Restaurateur Ben Williams is feeling optimistic for the future. Outdoor retailer giant REI is opening next door in September, and Black Cap Grille anticipates its arrival as a welcomed event that will accelerate its already considerable place in the dining scene in North Conway. Since Black Cap opened 10 years ago, in the depths of the Great Recession, there’s been no looking back. After a decade of building a loyal following of locals, and delighting visitors from away, Black Cap Grille is looking to celebrate with their staff, customers and community by planning a summer of fun contests and events to mark their success.
Success was a distant promise when Williams got a call from Settlers Green Developer Rob Barsamian in 2008, approaching him about opening a new restaurant. After running other successful restaurants in the area, it seemed like the right opportunity. They went for a different approach than his past places, saying, “We purposefully went with a smaller space with fewer seats and more intimate. It was higher-end but still accessible.”
North Conway, long home to the apres ski scene, taverns, sports bars and pizza joints, now had a modern dining experience one would be more likely to find in Boston. Black Cap Grille was completely different - different design aesthetic, different menu, different vibe.
Williams explained, “It was the beginning of the farm to table movement. Our mission is to serve food as fresh as we possibly can. Quality ingredients and consistency of preparation is our goal. The concept just took off. As part of the farm to table trend, we always buy as much local as we can. In season we buy from Weston Farms and have since the beginning. It should be the way you do business!”
But as anyone who frequents Black Cap Grille knows, it’s not just the farm fresh food and expansive drink menu and wine list that brings them in. It’s the friendly staff and bartenders. “I had some people who had worked for me before and I was able to tap them. It gave me a running start in getting up and running. It brought in familiar faces for our guests. Basically it’s turned into very much a local scene.”
Black Cap has had two bartenders with them since the beginning, Ken Nusbaum and Brendan Hawkes. “Guests love the personalized service. These guys know everyone, they remember what drink they like, what they like to eat.”
Restaurant owners aren’t always so lucky. The statistics aren’t pretty. Sixty percent of restaurants don’t make it past their first year and 80 percent go out of business within five years, according to Full Service Restaurant Magazine. Williams added, “They say if you make it five years, you can make it as long as you want. Many drop out in the first year or two. Undercapitalization is one of the reasons many fail.”
A lot has changed over the last 10 years. Diners are more educated consumers. People know more about food and they are open to trying different foods. Ben attributes this change to popular programs on TV. “The Food Network had a lot to do with it! We are not afraid to try different items on our menu. As long as there is quality and consistent prep, people are willing to try new things while also being loyal to long time dishes. You have to be fresh but keep enough of the flavors you had from the beginning so people are comfortable.”
What has been on the menu since day one? The 2369 pastrami sandwich. 2369 refers to the elevation of Black Cap Mountain. The Black Cap Cosmo has been there since the beginning, and it’s still their most popular drink.
Another popular favorite since day one is the VIP Dining Club. “We have people who don’t want to know their balance! People fight over the points. We are reopening the Club in July for the first time this year.”
What will the next 10 years bring? Williams is bullish on all that is going on around its environs on the famous North Conway strip. “REI is opening - we are very excited about that. This is where all the action is. The new hotel going in across the street - Home2, a Hilton Brand - is opening next summer. There’s a lot of building going in and around town and we are in the right spot at the right time. There will be a lot of partnering with REI. We hope to be the gathering place after REI outings. We are very happy to get the walking traffic that will create.”