The Fizz #54: Gabriela Acero of wolfpeach believes local food should highlight local wines
In this issue, Gabriela and I touch on her history, her love of hospitality, why she chose to build a completely New England wine list, & building her restaurant in year one.
For the 54th issue of The Fizz, I spoke to restaurant owner and hospitality expert Gabriela Acero. Gabriela, along with her fiancée Derek Richard, opened wolfpeach in December 2021, hoping to focus on local food and provisions in the small town of Camden, Maine.
In this issue, Gabriela and I talk at length about her history in the restaurant industry, focusing on hospitality and how she views the restaurant experience. We touch on her wine list—a 100% Northeast focused list, extremely rare even here in New England. We talk about building community and trust with diners who may take time to warm up to an unconventional dinner.
Margot: Let’s start with a bit about your background. How did you get into food and wine?
Gabriela: I do not consider myself a sommelier. I have a deep appreciation for wine. I love wine, but it is not my main focus. My main focus is hospitality and it’s very important to draw that distinction. My background is in restaurant service and management.
I grew up in Maine. My dad is originally from Columbia, and my mom grew up in Seattle. My dad’s mom and aunt ran a restaurant in Colombia. Food was kind of a love language. When his mom moved to the United States, she worked as a baker outside of San Francisco. Food was a central thing.
My dad was a stay at home dad for a while, and food was the way he connected to us. We always had a beautiful hot breakfast when we woke up. Any after-school activity I did, he would bring me a hot dinner. My mom loves throwing parties. That was a huge part of my childhood and we all participated in certain dishes. The crafting of the events was important. We would make paper lanterns and set them in the driveway, and my mom would buy vodka and infuse it with different flavors for different people. I understand now that’s hospitality.
I started working in a restaurant when I was 15. I was a very responsible young person and I loved the fact that I was in charge. I think I wanted to be an adult from a very young age, and suddenly I was granted that power where there was no manager on duty—it was just me. I was responsible for opening the restaurant, counting the till, closing, everything. I felt so deeply empowered and I really loved bringing people delicious things. It’s just making people happy and it feels so good.
It just stuck really early. I went to college and I always ended up working in restaurants, but it never clicked that it could be a “real job”, you know, which is quintessential elitist bullshit. I worked at Sarabeth’s for a little while on the Upper West Side and I loved it. After I graduated, I was working at a nonprofit. I reconnected with someone from school who was working as a floor manager at Mario Batali’s Otto—it was an enormous place, maybe 200 seats, the host team alone was around 10 people.
I started at the host stand and ascended very quickly to become the maitre’d, muscled my way into a management job. I quit my nine to five. I was in. I learned a little bit about wine, but I was really fascinated by service, by hospitality, by this intangible thing that coats everything that happens when you eat a meal.
I've worked at so many restaurants in New York and the whole front of house at Otto, from manager to server. These were career servers who had worked there for like 10 years—there was so much attention to detail. It was amazing to watch them do their craft and learn from them. There was a woman there who now owns a restaurant in the West Village called Anton's she said to me once “I try once a shift to make enough of a connection with somebody where I hear there’s something that they're excited about, and I try to give them that thing”. Whether it's a little taste of a different flavor of gelato that they were intrigued by or a little taste of a wine. It's about paying attention to people.
I ended up wanting to work at a smaller place and started working at Rye. I was not prepared for the reality of a small restaurant and a chef owned restaurant that is not corporate. That was a really hard shift for me. I went to all these other places and Semilla was really where it catalyzed for me—the level of hospitality and the wine. I was working under Billy Smith, who still works at The Four Horsemen. He was my introduction to the whole world of natural wine. He had never done any traditional sommelier training. I didn't understand that you could just learn about wine on your own—you didn't have to go through these courses.
It was like a huge leveling up for me. Even the little things—we don't treat the rich people or chef owners as VIP, we treat the farmers as VIP. We treat the line cook as a VIP because he only gets one day off and makes minimum wage and he's choosing to come here. We didn't really have the option to be giving away a lot for free. I started to learn how to engage in intangible gift giving, gifting emotion to people, which frames everything else.
Margot: How did you decide to come back to Maine and open wolfpeach?
Gabriela: I was working at Companie and feeling like I was needing to spend time outside of the city regularly. I was starting to feel a little lost. I called my mom and asked if I could come to Maine for the summer. Jose of Semilla moved to Miami and was planning on opening a restaurant and wanted me to come down and open it with him. I thought okay I’ll come to Maine and have a chill summer, work as a server somewhere, and then move to Miami and open this project with Jose.
Then of course, I met Derek working at Oxbow. I fell in love with Derek and the Miami project kept getting delayed and we thought that's fine, we'll just stay at Oxbow. Then COVID hit. That was the major shift where clearly we're not leaving Maine anytime soon. It felt as though we were just sitting and waiting. Derek was still working at Oxbow and helping our friends open a brunch spot. I finally said I can't just sit here and wait for the world to start again. I need to think about what I want. I realized that I didn’t want to work for anyone else, and that’s where it really started.
Margot: It sounds like you had a really monumental COVID realization, that’s amazing. You have a completely New England focused wine list, which is really rare. Why did you choose to go that route?
Gabriela: It went through several iterations. I knew I wanted it to be of the Americas. It was partly around when wine tariffs were really going up, and there was a lot of uncertainty around access to wine and pricing. I started paying a lot more attention to buying power and the idea of keeping money in local communities, as well as showcasing the work that's happening here. There’s also the history of it. There's this obsession with Europe and California. Well, vines have been growing here for a long time.
