HONESDALE, PA — I sit down with Alex Johnson at a table inside what will soon be her new restaurant on Main Street, called Native. I can’t help but tell her, before anything else, that out of the 22-years’ worth of haircuts I’ve gotten in my life, there’s been perhaps two that did not take place just down the block and across the street at Mick’s Barbershop: Mick being Alex’s mother.
She smiled knowingly and nodded, and it dawned on me that I likely just joined a lengthy, continuingly growing list of people who have told Alex some variation of, “Hey, your mom’s my barber!”
Everybody knows everybody in a small town, and if somebody doesn’t know you, they probably know your mom. With Native, Alex and her husband/co-owner Caleb Johnson, originally from Earlville, NY, are embracing this quality in Honesdale, while also attempting to infuse what they learned about the restaurant business outside Wayne County.
Working as a server during college was Alex’s entree into the food industry. She studied marketing at Temple University in Philadelphia but “fell in love” with restaurant work. After graduation, she stayed in the city and stuck with serving, eventually rising to a managerial position. She met Caleb at a Philly restaurant where she was the front-of-the-house manager and he was the chef de cuisine.
Upon returning in Honesdale to get married and start a family, Alex found a wholly different community than she remembered leaving.
“When I graduated high school, I was like, ‘I’m never coming back to Honesdale, this place sucks,’” she said, laughing as she imitated the stereotypically bitter high school graduate. “And now, it’s really cool here, there’s a lot going on and a lot of opportunity.”
Alex said she’s also found that she fits into a small sub-community of young, like-minded entrepreneurs who grew up, left after high school and have returned with visions of change, rejuvenation and development for the community: “Comeback kids,” if you will.
“I think that Honesdale has changed a lot since growing up here, there’s a lot more businesses, especially businesses run by younger people, which is awesome, and we’re excited to be a part of that,” she said. “You drive through so many small towns and the storefronts are empty and there’s nothing going on, in Honesdale that’s changing a lot.”
There’s a comradery among fellow business-owners too—even competitors—that one may be less likely to find in an urban ecosystem. Alex specifically mentioned Allaina Propst, former River Reporter “comeback kid” and an owner of Here & Now Brewing Co., as someone who welcomed the arrival of another downtown restaurant and offered her support.
“It’s community… the more options that we have, the more people are going to come [to Honesdale], the more people that are going to be out in town,” Alex said. “It’s better for everybody.”
Beyond finding fellowship with fellow young business owners, however, the community at large has helped facilitate the lengthy and arduous process of creating a new business.
Alex said they found the building because its owner, Tim Meagher, reached out to her dad, Michael Frigoletto, creative director at Deluca Frigoletto Advertising, another Main Street business. And it certainly doesn’t hurt for your mom to be the “town barber”—perhaps the greatest, unintentional marketing campaign one could conjur.
It’s fitting that the community has had a role in getting Native up and running, because Alex said Native will be all about “taking care of the locals.”
“In a restaurant in the city you can be more like, ‘This is how we do it; these are our rules,’ where around here it’s more about building relationships with people in your community,” she said. “It is pretty seasonal here, we do get a lot of tourists in the summer, but it’s really more about the locals. They’re the people who help your business survive.”
The Johnsons hope to strike a balance too, however, by offering a different dining style and some different cuisines than townspeople might be accustomed to.
“We really want to encourage people to order a bunch of things and try them… if we were out to eat together, we would get four different things and we would share,” she said. “[Native] will have the meat-and- potatoes entrees for those people who do want that, but we want to encourage people to try something a little different.”
They are also delivering a small slice of their Philly-restaurant experiences to the town by using an “open-kitchen concept,” which is just what it sounds like: Patrons will have a view from their tables of the chef preparing their meal. Alex said she hasn’t seen this anywhere else in the area.
In addition to serving local clientele, the Johnsons feel strongly about supporting local farmers through their restaurant. Basing the menu items on what’s available regionally and seasonally gives the term “native” a second meaning.
“Both of us are very supportive of local agriculture, seasonal ingredients. Caleb really loves foraging,” she said. “So we really want to be able to utilize that as much as possible.”
Alex described the types of meals people can expect to order as “upscale,” but said that the dining experience itself is assuredly casual and approachable.
“The food is fancy, but that doesn’t mean you have to come fancy.”