Zack Harold

freelance journalist

Sushi and exotic fish shop makes for odd but apt combo

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 28, 2014.

It could be an uncomfortable experience, enjoying sushi in the middle of an aquarium shop.

There are all those very-alive fish, just bubbling along while you enjoy a dish of very-recently-alive fish.

But Yuichi Fujita, 59, has made it work.

He is the owner of Fuji’s Sushi and Teriyaki along Jefferson Road in South Charleston. The tiny restaurant shares the building with Fujita’s other business, Fuji’s Reef Shop.

On one side of the small space, there are lights, tanks and chemicals for maintaining saltwater fish tanks, along with several tanks filled with exotic fish.

On the other, there’s a kitchen and a small seating area, including a four-seat counter where diners can eat in the blue light of a large burbling saltwater tank filled with colorful fish and swaying underwater plants.

“Japanese food, one thing that’s good, they put food and nature together,” Fujita said.

He keeps a folder of pictures ripped from Japanese-language museums, depicting restaurants with elaborate gardens or those built into picturesque landscapes. Fujita admires those restaurants and has captured some of that vibe with his shop.

When he opened the business in 2005, it was only supposed to be an aquarium store.

Fujita spent years working in kitchens before opening his own sushi restaurant, Fujita Express, in downtown Charleston. He grew tired of the restaurant business, however, and wanted to switch gears.

Some years before, he saw a saltwater tank in a pet shop and immediately fell in love.

He began researching the hobby, and although the Internet was a much smaller place in the early 2000s, Fujita was soon a self-made expert.

“I’m the kind of person, when you get in, that’s it.”

He installed a saltwater tank in his home, and then another and another.

His wife, Dawn, began to grow impatient with the fishtanks that were taking over their home—there were eventually so many aquariums they had to bring in contractors to upgrade the wiring—so Fujita decided to spin off his hobby into a business.

Things went swimmingly for a few years but business dropped off dramatically after the economy crashed in 2008, as people began cutting back on luxuries.

So Fujita decided to get back into the restaurant business. He built a kitchen in his shop and started doing to-go orders.

He soon had a sizable group of regular customers.

“Then people said, ‘why don’t you open a few seats?’”

Fujita added a few tables and a counter last year but kept the seating capacity low.

The restaurant is a small operation—Fujita and his wife, Dawn, who comes in around 5 p.m. after she leaves her day job, are the store’s only employees—but Fujita keeps it that way on purpose.

“I don’t want to deal with employees. I do everything. Lot of work, but less headaches.”

It gives him a close relationship with his customers.

“Pretty much every customer, I remember.”

He knows which flavors they like and those they do not. There’s a lawyer who doesn’t want anything green on his plate. There’s another customer that can’t stand green onions or anything with a similarly strong taste.

Some regulars trust Fujita so implicitly they don’t even order.

“Some customers, they’ll just say ’make me something,'” he said.

Fujita doesn’t think he’s that impressive, however. It’s part of his job to have a good relationship with his clientele. He used to work with a bartender who could remember the usual drinks for a few hundred regular customers.

“If you do it a long time, that’s your skill,” he said. “I have a good long-term memory.”

Running a small shop also gives Fujita the freedom to take time off. The store is closed this week while he goes fly fishing in Pocahontas County.

Fujita says he didn’t have any hobbies when he first arrived in West Virginia about 20 years ago but wanted something to occupy his time outside the restaurant.

“I didn’t want to be like my father. Work, work, work,” he said. “You want to enjoy your life.”

He saw a travel brochure with photos of fly fishermen and was intrigued. It wasn’t long before his obsessive nature took hold. He drove to Pocahontas County every week to practice casting in the trout-filled Cranberry River. He learned to tie his own flies.

“It’s a beautiful way to catch fish.”

He enjoys stepping into his waders and standing in the middle of a river, witnessing nature from a vantage point few people take time to enjoy.

You could say it’s another way to appreciate the balance between food and nature, except . . .

“I’m 100 percent catch and release,” Fujita said.


Swiftwater Cafe adds catering, general store

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, May 21, 2014.

Last Friday morning, the folks at Swiftwater Cafe were already hard at work on lunch.

The long metal prep table in the restaurant’s new catering kitchen was filled with fruit, sandwich and cookie trays as employees rushed to fill orders.

The space—located on the first floor of the Daniel Boone Building on Capitol Street—was formerly a beauty salon, but when the salon’s owner retired earlier this year, Swiftwater owner Teddy Queen purchased the space and had it completely renovated.

The walls are painted bright green to match the restaurant’s color scheme, and a big window decal announces “Swiftwater Catering is open for business.”

Queen, 39, started doing small breakfast and lunch catering orders as soon as Swiftwater opened in 2003, although the workspace wasn’t ideal.

