For someone who does not identify as a “career restaurateur,” Joe Welch seems to be getting the hang of it pretty quickly. After partnering with Dave Parr a decade ago to open Bridge, the two joined forces again to start Graze Burgers in late 2018. The concept, and the menu, was simple – fast-casual dining, with high quality, extremely local ingredients. So local, in fact, that the staple product comes straight from Joe’s own farm!
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During his many years in the financial industry, Joe had kept the idea of opening a restaurant on the back burner, waiting for the right partners and the right location to become available. The right partner came about by meeting Dave Parr through a yoga class, and the right location presented itself in the wake of a natural disaster, of all things.
“After the flood of 2010, we were the only ones dumb enough to be willing to buy a restaurant,” Joe laughed.
That restaurant was Bridge, and you can read about all their success by clicking >> here <<. Graze came about several years later, as a partnership between Joe, Dave, and Kevin Bowdler.
“I bought a 150-acre farm in Stonington in 2001, and I knew I wanted to make use of this beautiful resource eventually,” Joe explained. “I figured it would be an easy way to integrate high quality with a good price point. Beef cows made the most sense; dairy cows require a lot of labor, but beef is easier.”
“All grass-fed was our goal since it makes for a much better product, but it’s hard to come by around here, and we started questioning why,” Joe said. “Why does it have to come all the way from New Zealand? Why can’t it not taste like dirt?”
They carefully selected a small group of five Aberdeen Angus cows to start their endeavor with, and two decades later now host 170 animals, all through organic growth. The history of these new local cattle is interesting; Angus cows were taken from Scotland to Australia in the 1920s for the purpose of keeping the plentiful pastures of grass under control. After 70 years of grazing and growing, the herd was released to the world in the 1990s. Aberdeen Angus is roughly half the size of your traditional beef cow, and are known for being easy to handle and engineered for grass-feeding, given their history and their smaller frame.
The resulting product is as delicious as it is unique. Graze offers a simple menu of grass-fed burgers and Bell & Evans chicken sandwiches, hand-cut fries, and frozen custard shakes to balance out all the savory with a rich, lower-fat sweetness.
No article about a restaurant in 2020 would be complete without mentioning the impact of the pandemic, however. COVID has seen a shift to a primarily takeout experience at Graze, with some dine-in on the patio outside. Dishes at Bridge are harder to execute for takeout, given the array of options, the loss of presentation, and the draw of the location, but Graze was able to pivot rather easily, thanks to their simple menu. While sales have been impacted, of course, Joe is hopeful that business will continue to bounce back.
A key component to this recovery process, Joe believes, is education and awareness. Some feel that it’s just the latest trend to seek out hyper-local ingredients or dining experiences, but these sorts of practices are actually very old and very grounded in the physical health of the consumer and the economic health of the community. There’s a phrase that goes “never eat anything that your grandmother wouldn’t keep in her kitchen,” and there’s a lot to be said for that. The concept of “farm to table” is nothing new, it’s just a rediscovery of old (and arguably better) ways.
The discussion around the health impacts of processed food has been going on for decades and is likely to continue, but when you consume simple food made with fresh, clean ingredients, your body will generally thank you. Buying grass-fed beef is an easy way to get your burger fix while also helping to support a local farm and business that’s trying to make more ethically and environmentally sound choices.
“There’s a place in the world for McDonald’s, of course,” Joe said, “But there’s also a place in the world for Graze. You can look from New Haven to Providence but there’s no one else offering this particular kind of burger.”
Westerly’s renaissance has given us a variety of new businesses and restaurants to enjoy, and it is my hope that our willingness to embrace a little funky experimentation with the culinary scene paired with our love for blue-collar, traditional fare will prove to be a supportive environment for Graze as they continue to establish themselves in the current climate. Whether you’re someone who wants to explore the benefits of locally grown, grass-fed beef or you’re just looking for a quick (and tasty!) burger and fries to scarf down with your family on your way home from the beach, Graze has something just for you!