Carson's Store: Interview with owner and chef Andrew Blacker
By Francesca Street
Walking down the picturesque streets of Noank, Connecticut is an inimitable experience. Somewhere between leaving Groton and parking opposite the village shipyard, you seem to have stepped back in time.
In Noank village, turn-of-the-twentieth century timber-frame houses line chocolate-box streets. The ever-present sound of the waves crashing and the sweeping sea views remind you that this is a working seaside community, still firmly routed in the New England fishing, lobster and shipbuilding industries.
Noank's beautifully preserved historic buildings, matchless ambiance and proximity to nearby historic Mystic have always attracted visitors, many of whom remain so charmed they decide to stay.
Recently, visitors to Noank have also been enticed by some of the best food in South Eastern Connecticut. The village's selection of small but exceptional restaurants has consolidated Noank's reputation as a good food hub.
If there's one Noank resident to whom this comes as no surprise, it's 25-year-old Andrew Blacker.
Andrew, a recent graduate of the University of Connecticut and lifelong resident of Noank, is the storekeeper, manager and chef at Noank village's most iconic business: Carson's Store.
Carson's epitomises all that makes Noank unique: a café-come-meeting-place-come-historical-landmark dating from 1907, famous for delicious brunch and wondrous ice cream, a fascinating history, an iconic nineteenth century building and a bona fide all-American diner interior. For Noank residents and visitors alike, Carson's is a beloved institution.
As the store's newest manager, Andrew is the man tasked with steering the store into the twenty-first century, whilst still retaining Carson's unique charm.
To me, a Brit abroad, Carson's seems to perfectly characterise old-time Americana. Every time I enter the store I feel as though I've walked onto the set of my favourite twentieth century American movie. The store has a timelessness and friendliness that cannot be matched. Diner-style restaurants may be all the range nowadays, but Carson's is the real deal.
This summer, I was presented with the opportunity to interview Andrew and I immediately jumped at the chance. My visit to the Mystic region in Summer 2014 had been darkened by the news that Carson's had closed its doors, but after remaining close for just under a year, the store reopened last December, newly rejuvenated and with Andrew and his team at the helm.
Noank residents and visitors rejoiced at the news, although many remained uncertain of the exact behind-the-scenes goings on which had lead to the store's closure and its happy reopening.
In our August interview, Andrew is happy to set the record straight and pleased to hear of the widespread delight that reverberated around the Mystic region following the announcement that Carson's had reopened.
'My father David Blacker has owned the store for about 40 years,' explains Andrew. 'I grew up living right next to the store and I've been working there for more than half of my life. When the Carson family owned the store it was family run and it still is today. Everyone in my family helps out with the store in some way.'
In late 2013, Andrew's father David decided to retire. Andrew was keen to take over, but was in the middle of his final year studying at UCONN.
'My father told me the most important thing for me was to finish school,' Andrew tells me, 'He said that if I was still interested in running the store, it would be there when I finished.'
During his time at college, Andrew worked in restaurants, sales and marketing, establishing an impressive resume and a wealth of useful experience.
'I worked for Aeros Cultured Oyster Company as director of Sales. I shucked oysters at Captain Scotts in New London, Water Street Café in the Borough, and Swooner in the Borough before it shut down. I also worked making sandwiches at Stonington pizza. All the time while I was working these jobs I had the thought in mind that I wanted to learn as much as I could from each place and try and take away a special skill from each place.'
Andrew's efforts paid off. He worked hard in the fall semester to ensure he could complete his course in December, rather than May.
'I was able to do it and finished my bachelors in science from the college of Agriculture,' Andrew tells me proudly. Only a week after his graduation, Carson's Store was up and running once more.
Andrew's business outlook combines a genuine love of Noank and deferential respect for Carson's history with a smart, savvy outlook on the store's future. When I ask him to explain his mission for Carson's, he confidently asserts:
'I used what I learned in school and working in these different restaurants to come up with a unique idea that focused on local food and highlighted the history of the business, while trying to update and address some issues we had run into in the past.'
Whilst at UCONN, Andrew specialised in Natural Resource Economics and gained two HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control point management) certificates. These are licenses that are required by the USDA to process or resell seafood and meats.
'Having those certificates means that, if we wanted to, Carson's could process and sell both seafood and meat products, both of which we have access too. My brother farms beef in North Stonington and I worked for the oyster farm in Noank while I was in school.'
Carson's history is an undeniable part of the store's appeal, inextricably linked to and still impacting on its present day existence. Despite the importance of this history, I don't think I've ever heard the full story of Carson's origins. I am keen to hear more about this history and I ask Andrew to tell me more. He explains that Carson's actually had two other locations prior settling in its current home.
