11/17/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
MEREDITH, N.H. — Russ Sr. and Larry Hart liked to joke that they were America’s first hippies.
In the 1940s, they left upscale suburban New Jersey with their wives, Helen and Gerda, to begin farming their parents’ retirement property in rural Meredith, N.H., a small town near Lake Winnipesaukee, a popular summer tourist destination.
A couple of decades later, Interstate 93 was built nearby and before long it was carrying people from all corners of the world to their business, Hart’s Turkey Farm Restaurant, which has become international landmark with guests ranging from Hollywood legend Katherine Hepburn to author-attorney Caroline Kennedy and 2012 presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
“Having a major highway pass by really changed the dynamics of this area,” said Russ Hart Jr., the firm’s current proprietor. “Meredith went from a sleepy little town to a very busy place. Access from Boston and New York made it easier to get here. More people began driving out, so it made sense to concentrate on the dining part of the business.”
On Thanksgiving, Hart’s will serve 1,600 turkey dinners with another 180 going out the door for takeout orders. In addition, the restaurant provides numerous meals for less fortunate residents at a local community center, an annual event called the Mae Hart Dinner, in honor of Hart’s grandmother who started the tradition.
“We prepare all the food,” Russ Jr. said. “We’ve kept her wishes alive.”
Surprisingly, for a restaurant renowned for its turkey, November isn’t the busiest time of year. The real peak is from Memorial Day through autumn when people venture to this corner of New England for summer vacations and autumn leaf-peeping.
“During foliage season we have people from all over the world,” Hart said.
The restaurant has been featured by Phantom Gourmet, a food-related Boston television program; the Travel Channel, Michelin Guide travel books and numerous food and travel magazines.
“We get people from Europe that have found us on the Internet,” Hart said.
The now world-famous eatery had humble beginnings.
The farm started out with the two brothers, Russ and Larry, and their wives growing vegetables and apples. They also sold chickens, eggs and turkeys from a delivery truck. In 1953, they raised turkeys exclusively and in 1954 opened a 12-seat restaurant specializing in turkey sandwiches and dinners.
Larry passed away in 1960 and five years later, Russ Sr. phased out raising his own turkeys, after discovering that he could equal the quality of home-grown birds by selectively purchasing them from turkey farms that met his standards of quality. That step allowed him more time to perfect his skills as a chef and restaurateur.
Now Hart’s is a 500-seat establishment with a thriving catering service whose clients have included huge venues such as New Hampshire Motor Speedway where NASCAR races are held.
The business gets its turkeys from a major Utah supplier, which Hart declined to identify, with tractor-trailer loads arriving every few weeks. “We’ve been using the same brand for more than 30 years,” he said. “We did taste testings from many different companies. This one was the best.”
The deciding factor was the flavor of gravy made from turkey stock. It’s an irresistible taste treat for anyone who’s ever visited this eatery.
Hart said that it would simply be too expensive to serve locally-raised fresh turkey, which he said costs about $3.50 per pound.
He attributed two main things to the restaurant’s success.
“First and foremost, it’s always been run by the same family,” he said. “That’s the thing that’s most unique about us. Plus, we do turkey right.”
While sticking to the tried and true, they’ve been unafraid to innovate, too, with menu items such as Mediterranean turkey and turkey quesadillas, “just to shake it up a little,” Hart said.
Before leaving, many people head for the gift shop and take home a jar of Hart’s famous carrot relish. “My father found the recipe in Florida one year and began serving it,” he said. “We sell thousands of jars every year.”
Obviously, food is the main attraction, but the restaurant’s ambiance is a memorable experience, also. Hart’s grandma Mae started a collection of colorful turkey platters more than 50 years ago that now numbers more than 1,000, with many of them on display throughout the dining areas.
“Mom and dad added to it,” Hart said. “They bought them up and down the East Coast. Plus, we’ve had quite a few given to us by customers who found one and thought we might like it.”
Like any business owner, Hart enjoys the rewards and challenges.
“I enjoy two things, our guests and employees. Now ask me what the two hardest parts are. Guests and employees,” he said, chuckling.
Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday for him, not by a long shot. He’ll be up early to help feed the hungry throngs flocking to Hart’s and the free community dinner. Maybe, when it’s all over, he’ll have a chance to visit with friends and family.
“But after serving 1,600 dinners there’s not a lot of socialization left in me,” he said, smiling.