CUMBERLAND — If at first you don’t succeed, try again. If you succeed, and happen to do so in the face of a pandemic, you’re probably doing all right.
Such is the case for John and Heather McConnell, the owners of Mise En Place in Cumberland, which sits across Centre Street from The Book Center and Ristorante Ottaviani, Heather’s former employer of 13 years.
Heather and John, an accomplished chef, first opened a restaurant in Frostburg almost 16 years ago. For a variety of reasons, they said, that didn’t work out as they’d hoped, and the restaurant, Tombstone, did not last too long.
“It was farm-to-table when that wasn’t quite cool yet,” Heather said, chalking it up to “wrong place, wrong time.” Their children were little, she noted, and for that among multiple other reasons, it just wasn’t meant to be then.
Now, the times have changed a bit, and it seems that their moment has arrived.
Mise En Place opened back in March, and although the timing of their opening coincided almost perfectly with the COVID-19 pandemic beginning to rear its head in Maryland in earnest, things have gone well for the family thus far.
The couple had been in the process of opening the restaurant since last August, when they took out a lease on the property. They went through all the proper motions, and got the all-clear to open just two days before the most stringent of the pandemic-related public health restrictions took effect. Their plan, Heather said, had been to open on the day of the annual St. Patrick’s Day Hooley Pub Crawl downtown. They’d been painting and prepping, and the timing seemed right. Then, “of course, no one was downtown that day.”
“In a way for us it has been good,” Heather said, noting that when they first open their doors, new restaurants are often “inundated” with a stream of customers eager to check out the new place on the block. That can be difficult to navigate, she said, and because of the stay-at-home order, they were afforded the unusual opportunity of working out kinks in the operation with a much lighter crowd than they’d likely have had under normal circumstances. While they’ve still encountered some stumbling blocks, things have largely gone well.
They’re also somewhat aided, Heather said, by the fact that they had always planned a little different in their approach to the business. That’s seen somewhat in the actual design of the restaurant, as they left the walls bare for customers to make it their own by decorating it as they please, should they host an event at Mise En Place.
In addition to catering and setting up at spots around town like the Ali Ghan Shrine Club and 1812 Brewery, they offer a meal service that can be delivered or picked up locally. John explained that rather than a Blue Apron or HelloFresh type service, where one pays for the pre-portioned ingredients and does all the cooking, customers get fully-cooked meals that just need to be heated before serving.
“There’s really no work involved,” he said.
“Which our clients, that’s what they like,” Heather added. “They love being able to grab their whatever and take it to the office, and a lot of times we deliver more than once a week, so the food is always fresh.”
Currently, they have 10 regular clients, Heather estimated, along with a few more folks who order a bit more sporadically.
Setting up to serve food around town has been a boon for them as well, Heather said, as they’ve drawn in new customers who become repeat visitors.
Because they never planned to solely rely on dine-in customers, the couple said that may have further insulated them from the worst of the struggle that is facing the restaurant industry.
“For us, that’s making our business,” Heather said of their other offerings. “We never really wanted to be a full-service, sit-down restaurant. We wanted a place to meet with clients to do catering and parties. That was another big thing: We wanted to come to your home to do parties and prep for small, intimate gatherings, but because of COVID we had to change our game plan a little bit.”
“I needed a catering kitchen to meet out of and a place to meet with clients,” John said. “I do restaurant consulting as well, and sometimes it’s difficult to go into someone else’s restaurant and have a candid meeting about issues that they’re facing when the entire staff knows why you’re there. … Sometimes it’s easier for the client to come here and have a little more privacy, speak a little more freely than they could in their establishment.”
Even before the pandemic took hold, John said, flexibility was one of the keys to industry success.
“You’re at the whim of your clients and what their needs are,” John. “You never know what you’ll have to do.”
Heather noted that while businesses have begun to reopen under public health guidelines and customers have come out accordingly, it’s still difficult to gauge what their traffic will be like. For example, she said, for “weeks and weeks and weeks,” Friday evenings were relatively slow, but Friday last week was abnormally busy. Saturday, normally their busiest, instead ended up being slow.
The fare at Mise En Place tends toward fine dining. John is classically trained in French cuisine, and while there’s certainly a strong French inspiration, Heather said, that isn’t solely what they serve.
“We do so many other things, smoking barbecue and things that have made us very popular for lunch and stuff,” she said.
Their menu changes consistently. Recent offerings have ranged from frog legs that were marinated in tarragon, champagne vinegar and garlic oil before being pan-fried in chickpea flour and paired with corn foam and wilted spinach, to a 14-oz New York strip steak hand-cut by John and topped with local chanterelle mushrooms and ramp butter with sweet potatoes and veggies on the side.
While it is not wholly farm-to-table, Heather said, they do try to source their produce as locally as possible, as often as possible. Some of the ingredients they use are relatively obscure for the region, or if available, hard to locate to their high standards.
“There aren’t a whole lot of sources for fresh frog legs locally,” John joked.
For John and Heather, the name of the game also isn’t necessarily serving a large crowd. The staff is small, consisting of the couple, their children and some folks who lend a hand occasionally when the need arises.
The restaurant is also very chef-driven, John noted, meaning that many of the customers come specifically for a meal he’s prepared. Being both a family and such a small operation, they said, time to rest is necessary.
“We don’t want to get too big. We want to keep it where we can control the quality of the product,” Heather said. “We want to make sure we’re putting out the best product.”
A slower flow of business also allows John the time to impart some of his cooking skills to the others, he added, like mastering some of their staple recipes and sauces. That allows him to focus on the larger picture without getting in the weeds.
“You don’t want to be too busy,” John said. “Some things are technical, some are complicated, and it takes time. … A lot of what we do is simple, but sometimes simple is complicated.”
John began his culinary career locally at the Deer Park Inn in Garrett County, before going on to study at the Culinary Institute of America’s Hyde Park, New York, campus. He worked largely in private dining in the Washington, D.C. area and New York before the couple moved back home to raise their family.
A summer spent working as the executive chef for the New York Yankees after Tombstone closed its doors proved challenging, he said, and ultimately sealed the decision for them to stay in the area.
“There wasn’t much time for family,” John said.
Ultimately, they agreed, the life-work balance that living here presents is ideal. They’re also well-served by being part of a supportive community, both Heather and John said. Many of downtown Cumberland’s restaurants are family-owned, Heather noted, and so they have a built-in network that knows exactly what it’s like and has their back. Even outside of Cumberland’s city limits, she said, that network exists.
“We’re all local people that are from this area, have grown up in this area, and I think that’s really cool,” Heather said. “We all try to support each other, which I think is wonderful. It’s a great little community.”
It also helps, John said, that the offerings at local restaurants are so diverse in fare. That’s not only good for them, either.
“We’re not doing what Ottaviani’s is doing, and they’re not doing what Allegania is doing,” John noted. “There’s room for everybody to have a little bit of a footprint, to be different and have diversity in what you’re offering. Hopefully when this pandemic calms down and we get to whatever the new normal is going to be, the community we’re in comes out and supports not just us, but all these places. It’s important to have options, and the more people we get down here, it’s better for everybody. Hopefully there will be a bit of a resurgence coming down here.”
Follow staff writer Lindsay Renner-Wood on Twitter @LindsayRenWood