Bringing the Harvest to the Table at Stoneacre Pantry
Digging Community and Digging Dirt Help Bring the Harvest to the Table on Lower Thames Street
It’s not uncommon to see Christopher Bender and David Crowell of Newport’s Stoneacre Pantry at local farmers’ markets carrying tote bags brimming with robust leafy greens, ripe summer vegetables and artisan foodstuffs.
“While the Farm Fresh Market Mobile is great, we try to go directly to the farms whenever possible. That way the money is going right to them. Plus, we can go a little more often than rely on [deliveries] once or twice a week,” says Bender. “It also makes a statement when we go the farmers’ market and walk out with 15 bags worth of stuff.”
Making a statement is something the two have been doing since the beginning of their careers. Bender and Crowell met while running a pair of restaurants in New York City’s West Village. With a shared passion for local food sourcing, community spirit, wines from Burgundy and craft cocktails, they were inspired to open their own eatery.
“I wanted to do something maybe in New York or Providence, maybe Newport. Then after spending a little time back in Rhode Island, it was a no brainer,” says Bender. “When it came time to do our own thing, [Newport] just made sense.”
When conceptualizing the restaurant, the two observed Newport’s existing restaurant climate and looked to tap what they saw as a fertile market: the middle ground.
“A neighborhood bistro-type feel or something in that realm where it takes the higher-end technique and refinement we had from the different places we worked, but to do it in a way that is approachable and to do it in a way that we enjoy ourselves every day,” explains Bender.
Crowell and Bender both cite the momentum generated by other Thames Street establishments that share a sustainable food philosophy: Chef Jake Rojas at Tallulah on Thames, Chef Albert Bouchard and his wife, Sarah, of The Revolving Door and Bouchard and Chefs Chad Hoffer and Tyler Burnley, along with their wives, Julia Hoffer and Anna Jenkins, at Thames Street Kitchen.
Since opening Stoneacre Pantry in the summer of 2013, Crowell and Bender have been welcomed into the close-knit food community.
“It’s been really rewarding,” says Crowell. “People are more supportive than we could have expected … especially being next door to Sarah and Albert, having Jake down one way and Thames Street Kitchen down the other way. Everybody works together whether you need to borrow something or need a little help.”
As they did when they first opened Stoneacre Pantry, which is named after a long gone Bellevue Avenue summer “cottage,” Crowell and Bender turn to local farmers and fisherman when crafting their ever-evolving menu.
“We change the menu just about daily. Sometimes it changes a little, sometimes a lot. It’s what’s coming out of the ground and what’s coming out of the ocean and what we can get our hands on,” says Crowell.
Area farms featured on their menu include Rhode Island farms Wild Harmony Farm in Exeter, Simmons Farm in Middletown, Wishing Stone Farm in Little Compton, Arcadian Fields in Hope Valley plus Paradise Farm in Westport, Massachusetts.
“One of our philosophies is to represent hardworking fishermen and farmers. These folks are out there working their butts off— the same way we are here—and I think to show respect to them, their product and their hard work, we should do the same,” says Crowell. “We work really hard to [show off ] their fish, their carrots, their potatoes, their pigs—so that’s a big part of it.”
Last year, Crowell and Bender strengthened their bond with the farming community by rolling up their own sleeves and getting their hands dirty by planting and tending to their own one-acre plot in Jamestown on borrowed land.
“We did kale and lots of herbs, tomatoes; veggies that we either went through a lot of, or those we wanted to keep very fresh and some things that weren’t being gown elsewhere, like Tristar strawberries—types of peppers we wanted, like Shishito peppers, so we can have different varieties at our fingertips,” says Bender. Their yield would often inspire a new dish on the menu. This year, they’ll expand to 15 acres so they can experiment with different heirloom varieties of grains or beans in addition to other menu needs.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” says Crowell. “We’re not trying to do anything that hasn’t been done or break ground anywhere. We’re just trying to have a lot of fun doing it—to showcase cool food and create a good environment, a good representation of [local] food and what it can be.”
Their altruistic efforts have rewarded Crowell and Bender handsomely. Stoneacre Pantry’s reputation is enviable while diners, neighbors and industry colleagues have become friends. But you won’t find the two seeking the spotlight.
“A rising tide floats all boats,” says Crowell. “And this is Newport, so we want to get all those boats to rise really high,” adds Bender.
Andrea E. McHugh is a freelance writer who has written for the Hartford Courant, Baltimore Magazine, Daily Candy, Design Sponge, Providence Monthly and more. She resides in Newport.
515 Thames St., Newport, RI