As someone who grew up in Westerly, my personal reflections on the growth of the town tend to boil down to the times I had before the Malted Barley was established and the times I had after, because the restaurant has just made such an impact on the downtown scene. Accordingly, it was a pleasure to get to speak with founder Colin Bennett about his background, his process, and the future he sees for his company and all the flourishing small businesses in Westerly.
Colin grew up in the industry, with a father who was the partial owner of two restaurants in their home state of Colorado and who encouraged Colin to start on his own path as a teenage busser before graduating into work as a server and bartender. He met his wife Stephanie Saint Bennett, a native of Ashaway, during his college years in Honolulu, Hawaii, while he was working at Gordon Biersch Brewing Company as a bartender and corporate trainer.
The two decided to relocate to Rhode Island in 2006, where Colin worked at the Stadium in Foxwoods as a bartender, then manager, then assistant general manager. With a new Stadium restaurant about to open in New Hampshire, Colin and Stephanie decided to go in another direction.
“We had always wanted to own a restaurant together, but sometime down the road,” he explained. “But suddenly we realized, now is the time. We have all this experience, let’s give it a shot. We chose Westerly because it’s our home.”
Opening any business, let alone a restaurant, is always a risk but in 2010, Westerly’s downtown was at just 35% occupancy.
“But I had been bartending at Perks & Corks and I saw that people were enjoying the nightlife even with just a few options, so we thought there was space for another one,” he explained.
They secured an angel investor and were able to save money by doing a lot of the physical work on their own thanks to Stephanie’s brother’s construction company, Saint Construction, and Colin being a member of the crew.
“I’d spend my days building and cleaning up and then go home and work on the menu with Stephanie,” Colin said.
During the extended (and delicious) experimentation process with the menu, the pretzel stuck out. A classic item often found alongside nuts and other bar snacks, the couple realized they could stick to their original plan of simple, focused food items, but elevate them.
“One day Stephanie said ‘I think we can put stuff inside these and use them as a bun,’” Colin laughed. “And I was like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re a genius!’”
The Malted Barley started off off with eight items on the menu and gradually expanding to well over 20, within the same theme, including eight varieties of pretzels, dips to pair the pretzels with (such as my personal favorite, apricot butter), and nearly a dozen sandwiches.
“One thing I’m especially proud of is that we’ve transitioned to 80 percent farm to table meat at this point,” Colin shared.
Server, bartender, trainer, owner, construction worker – and now a butcher, Colin personally cuts up hindquarters of organic, grass-fed beef from Louis Family Farms in New York and uses it for homemade roast beef and meatballs.
“We’ll get an extra leg a month and do barley-dipped steak and cheese, and halal certified chicken from a local farm, too. We’ve really been able to bring the quality of the food up.”
High quality, simple food made in-house whenever possible has been a recipe for success.
“We have a lot of ‘easy wow’ moments here,” Colin explained. “Someone might come in thinking they know what to expect with a place that serves beer and pretzels, but then it’s much different and they leave thinking ‘Maybe this is something more than what I thought it was.’”
Colin makes sure his staff are all trained and certified so that everyone on the floor is able to speak fluently about beer and serve as a guide for guests, whether they’re already beer aficionado or a novice about to order their first IPA. Beer snobbery and beer-shaming is not the name of the game at the Malted Barley, with Colin preferring to use the space as a judgment-free introduction to an ever-growing industry.
“We like being the place where people try something new for the first time,” he said.
And there’s plenty of options to try, of course, with 37 draft lines ready to pour you a cold one, and a plethora of cans as well.
Delicious food, cold beer, and a welcoming environment all sound pretty appealing in these crazy times, which explains why Colin has been able to franchise and reproduce the Malted Barley experience beyond just Westerly alone. After signing on with a franchise development group in 2015, Colin started putting everything into paper form – training procedures, handbooks, recipes.
The second location for the restaurant has been running successfully in Providence for the last few years, and a third location opened in Juno, Florida last September. Recently, however, Colin and Stephanie decided to sell the franchising company to the owner of the Providence location in order to re-focus their time on their two young sons, Sam and Hudson. While retaining a stake in the company and freedom over the original location, the Bennetts were able to use what they got from the sale to buy the Westerly building.
“We are big-time invested in the town at this point,” he said. “Fingers crossed, we’re not going anywhere.”
The Bennetts, like many of us, are full of excitement about where the town of Westerly is going next. With the United Theater opening its doors to the public and a large public parking lot about to be made available as well, the best is yet to come.
“I think the Malted Barley opening made people look at the area differently and gave a lot of folks the confidence needed to take the risk in downtown,” Colin said. “It’s a tough industry and there’s a lot involved in staying afloat, but we’re here and we haven’t hit our plateau yet. Westerly is still on the rise.”