Sitting in the lounge of her just-opened NewBrook Kitchen + Artisan Market in Westport, Cindy Hartog admitted that she did not originally set out to run a restaurant.
“I was trained as an actress,” she said. “Then I started teaching. I always wanted to cook. When I was growing up, cooking was not as glamorous as it is now. I went back to culinary school when my kids were on the young side.”
Initially, Hartog ran a business based in Westport that taught cooking to children and catered kiddie birthday parties. Her daughter Danielle began assisting her when she was 10, and her love of working with food took her on an educational path to the Culinary Institute of America. But roughly two years ago, the Hartogs’ lives changed.
“I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease,” Hartog said. “First, they said it was lupus, then it was changed three times and now I am not considered having a disease — it’s like a syndrome or something. Three months after I was diagnosed, Danielle was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s.”
The Hartogs went on the Paleo Diet as part of their wellness regimen and responded strongly. “The Paleo Diet is eating the way that the human body was created to digest,” Danielle Hartog said. “We lose any inflammatory foods from the diet: hard to process foods, the GMO’d (genetically modified) and foods that are not in a natural form. It is heavy on meat and vegetables and fruit — hunter-gatherer style.”
While the Hartogs had no problem creating their own meals, they quickly found themselves homebound. “We both went on the same diet, but we found it was very restricted about eating out,” Cindy said. “We both love food but we wanted to go somewhere and not worry about getting sick or not feeling well. It was always in the back of our minds — someday, we’re going to open a place where we can have the food that we can eat.”
Their initial search for an available property took them around Fairfield County, but the sites they inspected were either too expensive or did not seem to have a local customer base that would be interested in paleo foods. When they found a 1,450-square foot space at 37 Saugatuck Ave. in Westport, they saw the potential despite some problems.
“This space doesn’t work for everyone,” Danielle said. “The kitchen has a strange L shape, which is not the way a kitchen is supposed to be. And it was vacant for 14 months. It was a catering business and there was grease on the walls. I have a very creative eye, so I walked in and I could see how exactly it could look. My boyfriend walked in and said, ‘Really?’”
The Hartogs spent roughly $50,000 to get NewBrook Kitchen + Artisan Market up and running. The duo divides their food preparation duties with Danielle creating the soups, salads and sandwiches while Cindy handles the breads and desserts. When they opened for business on June 5, they were greeted by people eager for a Paleo cuisine eatery.
“People are walking in and saying, ‘Oh, I’ve been following Paleo — I went off my medications and it changed my life,’” Cindy said. “They were saying, ‘Oh, thank God, thank God you are here because we are sick of cooking for ourselves and have nowhere to go.’ We never realized how many people feel that way.”
For their first week of business, the Hartogs were surprised at what proved to be their most and least popular offerings.
“I make a tuna salad and it is flying off the shelves,” Danielle said. “It is a wild-caught high-grade (tuna) company from California and it has a Paleo aioli instead of a regular mayonnaise; instead of canola oil, it is based with avocado oil. I also use roasted grapes and pine nuts.”
“The chicken fingers are not selling,” Cindy said with slight dismay. “We need mothers to bring kids in.”
At the front of the NewBrook Kitchen + Artisan Market, the Hartogs sell jewelry, candles and accessories made from sustainable materials. Danielle’s sister Deanna manages the store during the summer.
Danielle said she wanted to have a store within the space because “I wanted to promote a Paleo lifestyle.” Cindy, however, added that it was not part of their original plan. “The shelves were up and we decided to put something up there,” she said.
One feature that the Hartogs hope will catch on is their Saturday evening Under Cover Paleo Series, where $80 can buy the serious foodie a four-course gourmet meal. The next meal in the series, scheduled for July 15, will start with Asian turkey meatball with cashew sesame sauce, followed by a green salad with pistachios, pickled red onion, and watermelon, with citrus vinaigrette, which is then followed by an avocado-stuffed grass-fed burger topped with fried egg, pine nuts and bacon, served on a bed of iceberg lettuce with glazed carrots, and topped off with an avocado chocolate mousse parfait.
“It’s BYOB,” said Danielle.
Cindy Hartog said she does not see their mother-daughter business evolving into a chain, although she hopes eventually to expand into a more full-service operation. She is not eager to grow too quickly. When her daughter Deanna returns to school in the fall, Hartog hopes that Danielle’s boyfriend could take over the role of store manager. “We are trying to keep it in the family,” she said.