WORCESTER — Historically, Worcester's best-known culinary contributions have been to the grocery-store aisle. Shredded Wheat, Table Talk pies, cult-favorite bubbly water Polar Seltzer, Near East boxed pilafs — these products all have roots here. But aside from classic diner cars, the city has never been known for its restaurants. Worcester may be New England's second-largest city, but it clocks in far behind the likes of Portland, Providence, and Portsmouth when it comes to having a robust food scene.
Now that is changing — and fast. Worcester is in the midst of a bona fide restaurant renaissance. In the past 18 months, 55 new restaurants have opened here, specializing in everything from fried green tomato sandwiches and aged duck breast with mustard spaetzle at Deadhorse Hill to kombucha cocktails and Italian amari at The Muse, naturally leavened country loaves at BirchTree Bread Company, candied squash-filled crepes at Lock 50, and house-cured bacon at The Hangover Pub, which proclaims itself "New England's first bacon gastropub." Shrewsbury Street, Worcester's restaurant row — long-dominated by Italian eateries and old-school chophouses — is now home to recently expanded businesses like Wormtown Brewery and bakery/restaurant Sweet; both have moved into a former car dealership that also houses hand-crafted pizza shop Volturno. Two food-truck zones have been proposed in recent months.
The rapid growth is no coincidence. People are investing in the city, hoping to retain the nearly 40,000 college students who live here, and to entice young professionals working in the thriving fields of health care, biotech, and medical research: Forty percent of the nonstudent population is under age 34. A project called CitySquare brings $470 million in private development to downtown, including more than 1,000 units of luxury housing, a hockey rink with 38,000 square feet of retail space, and two hotels. In May, the MBTA introduced the HeartToHub, an express train that runs from Worcester's Union Station to Boston in the morning, then back again in the evening. And the 20-year, $104 million Urban Revitalization Plan was recently approved, targeting neglected, vacant, or underutilized properties within a 118-acre redevelopment zone. The goal, according to the proposal: creating "an active, mixed-use, 18-hour neighborhood with significant institutional and residential growth supporting a vibrant entertainment and cultural environment drawing residents, businesses, and visitors to downtown Worcester."
These developments are creating opportunities for restaurateurs. "You're trying to get all of these young people to be educated here and stay here, but there wasn't a style of place for them to be," says Albert LaValley, a partner in Deadhorse Hill, a funky restaurant and cafe that opened on Main Street in May. An engineer who attended Worcester Polytechnic Institute, he has lived in the city for about 15 years. "This is the type of restaurant I would want to eat at," he says.
Wooed by Worcester
Deadhorse Hill is staffed with expats from the Boston area: Chef Jared Forman previously worked at Strip-T's, beverage director Sean Woods at Ribelle and Craigie on Main (both are also partners in the restaurant). Sous chef Robin Clark worked at T.W. Food, wine director Julia Auger was a manager at Giulia, and Adam Ross was the baker at Loyal Nine. These resumes are reflected on the menu, which might include Little Island oysters with Korean pepper mignonette, chilled English pea soup dotted with octopus and fresh strawberries, honey-drizzled fried chicken thighs with hot pepper paste, and warm brioche doughnuts, sliced in half and filled with ice cream made with maple syrup produced by Clark's grandparents.
Take a look at the numbers and it's clear why talent from larger, more-established markets might be drawn to Worcester. According to Alec Lopez — co-owner with wife Sherri Sadowski of three area mainstays, the beer-centric gastropub Armsby Abbey, the Dive Bar, and bakery Crust — liquor licenses cost $2,900 per year here, and leases average $10-$30 per square foot. Meanwhile, says restaurant broker Charlie Perkins, leases average $40-$50 per square foot in Boston and Cambridge, and upward of $90 in "hot" neighborhoods like the Seaport. Liquor licenses in Boston proper can fetch $450,000. To Perkins, restaurant growth in Worcester is only logical. "The expression for years has been 'location, location, location.' That's not true anymore," he says. "Now it's location, and the right concept at that location."
Like, for instance, BirchTree Bread Company — a sprawling space offering live music, beer and wine, and sandwiches stuffed with local meats and cheeses, operated by couple Robert Fecteau and Avra Hoffman, natives of nearby Spencer. It's located within Crompton Place, a former textile mill turned mixed-use facility in the city's burgeoning Canal District.
