It’s important, where we live and why. That’s why the Crozet Gazette paid attention when local citizens gathered to tell Albemarle County planners what they liked about life in Crozet. Beautiful views, friendly people and good schools were likely choices, but people also mentioned the Crozet establishments that provide gathering places, which in turn build communities. A lot of you mentioned Fardowners, now altered by COVID, but still serving its patrons in a variety of ways. The following is the 11th in a series.
In mid-December of 2007, Mark Cosgrove and W.C. Winkler opened Fardowners restaurant in what some thought of as a “doomed” location, since previous restaurants there had not lasted long. They named it after the Irish laborers who chiseled the railroad tunnel out of the mountains to the west before the Civil War. It didn’t take long for the Crozet restaurant to become a beloved institution, a gathering place for people of all ages and backgrounds.
Cosgrove, the executive chef, got his first taste of the hospitality business selling gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches in the parking lot of Grateful Dead concerts, and his “parking lot” sandwich has a permanent place on Fardowners’ menu. He went on to work in more elite establishments, and at first conceived of the new venture as a linen-tablecloth kind of place. “I soon realized that it wasn’t important what I wanted,” Cosgrove said. “We had to figure out what the community wanted.”
Good food from simple ingredients grown locally, cooked from scratch and served in an informal way turned out to be one of the keys to Fardowners’ success. Cosgrove said another key is the ability to retain employees: “We have the best staff in the world, and we take good care of them,” he said. “We got very lucky. The cooks are amazing. No matter who’s in the kitchen, the quality won’t change.”
“That’s so important, the consistency,” Winkler added. “It would be very hard to get a bad meal here.”
Fardowners’ manager, Scotty Lynch, who’s been with Fardowners since shortly after it opened, said the attraction is not only the food, but the congenial atmosphere surrounding customers as they enjoy a beer, or hippie wings, or carrot cake. “We always wanted to have an environment that’s welcoming to families, a place where it’s fine to bring the kids.” Lynch said that disturbances are few. The staff is always aware that they can’t let one person’s bad day ruin the experience for everyone. People who drop in for a quick beer with friends after work or a family celebration for a special occasion can all expect to be treated well, and know the staff will recognize them after a couple of visits.
“We’ve kind of gotten to know everyone,” Cosgrove said, He said that applies to the wider community as well: “I don’t know how many sports teams we’ve sponsored, but it’s a lot.” Winkler said the staff out front has a lot to do with Fardowners consistent popularity. “They’re our ambassadors.” Lynch singled out long-time employees Patrick O’Brien, Matt Grinstead and Joseph Chaney as examples of the importance of retaining talented staff.
“Some of this you just can’t teach,” Winkler said. “It’s a lot like welcoming people into your home, treating them as guests. You get to know the families, the kids and the parents. And I think we develop relationships that are more complex and rewarding — they’re not just customers.” He said people who move away from Crozet often stop in when they’re driving through, whether it’s to have a bite of carrot cake or to revisit a place where they always felt at home.
Like other restaurants, Fardowners was hard-hit by the pandemic and approached the “new normal” cautiously. “We knew we’d have to navigate carefully,” Winkler said. “We knew our main duty was to protect our staff and our customers.” They thought of ways to remain part of the community while offering only take-out meals.
The “Mac & Cheese” program was one way to stay connected, Cosgrove said. Local nurses, doctors and other medical staff were invited to email the restaurant with their requests for a free dinner for a family of four, to be ready at whatever time specified. Other family-style dinners were offered as takeout for weary families tired of cooking every meal. Like many other Crozet restaurants, Fardowners hasn’t opened up inside, but relies on a steady stream of take-out orders. A few months ago they started serving under a tent in the parking lot. “That’s helped to replicate the Fardowners’ experience,” Winkler said.
The community has responded with tremendous generosity, not only by patronizing Fardowners as much as they can, but in other ways. “People come by with gift cards to support the staff,” Cosgrove said. “And there are Zoom meetings between Fardowners’ regulars, so they can keep in touch.”
But everyone wants to get back to the Fardowners they remember pre-Covid, and with cold weather coming, there’s plenty to worry about. “We’re thinking of ways to keep outside dining, and it may be hard,” Winkler said. “But I think we’ll be okay.”