to different stuff than in the past, especially now that Rob has “talented folks” excited about being able to “play.”
“I’m not the only one who is creative,” Rob says. “I’ve got talent back there so I don’t have to push people in one direction. We had donuts the other day. I didn’t say, do donuts. Daniel, one of our bakers, did a pâte à choux style donut and filled it Boston cream style. Mike did the mushroom bisque for the wine and cheese dinner. He’s a rock star.”
Avra feels the same way about the front of the house. So a talented employee who can execute what needs to be done as part of the team can also do that soup or create that specialty latte and feel they are contributing as individuals. The shared accountability has also given Rob and Avra more time away from BirchTree. The couple is even planning to travel for a couple of weeks in February – something they never imagined doing their first years. In fact, Avra is more worried about her chickens, cats, and dogs at home than the restaurant: “It’s pretty awesome to feel that you can go away and things will be done right. I’ve learned to give my team the space to thrive. To experiment with the different things. To try new things. They’re all super talented. Everyone creates this. It’s not just us now.”
That’s a very personalized approach to a restaurant that needs consistency, standards, and efficiency to thrive. Which is a very business-y way of saying what BirchTree is evolving into: a place that can both deliver on what you expect and then surprise you without ever being inauthentic. Like Rob and Avra themselves.
As if on cue, while Avra and I are talking across the bar, a woman breaks off from the line asks if she can get a bloody mary even though it’s 3:00pm – as if Prohibition still might rule over day drinking at a bakery … um café … er, restaurant. Of course, Avra tells the woman, who smiles broadly, gleeful and grateful for the opportunity and the warm response. Yep, at BirchTree, like this city, some things should never and will never change. And that’s a good thing. Here’s hoping more people discover that.