The restaurant farmer
When Boxerbrand’s blog catches up with Blaze Restaurant Group owner Matty Haskell, the visionary farm-to-table entrepreneur, he’s clad in work boots and surveying the land and animals on one of his working farms.
So busy visiting his cattle and hog farms in Maine, Haskell misses a couple of phone interviews before sending a quick text: “I’m so sorry! I’m at the farm. Can we talk at 10 a.m., for real this time?”
The Mainer is about as real as it gets. And he’s on a mission to take his farm-to-table concept to a whole other level.
The mastermind behind a handful of wood-fire restaurant concepts and production brewing facilities specializing in Maine craft brews, is just a little busy these days overseeing his farms that raise speciality beef and pork livestock.
“I think the food and culinary scene is on fire!” Haskell says. “People like to go out to eat now more than ever, and they want to eat good food. And when possible, they want to eat local food, and not eat off feed lots in Iowa. There’s just so much opportunity in the future of hospitality!”
In this week’s interview with Boxerbrand’s Recipe for Success, Haskell, on the eve of a business flight to Belize, diverts his attention for a moment from his farms and restaurants, to answer a few questions and offer insights from his vantage of the owner of Blaze Restaurant Group.
BB: Let’s start with the farms you’re always on. How are they connected with Blaze Restaurant?
MH: I started in Blue Hill (Maine) when I bought Secret Meadow Farm in 2017 for the purpose of raising heritage breed pigs like Mangalitsa and Berkshire, and old breeding stock. And we also started growing other crops to serve as a working farm for our Blaze restaurants.
After this, I purchased Dover Foxcroft and Dover Creek Farm, and also Dover Creek Cattle Company. I initially purchased 82 acres before acquiring another 55 acres.
These properties are used specifically for cattle. We raise grass-fed red Angus and we also breed them. And we also breed an American Wagyu, which is a cross between a full-blooded Wagyu and an Angus. Our Wagyu are grain-fed and pasture grazed, and we feed them our non-GMO grain. These details are very important to me, because our consumers want beef and pork products they can feel confident about. I think customers feel better knowing that these meats are raised and butchered in Maine, as opposed to a feedlot in Iowa.
BB: How did you become interested in farming and cooking?
MH: My parents were headmasters at the Hinkley School in Maine, which has a farm and a school for troubled youth. That’s where I spent my early childhood, and after that, I had a big fascination for farming.
I became interested in restaurants when I was a bit older, after we moved, and my parents made me get a job. I started working in restaurants when I was 14. And when I went away to boarding school years later, I started working in a kitchen, and worked my way up to becoming a chef. I bought my first restaurant when I was 22.
BB: How did you attract customers?
MH: I’ve been around this area for a long time, and I’m all over social media. I have a sideline doing eco-tourism in Belize, and turtle conservation, so I’ve built up a big following. And the more people follow us, the more they are drawn to our restaurants and to the big picture of what we’re putting together, which is restaurants that feed customers food grown and harvested in their own state.
BB: Any positive outcomes from the pandemic lockdowns?
MH: My fiancé Evelina and I took the time to work on a California winery, hunkering down in a cabin and learning about wine for four months. And I also made plans to one day own a USDA butcher shop for animals, so that we can process them on our own facility. The pandemic has also seen an uptick in the interest in farm-style wedding venues and brews, so we’re using one of our farms for venue weddings.
BB: How have you handled staffing shortages?
MH: Staffing is a serious problem. We utilize the H2B visa program for some staff, and have a good management team, which also works hard attracting more help. Staffing is a very big challenge right now, but we have a couple of advantages: One is that we offer staff an opportunity move up and the other is that the state of Maine is affordable.
BB: What’s the niche of Blaze restaurants?
MH: We have Blaze restaurants in Bangor, Bar Harbor, and two locations in Camden. In Camden we have a restaurant and brewing facility, and in Biddeford, we have a tap room.
Our restaurants are built around creating unique food with wood-fire grills. We use Grill Works grills, which are made in Ann Arbor, Mich., and are used by some of the best chefs in the world. And we pair our locally grown produce and meat with boutique wines and estate-style wines from Maine, as well as craft cocktails using Maine spirits and brews. I’m actually optimistic about the future, because I think I know what people want to eat when they go out. — Blaze Restaurant Groups uses Boxerbrand’s Linen Naturals line in its table presentation. Thank you!