'The store was first opened in 1907 by the Carson family,' relays Andrew. 'It was located at the foot of Main Street near where the Latham Chester store sits, in a building that no longer exists. The store later moved to the opposite end of Main Street and it was located adjacent to the railroad tracks. Unfortunately, a spark from a passing steam train caught the store on fire and it burned down, forcing the Carson family to again relocate to the current location! Well almost… The old building that you mention has actually come a long way too.'
Interestingly, the structure that was to become the iconic Carson's building we know today was originally a summer kitchen for the house next door.
'The house was built in the 1840s,' Andrew explains, 'During that era, people would do their summer cooking in a summer kitchen, which was like an open air structure, to reduce some of the heat from the open fire.
Located behind the store, in close proximity to where the firehouse sits today, was a cedar swamp. Poles were cut from those cedar trees and laid down, and then the "Summer Kitchen" was hoisted up and put on beams and hitched to a team of mules. The structure was then dragged from somewhere in the yard behind the store to its current location on Main Street!'
Since this move, Carson's store has remained in the same spot for over one hundred years.
'Bernie Carson operated the Store daily as a general store until 1973,' says Andrew, 'The store changed hands to two different owners between that time and when my father purchased the business in 1979.'
Andrew's father David made some significant, important changes to Carson's.
'In 1979, the store was still just a wooden structure with no foundation,' explains Andrew, 'So the store was picked up, and a foundation was dug underneath it by hand and then the store was reset on the new foundation. After that, it was no longer resting in the soil which had previously made the structure so prone to elements.'
Carson's continued to operate as a general store until the 1990s, when it began to serve breakfast, becoming the brunch hotspot Noankers know it as today. The store underwent another renovation in 1995 and the kitchen was added and opened in 2000.
'The rich history of the store absolutely impacts the store still,' says Andrew with a smile, 'One thing my father told me is no matter what happens with the store, the front portion of the store should never change. The history makes Carson's what it is. Even the menu covers feature old post cards of Noank that are from the same decade and many from the same year the store first opened.'
Carson's enduring success is also down to its great food. The breakfast is renowned across the Mystic region. Andrew says the most popular breakfast menu item has always been the corned beef hash and gives This is Mystic the insider scoop on how Carson's perfects this dish:
'We take briskets, season them, slow cook the meat for 12 hours at just over 200 degrees until it literally falls apart. We then chop it, mix it with seasoned potatoes and grill it to a crisp.
We also added different types of eggs Benedict to the menu this summer and they have been very popular. They are served with store-made hollandaise. We have the original, eggs Florentine, a lobster Benedict and finally a combination of the corned beef and eggs benedict, the Mason Jameson Benedict.'
Since Carson's reopening in December 2014, the store has added a new wing to its bow. Taking advantage of Noank's nautical setting and its proximity to gorgeous fresh sea food, Carson's began offering a new raw bar menu in the evenings.
'The raw bar menu menu features local Noank Oysters harvested just a few hundred feet from the restaurant, as well as wild caught Rhode Island littlenecks,' Andrew tells me, 'As I mentioned earlier I worked for the Aeros Cultured Oyster Company. They are one of the members of the Noank Aquaculture Coop. When I worked there I realised that many people didn't know there was an oyster farm in Noank. When they found out they wanted to buy oysters. The problem was the Coop only sells the oysters to wholesalers.
After I stopped working for them I decided Carson's would be a nice place to showcase the oysters grown right here in the village. People can come in and try the oysters, or buy them un-shucked and take them home. We also sell oyster knives and openers. My hope one day is to be able to offer tours of the oyster farm and offer oyster tastings afterwards. I wanted to introduce the idea of oysters at Carson's and see how people responded to the idea. I also have a separate company that hosts and caters private raw bar events. I would like to one day rent Carson's out for private events from raw bars, to birthday parties, to wedding rehearsals, to filming and photo shoots. For the time being, however, the raw bar and dinners are going to be a seasonal offering. We will continue to be open at night until Labor Day at which point we will be changing the hours and scaling back the menu slightly.'
It is clear that Andrew has big plans for the store. His ideas are often new and exciting, but remain perfectly suited to the mission, integrity and culture of Carson's.
Andrew is pragmatic but hopeful about the future:
'It's hard to say what the future holds for the Store. We don't plan on going anywhere any time soon. We have a lot of ideas we look forward to trying out and only time will tell where it will take us. For right now we are just going to keep on working and trying to improve in any way that we can.'
Carson's is a Noank institution and Andrew concludes the interview by reiterating how important the Noank community is to Carson's longevity:
'The town and the community have been so supportive since we reopened and where we are located is truly one of our greatest blessings,' Andrew says gratefully, 'Mystic is also becoming such an attraction, so that proximity has definitely helped. At the same time there is nowhere in the world like the village of Noank. The small town feel is something you can't recreate.' Here's hoping Carson's will remain a part of Noank's distinctive, unique vibe for many years to come.
Gosh, I hope it's still open....