He and his employees were trying to prepare large numbers of sandwiches and wraps in the same small kitchen where they fixed lunch orders.

“It was very crowded,” he said.

After a few years he expanded the operation into a small closet-like space in the back of the beauty salon next door. That allowed a little more room for catering, but the space was not equipped for large orders.

Then earlier this year, the hair salon went out of business and Queen had the chance to buy the space.

He hadn’t planned to expand just yet. Last year, he opened the Swiftwater General Store on Capitol Street and purchased a new van for the business. But he decided to take the leap anyway.

“I said ‘Well, we’re stretched a little thin but let’s go for it.’ I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and the demand was there,” he said.

He opened the catering kitchen in early April.

The storefront gives Swiftwater a larger presence on Washington St., which Queen hopes will catch peoples’ attention and bring in more business. His catering operation is mostly limited to downtown Charleston right now but he wants to expand into Kanawha City and South Charleston, too.

The expanded catering business also has allowed Swiftwater to hire more employees.

While the cafe once had just three employees, plus Queen, the restaurant now has 12 people on staff, including two at the Swiftwater General Store on Capitol St.

Queen originally wanted to build a country store in Fayetteville, and even bought a piece of property and had architects draw up some blueprints. But there were problems with the land’s septic permits and Queen couldn’t seem to get any help from county officials. Then his wife, Lisa, got a new job she really enjoyed, and the couple was hesitant about moving their children.

“I said, ‘Too many factors are building up.’”

He decided to put his plans on hold for a while. Then, last year, a storefront opened across from Davis Park on Capitol Street and Queen jumped at the opportunity.

The Swiftwater General Store opened in September 2013.

“It’s been an immediate success,” he said. “I get thanked 15 times a day for putting it there.”

The store’s interior evokes an old-timey general store, which was partly inspired by Queen’s family history. His great-grandparents ran a coal company store in Fayette County, and one of his grandfathers ran a grocery store in Matewan.

In addition to snack cakes, potato chips and other convenience store fare, the wood shelves along the left wall of the store are stocked with essentials: canned food, toilet paper, paper towels, toiletries, a big jar of pickled eggs. Just about anything customers might need in a pinch.

The opposite wall is lined with coolers. The grab-and-go cooler is stocked with sandwiches, wraps, salads and other quick, healthy lunch offerings. There are pop coolers and a few beer coolers stocked with craft brews. Customers are welcome to build their own six packs.

The store has a steady stream of regulars, who pop in to pick up a cup of fresh coffee or a cinnamon roll from the bakery case. Queen said the store is perfectly positioned to attract business from surrounding office buildings as well as Davis Park.

“It’s going to be the best decision I’ve made long-term,” he said.

A Very Green House

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, June 11, 2014.

The Scott Depot home of Gene and Janis Bennett doesn’t really look like a farm, not at first glance.

Approaching from the street, the suburban property just looks like it is inhabited by a couple of avid gardeners. The front lawn is lined with rows of staked blackberry plants – 230 in all. There are some apple trees. Janis’s flower beds are green and well-kept.

But then you notice the domed beds filled with collard greens, lettuce, kale, kohlrabi (a cabbage-like relative of brussels sprouts) and more. There are wine grapes, too, and Gene is growing five varieties of hops for home brew beer makers, as part of a grant program with West Virginia State University’s extension service.

Nearly every square foot of the Bennetts’ property is dedicated to some agricultural pursuit.

Gene, a contractor by trade, has built 10 raised beds on the property and has plans to build six more.

He has even taken over the top floor of their house, building a small hydroponic garden to grow kale, red giant mustard, yakumo (similar to snow peas), Swiss chard and red vein sorrel. There’s an even larger hydroponic operation in the top floor of the Bennett’s barn.

The Bennetts also have a high-tunnel greenhouse a few hundred feet away from the house, on property owned by their daughter. Gene plans to grow tomatoes, peppers and other warm-weather plants there.

The vegetables are not certified as organic – that takes a lot of time, money and paperwork – but Gene does not use any pesticides or other chemicals on the crops.

Instead, he relies on old-school methods of pest control.

His crops are interspersed with companion plants to help drive bugs away. Marigolds keep away aphids and roundworms, while horseradish is supposed to protect against potato bugs.

He also plans to put down a reflective ground covering around his tomatoes this year, which will use sunlight to drive away pests that cling to the lower leaves of the plants.

They sell their produce at the Wild Ramp farmer’s market in Huntington and through a small community supported agriculture (CSA) program. They’ve dubbed their business “LeJa Produce, (pronounced “lee-JAY) a combination of their first names Lloyd Eugene and Janis Ann.

