What makes a great restaurant? A talented chef, quality ingredients, ambiance, good service, for sure. These days, however, thanks to the plethora of food shows, the spotlight shines brightly on the chef, who is supposed to be larger than life.
Ask a chef what makes an exceptional restaurant and he or she will tell you a different story. Quality ingredients, of course, and a clear vision, are important.
But what they will mostly talk about is people – their team – the professionals who work hard alongside the chef. And not just their talent and experience, but how well they work together. Without good team synergy, even the most talented chef cannot create a great restaurant.
When Max Hansen took over the Carversville General Store in May 2013, he knew this intuitively. He had created a strong team in his successful catering business. So, no problem, he thought, I’ll bring some talented chefs to the store and everything will fall into place.
Now, he admits, he may have been a little naïve.
“It’s taken me almost three years, but now I have this great cooking team,” he says. “The quality of the food, the talent here – it’s really a hidden gem. It’s not what you’d expect in a little country store.”
“When we first opened,” explains Max, “we did all the food production at our catering facility in Gardenville.” That’s all changed thanks to the team that Max has assembled over the last six to eight months. “Now everything is made on site.”
Chef Joe Frost came to the store in June 2015 and has built a strong team including Laura Loewen, Brian Scott, and Alex Cruz Romerez, all very experienced cooks and each with their own special set of skills.
Laura spent 11 years on the line at the Cross Keys Diner, baked pastry at Crossroads Bake Shop and spent six years working at Tabora Farm’s store in the deli section.
Brian, a Lambertville native, spent 10 years living and working in Brooklyn, including four years at Shelsky’s of Brooklyn, a traditional Jewish deli. “He makes the lightest matzoh balls I’ve ever tasted,” says Max. (See Brian’s do-it-yourself matzoh ball video here.) And, Alex, says Max, “makes the best meatballs.”
We have passionate people who love what they do.
Joe has quite a resume too, including 14 years working with George Perrier. So why come to a sleepy little country store?
“Max has such a great reputation,” he explains. “I wasn’t even looking. But I wanted a change of pace. My wife had a baby at the end of August and I want to spend time with my kid.”
Max wanted to take the store to the next level, explains Joe. He wanted the deli to become the focal point. “Now we make most of our meats in-house, including pastrami, corned beef, turkey, roast beef, and porchetta.” Joe bought a smoker too so look for smoked chicken wings and baby back ribs.
Case in point: Porchetta, the traditional Italian roasted meat. Most porchetta is pork loin stuffed with herbs and spices, rolled up, and roasted. Joe has his own recipe.
He first applies a dry rub to strips of pork tenderloin. Then he wraps the loin in bacon (1732 Garlic Insanity bacon, which you can also buy in the store) and lays it in an open pork belly. All of this is rolled up and tied. He then gives the final product another dry rub and puts the meat in the smoker for six hours. The result melts in your mouth.
Then there is the pastrami, a customer favorite. Even the New Yorkers in for the weekend approve. Joe makes it from short ribs, not the traditional brisket. “The meat is marbled with fat throughout,” he explains, “as opposed to on the outside, which a lot of people don’t like.”
But it’s not all about the beef. “The boys make incredible meats but I’ll look in the case and think, ‘we need color,’” says Laura.
So she makes the vegetable dishes and salads, as well as baked goods. “I just made raspberry tea bars – which I hadn’t made in years – and an orange rosemary pound cake.” Both she and Joe are very conscious of having healthy and vegetarian/vegan options too.
“It’s nice here because nobody is saying you must do this and this way,” she explains. “I’ll think, what would be a nice thing to have in the case right now? And then put it together. Joe trusts everybody and lets us do our own thing. We are a very harmonious team. We also have a lot of fun.”
When you see chopped liver, potato pancakes, chicken soup with matzoh balls, and other traditional Jewish food in the case, you can thank Brian. Working at Shelsky’s, a Jewish deli in Brooklyn, he learned the family’s recipes and has brought those favorites to the General Store.
Brian also mentions the feel of the team. “What I like most about working here is the upbeat atmosphere and attitude. We work together to make it a good experience for everyone,” he says. “Joe has brought great ideas to the store, and Max is so appreciative.”
The general store sits in the heart of Carversville and houses the post office (the town is named after a former postmaster named Carver).
As you walk into the store, look straight ahead – through a small shop of local crafts and art – and you will see the post office window.
But the food is to the left. At the stools by the window, you’ll see locals chatting over breakfast sandwiches and coffee. At lunchtime you may see the UPS driver at the register paying for his sandwich and chips. Or stop by on a weekend and the store may be full of a dozen spandex-clad cyclists, or a couple of New York weekenders.
Then pause to take it all in. The fresh-baked goods, the last-minute grocery items, the refrigerators filled with foods from local farmers, a cold case of fine cheeses. But head straight to the deli case and sandwich counter to experience what Joe and his team have created.
Above the deli case are three blackboards crammed full with descriptions of sandwiches. Breakfast sandwiches from the typical to the unexpected. Try the “Carversville Cured” Pastrami & Egg Sammy, with shaved short rib pastrami, two fried eggs, Cooper American cheese and smoked paprika Hollandaise on a grilled Kaiser roll.
Or if you are skipping the meat, go for the Mushroom & Swiss Scrambled with sautéed mushrooms, scrambled eggs, caramelized onions and Swiss cheese.
For lunch, you must try the Shaved Berkshire Porchetta Sandwich (creamy pickled tomato-mayo, sautéed poblanos and onions on a brioche roll). Or the Smoked Salmon Cream Cheese BLT (cream cheese, bacon, lettuce and tomato on bagel).
And the regulars – but done with a twist: House Roasted Fresh Turkey Breast (avocado crema, bacon jam, lettuce & tomato), Hot Roast Beef Melt (herb rubbed roast beef, caramelized onions, Swiss cheese, on griddled sour dough bread) and the MHCG Club (house roasted turkey breast, bacon, Hellman’s mayo, lettuce, tomato, & onion).
I could go on but I’m getting really hungry writing this. Suffice to say, Joe Frost and his team have definitely brought the Carversville Grocery Store to the next level. And he’s not done yet.
Max Hansen’s Carversville Grocery Store
6208 Fleecy Dale Rd,
Carversville, PA, 18913
HOURS: Monday – Friday, 7 am – 6 pm; Saturday & Sunday, 8 am – 5 pm