Updated: Jan 29, 2022
The Fabled Farmer's Restaurant Re-Launch is More Than Business – It's Personal
For Mary Robertson, September 22, 2021 was the end of an era. An hour before lunch, Robertson, then-owner of The Fabled Farmer, announced the closure of her restaurant after five years in the community. She was resolved, she recalls, yet that didn't make it any easier. Well-meaning community members encouraged Robertson not to see the closure as a failure, but she says that was never a concern. "I didn't really feel like I failed," she explains four months later, "I feel like I did a good job with what I had, and I feel like it was a great asset to the community." Business owners, former employees, and restaurant regulars took to social media to express disappointment, shock, and heartfelt well wishes for Robertson and her future. Perhaps another COVID casualty like elsewhere across the country, Fergus Falls anticipated a future without The Fabled Farmer. It was an unexpected collapse for a business begun with all the charm and whimsy of a fairy tale.
The Early Days
In the mid-2010s, Mary Robertson had spent several years under the fluorescent lights of her office space. She had an impactful career as administrative assistant for the City of Fergus Falls' economic development wing before taking an opportunity with a major local corporation. In the transition, she learned something about herself and her instinctive passions for community involvement and big ideas. She had a great job and knew that full well, but something was unfulfilled. On West Lincoln Avenue sat a building with vacant business space which Robertson and her husband owned. That space needed a tenant, and she had just the idea to solve her career conundrum and fill the empty rooms. "I love hospitality," she says. "I love juicing, I love the healthy aspect of eating... Starting a restaurant that served more whole foods, more organic was my vision." There are endless ways to squander a fortune opening a restaurant, and Robertson wanted her retirement intact. Rather than contracting a consulting firm, she donned her detective's cap, observing regional restaurants to understand equipment needs, workflow, and menus. She wanted to create something unique, something the city didn't already have elsewhere, but she also wanted to benefit from the experience of others. When the big day neared, Robertson's new restaurant, The Fabled Farmer, had a kitchen setup more reminiscent of a home cookery than an established eatery. With only one freezer and one cooler, the inspector from the Minnesota Department of Health asked where, exactly, she intended to store everything. "I mean, I really didn't know what I was doing," Robertson laughs. Whatever the initial inadequacies, the team improvised, and eventually experience informed a functional business that became a local mainstay for the next five years. Around a menu which included locally-sourced seasonal ingredients, whole foods, and the "best burgers in town," the future seemed almost guaranteed.
Fall, Rise Again
Early in the pandemic, few industries were hit as hard as the hospitalities. Forced closures, quarantining, and workforce shortages confronted small-town restaurants like The Fabled Farmer. Robertson persevered for more than a year, until July of 2021, when her head chef fell sick with the coronavirus – forcing another temporary closure. Then, another staff member was injured, stretching the team thin. Compounded by family medical struggles and a theft from the business, enough had to be enough. "I think people really liked it, and I love it myself," Robertson says. "That was what kept me going." However, after so much at once and after fighting through a year of uncertainty, "There was just no time to recover; after the last round, I need[ed] to be done." And so, with a somber resolve, she broke the news that The Fabled Farmer would close its doors for good, just weeks after reopening at a limited capacity. For two months, any outward indication was that the story was over. Then, in late November, Robertson's long-standing, hard-working cook and server, Rebecca Lacheur, broke that silence, announcing she would take over the restaurant and re-launch in January of 2022. Lacheur met Robertson for the first time three years earlier. She had been working as a paralegal, and, like Robertson, found she wasn't drawn to an office atmosphere. Lacheur stopped in for lunch at The Fabled Farmer and thought to herself, "Well, this would be fun." Reliving the moment in her mind, Robertson says, "I remember the day. She was sitting at table number two. She expressed an interest in applying, and I hired her." Even in this short encounter, Robertson could sense a maturity which would become a valuable asset then and in the years ahead.
A Person of Integrity
Lacheur proved the perfect fit. "She has always been so hard working, so honest – a real person of integrity. You can count on her," Robertson says. Robertson and her husband were both reaching retirement age and hoping to spend more time with their four adult children and twelve grandchildren. Even before the pandemic's challenges, they engaged Greater Fergus Falls to discuss succession planning. Robertson was put in touch with a specialist to help her through the decisions that would need to be made, and she remembers talking with Lacheur about the possibility of selling the business some day. Then things got complicated, and the best-laid plans gave way. When the closure went public, Lacheur saw the outpouring of support from the community and decided she wasn't ready to walk away.
"I just, I really liked working here. I like the food, I love the hours – I love the restaurant industry. I thought, 'I could go and work for another restaurant,' but I always had a desire to put my own spin on [The Fabled Farmer] and make it my own." - Rebecca Lacheur
Lacheur didn't back down from her passion. Instead, she also reached out to Greater Fergus Falls, who connected her with West Central Initiative. Surrounded by this support network—and with Robertson excited to see the business continue—Lacheur connected the dots between where she was and where she wanted to be. She wanted to open the doors as soon as possible, but transferring the business took patience. In hindsight, the extra time proved a blessing, though fears of the unknown kept her up at night. All of that changed when the doors were thrown open once more on January 4, 2022.
Real Food, Real People
"It doesn't seem to matter how prepared you are, you always feel like you should be more prepared," Lacheur observes. Rather than worry, she decided she would use her own experience to cover whatever shortages might arise in the first weeks. That decision and a successful launch have helped to ease her tension. "Now that it's open, I'm sleeping and eating again," she jokes.
Supported by a new staff who in only three weeks have learned a new menu, a new point-of-sale system, and embraced a new ownership, launching in early January proved the best course. The slower nature of a cold, snowy winter has allowed The Fabled Farmer to open at a comfortable pace – assuring staff can train and keep up with the restaurant's customers as well. "Now I'm ready for the people to come in," she says with a smile. Robertson has full confidence in the new Fabled Farmer under Lacheur's ownership, and Lacheur has big ideas for greater community involvement, new recipes, and a return to much of the full menu guests are familiar with from years past. When talking about the future, she describes industry trends toward greater automation – robots cooking food for a family supper. "That would take all the heart out of it," she scoffs. And in the end, it's that heart, it's that human connection, Lacheur hopes to foster through The Fabled Farmer. Real food, real people, real ingredients. "To me, it's a real-food restaurant – we're using real ingredients, cooking all of our food from scratch. And, to me, real food is health food." - R.C. Drews for Greater Fergus Falls