Fecteau previously worked in Boston, cooking at the Four Seasons and the Ames Hotel. But the Worcester area offered a better quality of life, he says. After interning at Northern California carb havens such as The Mill, Bar Tartine, and Miller Bake House, he settled in Charlton with Hoffman (plus a brood of "close to 30" chickens). "I love the Boston food scene, but ultimately we decided that we wanted to live more rural," Fecteau says. "It's more of a lifestyle choice."
None of this is lost on Forman, a Brooklyn native who has also worked at New York restaurants including Per Se, Momofuku Ssam Bar, Gramercy Tavern, and Marea. He was considering moving to San Francisco or back to New York when Woods, who has lived in Worcester since 2009, convinced him to head west. Now he's settled into a classic Worcester three-decker. "I am so happy where Worcester is at, and I see such a bright future for it. I love being a big part of that rather than trying to carve a little area of cement in New York and call it your own," Forman says. "We get people in the restaurant who haven't eaten anything like this before, not jaded people like in Manhattan. . . . It's a refreshing thing."
Bringing farms to the table
Worcester's central location also works in its favor. "It's within an hour of Boston, Providence, Manchester," says Sweet chef-owner Alina Eisenhauer, originally from Great Barrington. "As a business owner, it gives you a much broader group of people to draw from." And, she says, "from a chef's perspective, we are so close to so many farms and artisans and producers and wineries and breweries."
Agriculture is a big part of the area's identity; the city is surrounded by a thick ring of farms. But it wasn't until 2014 that this was more broadly reflected on restaurant menus. That year saw the launch of Lettuce Be Local, an organization that acts as a broker between about 80 farms and 35 restaurant accounts. Before that, chefs who wanted local ingredients had to drive from farm to farm to get them.
Cofounder Lynn Stromberg started Lettuce Be Local after growing frustrated with the lack of local ingredients available at restaurants. Now, she says, "I get calls almost daily to deliver out east to Boston and Cambridge and the North Shore, and I turn every single one of them down, because I don't live there. I live here, and I want it to happen here."
As someone who did drive from farm to farm for years, Armsby Abbey's Lopez has witnessed the changes. Armsby has evolved from a bar with good food into a nationally renowned haven for craft beers — it is the exclusive Massachusetts pourer of cult-favorite brewery Hill Farmstead — and staunchly locavore fare. Before the gastropub opened on Main Street almost a decade ago, he says, "no one was sourcing responsibly or thinking about their footprint. No one really seemed concerned much with food around here, so for us it was kind of about connecting people to simple food that was local and cared for."
Now, he says, the area is finally coming into its own. "It's the first time I've felt in these last few years that Worcester is actually going to do something," Lopez says. "It's not just a broken dream or promise."
Change for the better?
Of course, change doesn't come without controversy. For instance, the Urban Revitalization Plan, approved last month by City Council, has been criticized for leaving out a part of town known as Main Middle, home to many lower-income people of color.
Alan Wiig, a professor of community development at UMass Boston, moved to Worcester from Philadelphia three years ago. Says Wiig: "What I teach is, 'How can we promote an inclusive economy while celebrating local food and a local economy?' " The answer isn't straightforward. "People are starting to grumble" about gentrification in Worcester, he says, but that's premature. "Having been here for a few years, there's no such thing as bad development in Worcester."
And there are people working to ensure that culinary growth doesn't just come in the form of artisanal kombucha and upscale small plates. Worcester has a large immigrant population, with sizable communities of Asian and African refugees. This month sees the launch of a food hub at the Worcester County Food Bank. It's part small-business incubator, with a commercial kitchen, and part connector between farmers and institutions like hospitals and schools. Liz Sheehan Castro, the food bank's director of advocacy, hopes it will help provide a way for new immigrants and refugees to start businesses incorporating their own rich cultures.
"In Worcester, some of the biggest priorities are just making the developing food scene that's really growing more accessible to all income brackets," she says. "So that it's not just a hipster food scene and not just an upper-income food scene, but that it's really reaching all levels, and elevating the different cultural identities in Worcester."
Sheehan Castro, who moved to the area seven years ago from Vermont, is optimistic. "I'm just excited to see Worcester continue to grow and innovate, and hope that little by little people outside of Worcester take more notice," she says. "When I was first moving here, my friends were like, 'What's Worcester?' I said, 'I think it might be Brooklyn, long before Brooklyn was cool.' "