CAMPTON — With some help from the Food Network’s “Restaurant: Impossible” and a large cast of volunteers, the Country Cow Restaurant and Bar is back from the brink and, despite some major changes, is better than before, says owner Jennifer Leonzi.
On May 28, the RI Team, headed by Robert Irvine, descended upon this 9,000-square foot eatery along the west bank of the Pemigewasset River just feet away from the Campton Covered Bridge, to give it a two-day, $10,000 soup-to-nuts makeover.
The makeover began in earnest on May 29 and started with Leonzi learning that after almost 12 years, the Country Cow would be a sole, not a dual proprietorship.
A native of Trumbull, Conn., Leonzi came north to New Hampshire to attend Plymouth State University, where she earned a degree in business administration and a minor in theater. She took a job at Walter’s Basin restaurant in Holderness where she tended bar and where she met Kerry Benton, the cook, who would later become her husband and business partner.
The couple, who married on Sept. 28, 2002, but have since divorced, officially opened the Country Cow in the fomer home of the Bridge 41 eatery on Oct. 10, 2002.
Realizing that the huge space needed a lot of customers, Leonzi and Benton transformed their original idea for the Country Cow into a place that people would visit once or twice a week for “comfort food,” not once a year like before when it was more of a “special-occasion place.” That seemed to work well until the economic crash of 2008.
With the cost of materials soaring, the Country Cow had to lower prices to keep customers coming through the door, Leonzi recalled on Wednesday, and then, just when things were improving, severe flooding damaged the Blair Covered Bridge in August 2011, costing the Country Cow a lot of money. The change in the restaurant’s fortunes prompted a call to “Restaurant: Impossible,” which in 2013 sent a producer to do a preliminary interview.
Although no one from the show called back immediately, they continued to monitor what was happening at the Country Cow, said Leonzi, which included the closure in June 2013 of the Blair Bridge for a year-long upgrade.T
his March, however, “I got a call out of the blue from 'Restaurant: Impossible,’” said Leonzi. Irvine and company showed up two months later. Almost immediately, Leonzi continued, her former husband made it clear that he wanted no part of the restaurant, and Benton ceded all his interests to her, something that was documented in the airing of the Country Cow episode of RI on Aug. 20.
“The show was an experience more real than I thought it was going to be,” said Leonzi, adding that she hadn’t expected Benton’s actions. Despite how it may have appeared, “Nothing was staged,” she said. “It was very real.”
Leonzi said Irvine and the volunteers helped transform the Country Cow, adding that Irvine, with whom she keeps in touch, gave her a primer on how to operate an entire restaurant, “and in four hours I probably learned more about the restaurant business than in 14 years” of being in it.
In addition to some professional advice that included reducing the number of menu offerings, Irvine left the Country Cow with recipes for Seared Red Fish with Blueberry BBQ Sauce and Pan Seared Scallops with Crab Salad and Carrot Puree and he added “originality” to the menu, said Leonzi. Grilled-cheese sandwiches, for example, highlight the fact that they include prosciutto and fresh mozzarella.
Prices at the Country Cow are “pretty much the same,” Leonzi said, but the restaurant’s prospects have certainly risen.
Since re-opening on May 30, the Country Cow has been slammed by customers, with Leonzi saying the recent Labor Day weekend was especially good, generating about four times the number of visitors and income as last year.