Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Business is sweet in March at Parker's Maple Barn
On a recent Sunday morning, the muddy parking lot at Parker's Maple Barn in Mason, not the small one out front but the bigger one up the road apiece, was packed with cars and trucks and rutted with footprints and tire tracks as spring began to wrestle with the late winter sun.
That's when maple syrup season arrives, and the wait at the iconic restaurant and maple syrup operation stretches nearly two hours. The lucky people inside drench homemade blueberry pancakes and double-thick French toast with pure maple syrup made at the nearby sugar house.
Assuming they could find a parking space - about 150 cars were turned away today, the owner said - patrons didn't seem to mind the wait. While keeping an ear out for the blast from the loudspeaker that would call their party to a table, they visited the sugar shack, where they saw 300-gallon tubs filled with sap ready to be boiled down in a wood-fired evaporator and listened to tour guide Kevin Keenan crack cornball jokes about the "high-tech" operation that hasn't changed much since it opened in 1969.
While they waited, some visitors stopped by a small snack stand for coffee and homemade maple doughnuts - fried cake or yeast-raised, the latter spread with real maple frosting. (You have never tasted better ones.) And they toured the Corn Crib Gift Shop, which is one of the few places Parker's Maple Barn sells its syrup. Most of it is used in the restaurant.
During the tour, Ron Roberts took a break from making syrup to interrupt the guide's well-oiled presentation. He wanted to make sure there wasn't anybody in the crowd who had missed their name squawked over the loudspeaker, which is hard to hear inside the sugar house.
"He's our undercover boss," Keenan said, alluding to the popular reality TV show. "He owns the place."
Twenty-six years ago - or more accurately on this day, "26 years, five hours and 20 minutes ago," Roberts bought Parker's Maple Barn after selling the industrial cleaning business he operated in Burlington, Mass. Whether it was his destiny is unclear - he says his mother raised him on Karo corn syrup so it's not like he was born with a maple sugar spoon in his mouth - but it's been his calling ever since he fell in love with the place after eating here, when he learned it was for sale.
"It still was very popular, but it was falling apart," Roberts said. "The kitchen wasn't up to code. As soon as you buy it, the state comes in and you have to put it all up to code. It didn't have enough well water, and we learned it didn't have a fire suppression system in the kitchen."
While he had to pay for the needed upgrades, Roberts didn't tinker much with the way the last owner made syrup: the old-fashioned way. "We use the 'kiss' formula for everything - keep it simple, stupid," said Roberts, 68.
After an employee who used to make syrup for the restaurant died, Roberts took up the mantle. He's the only one who makes it these days, though he's getting help from a 13-year-old apprentice, the son of his restaurant manager.
Roberts has about 50 employees, including some who have been with him for 20 years. The restaurant opens in February and is open every day but Thanksgiving, until the Sunday before Christmas, when it closes for the season. Otherwise it's usually open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the weekends.
"Unless there's a wait at four. We're open until the wait is gone," Robert said.
Last Sunday, he expected the restaurant would feed 1,000 people for the second day in a row. "This is the busiest we will ever be," he said, noting that the March sugar season draws the most customers. "Mother's Day is the single busiest day of the year."
Maple sap harvesting relies on cold nights and warm days, and nature doesn't always cooperate. Last year was unseasonably warm in March, and the season ended three weeks early.
"It was the worst year I ever had and for a lot of other sugar businesses," Roberts said. "This year is starting out great. And the forecast is good."
Roberts says what he enjoys most about the business is meeting people, and he likes to make maple syrup - which is a good thing since his restaurant requires an endless supply this time of year.
"I just brought 20 gallons there yesterday," he said. "That should get us through the weekend."
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.