Given that we wanted to keep the ingredients local, I've always found it very odd when a restaurant says they’re local, but the wine isn’t. It feels very misleading. Why would we be eating all of this food that's from here, but then drinking wines that are from really far away? Originally, I thought I wanted to focus on the United States, and then it felt arbitrary to lean into borders as a reason to demarcate, because borders are created and have nothing to do with landscape. The list is more about the Northeast.
It worked out in concert with Derek and the food program. We’re trying to demonstrate the range of this region, it’s food, wine, fermented beverages—beer, locally grown hops and malts, ciders.
Margot: Absolutely, that’s really great to see, and I hope to see many more restaurants follow your lead and highlight local wines. Where are you hoping to see the New England wine scene grow?
Gabriela: I think one of the stumbling blocks for us obviously is the legality around alcohol distribution. That's one of the things that really holds us back in New England. If you're a producer who wants to sell your alcohol in Maine, you have to apply. You have to be approved and pay a not insubstantial annual fee. If you're a really small producer that's starting out, that's a really high threshold to take a risk on when it's easier to maybe just stay out of Maine. That is just really heartbreaking. Of course, the larger producers who are generating a lot of revenue—it's a drop in the bucket to them.
I think Maine does a really good job of caring about community and caring about local, but there's this weird other side where we don't connect the dots. I would love to see more access.
The amount of potential with regard to farming grapes is huge as you know, that’s something that we should lean into. Education—we still exist in a place where the majority of folks very strongly believe that European and California wine is better than anything they can get locally. I strongly disagree with that. Even a lot of sommeliers who work in Maine don't know a lot about local wine production, and they're the stewards of this information. I don't feel like I'm sacrificing quality. I think I'm showcasing something really interesting and unique.
Margot: I absolutely agree, and it’s refreshing to see that. As you're building your restaurant in its first year, what stands out to you as a major challenge?
Gabriela: Building trust. Hospitality is building trust with people. There's a lot of dubiousness around a server who does anything more than bring you your food. We have a really esoteric food program. We have a really esoteric beverage program and we're trying to actually engage in hospitality. I think that that's a really unique thing, especially where we are, because we're not really billing ourselves as fine dining. I think people have a hard time understanding the idea of service or hospitality when it's not associated with a white tablecloth and a suit.
People are a little scared of the food. People are very scared of the beverage program. We'll call people to confirm reservations and people are defensive on the phone, like why are you calling me? If we try to offer a suggestion for something, people feel like we're trying to trick them. We're slowly getting there, but I've never dealt with this amount of resistance and lack of trust in a restaurant, and it’s really fascinating.
I want people to understand that we're proud of what we're doing and we want to share it with you. If we're making a suggestion, it's not because we're trying to upsell, it's because we think you’ll enjoy it.
Margot: Very interesting. How are you thinking through being a business owner and also being a part of your community? How do those two interact?
Gabriela: It's so hard. I'm just trying not to be an asshole, you know? I’m trying to really be attentive to my origins of being an employee and wanting to see ways in which I thought that a business could be run better or more sustainably for people, and trying to put that into operation here. I believe that we have worked really hard to create an open dialogue dynamic with our employees. We can talk about growth and change. We've been called out on a couple things, and the fact that has even occurred, feels good to know that people felt comfortable talking to us. We aren't just paying lip service, we are doing work.
Purchasing power is something that we do have agency over, and really focusing what we're spending to be hyper local. That feels really, really good. I am definitely hyper aware of the fact that our price point is extremely limiting with regard to the range of people who can afford to eat in our restaurant, which is really heartbreaking for me. We started doing a happy hour with discounts and we put on more snack type things. We're trying to figure out ways to make sure that there's a level of accessibility.
There’s also thought behind the use of the space. We'll only open four days a week for dinner, and this space just sits there, which feels crazy to me when there are so many people who don't have access to community space. We have started talking about how the space can be used, whether around pop-ups, or starting to have classes, so people who are excited about teaching something can do their own thing. We like the idea of non-ticketed events that have nothing to do with the restaurant—maybe there's a book club that meets on Wednesdays or a game night or a dance party. I don't want the focus to always be the bottom line.
Margot: Awesome, I look forward to coming to one of those events! Where do you find your joy in the work that you do?
Gabriela: I think it goes back to that trust thing that I was talking about. When you build trust with somebody, you’re able to do something special for them, like introducing somebody to a new wine. For example, we opened the Figure 3 Pet Nat from Iapetus for our happy hour, and people loved it. They were like, I've never had anything like this. These women came in and got a glass each and then both took a bottle to take home. The validation of that is incredible.
When we’re talking to people on their way out and they say oh my God, we didn't even realize we were sitting here for three hours—we were just having such a nice time. The idea that you're creating a space where people feel safe and they don't notice that the time is going by and they're just having a great time. Maybe it doesn't even really have anything to do with you or anything you've done, but it feels amazing. The world is in such a tumultuous place. The power of feeling safe and feeling well taken care of is what we can offer, and I think it's so incredibly powerful.
Food and wine—you consume it and then it's gone. But the feelings around that meal and the memories, those don't go away, those stay and have holding power, and that’s incredibly validating.
If you’re a local or planning a trip out to Maine, you can support Gabriela by making a reservation at wolfpeach. Follow wolfpeach on Instagram to stay in the know around their upcoming events and dishes.
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