Each Friday, they fill plastic tubs with vegetables from their garden, fresh-baked bread from their kitchen and canned goods from their pantry. Gene and Janis deliver these tubs to the families in their CSA, who pay $40 a month for a membership.

“Some of them, you have to pay for the whole season. We do it by the month, Janis said.

CSAs are a way for consumers to invest in farmers. They pay a little money up front and get a portion of crop.

Like any investment, it carries a little risk. If the crops don’t come in, there might not be much in the CSA basket this week.

Gene and Janis try to avoid that, however. If they find themselves low on produce, they just reach into their fully-stocked pantry and grab a jar of green tomato relish, green beans, apple butter, tomato salsa, apples or pear jam.

Sometimes canned goods show up even when the harvest is going well.

“We try to do at least once a month, give them something out of the ordinary, Janis said.

Last week’s basket included two types of lettuce, some eggs from another local farmer, bread, kale and mint.

The Bennetts are keeping their CSA small right now, with just 10 families receiving weekly baskets. There’s a short waiting list to join, however, and Gene said the program could eventually expand.

For more information about LeJa Produce, call 304-561-5713, send an email to leja or search “LeJa Produce on Facebook.


He’s bringing a new flavor to town

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, February 19, 2014.

In the last few weeks, chef Paco Aceves has auditioned for a new job, landed that job, packed up his wife and children and all their earthly possessions, moved everything across the country, only to take the helm in his new kitchen and cook dinner for hundreds of hungry guests on Valentine’s Day weekend.

And he did it all with a bad back.

Aceves — known as “Chef Paco” to his fans — is the new executive chef at the Berry Hills Country Club, but he’s not new to the Charleston dining scene. He first came to West Virginia back in 2007. Although he was fresh out of culinary school, he quickly gained a following at the Bridge Road Bistro, where chef Robert Wong took Aceves under his wing.

He later went to work at the Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, W.Va., before moving his family to Albuquerque, N.M., where he and wife Brandi opened a gourmet barbecue restaurant, “Paco’s Smoked International Cuisine,” in 2012. The couple closed that restaurant after almost two years when their business partner backed out, and began to consider relocating to West Virginia to be closer to Brandi’s

Aceves wanted to get back to cooking, too, but realized he was tired of working in restaurants or hotel. He had previously worked as a sous chef at the Houston Country Club in Houston, Texas, and wanted to find another job in a private club.

He called up his friend Paul Smith, executive chef at Charleston’s Buzz Food Service, to talk about his plans. As serendipity would have it, Berry Hills general manager J. Eric Stacy had called Smith earlier that day and mentioned the club was looking for a new executive chef.

Smith connected Stacy with Aceves, who set up an audition for the chef with some of Berry Hills’ members.

“The response was `get him up here.’ There was only one contingency. He has to let us buy him a smoker,” Stacy said.

The building that housed Paco’s Smoked International Cuisine had once been a barbecue joint, and came with a giant wood-fired smoker. Aceves put the smoker to good use, cooking both meats and vegetables for a variety of Mediterranean-inspired entrees and side dishes. Although his operation at Berry Hills will likely be significantly smaller, he plans to bring many of the dishes from his

He’s not reinventing the wheel, however. Some member favorites at Berry Hills, like the club’s 14-ounce rib-eye, crab cakes and certain salads and sandwiches, will remain on the menu.

“Everybody has their favorites. You can’t change everything,” he said. “They’re already telling me what they want and I’m a good listener.”

Aceves said private clubs allow chefs a stronger bond with their patrons. And since the restaurant isn’t the club’s primary source of income, he also is able to spend a little more money on ingredients without having to pass the cost along to customers.

He’s currently looking at ways to bring grass-fed beef and locally-raised produce on the menus. Aceves said he’s worked in restaurants that attempted a “farm to table” approach to its ingredients, but the endeavor always proved too costly to make good business sense.

At Berry Hills, he has a little more freedom.

“I can have better quality ingredients and a fresh approach,” he said. “I’m allowed to not make as much money.”

Word is spreading that Chef Paco is back in town. He said some former Berry Hills members are coming back, and fans from his Bridge Road Bistro days are considering joining the club.

He made his debut in Berry Hills’ kitchen over Valentine’s Day weekend and said he was impressed with how well the staff worked together. Aceves couldn’t do a lot of the heavy lifting, having wrenched his back while moving his family from New Mexico to West Virginia.

“Basically I just came in and orchestrated things. It was a lot of fun,” he said.


Famed cronut finally debuts in city

This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on Wednesday, February 12, 2014.

The cronut has landed.

More than six months after the flaky, deep-fried confection took New York City by storm, Charleston residents can now get a little piece of the action.

Sarah’s Bakery on Bridge Road debuted its version of the half-croissant, half-doughnut last Friday, and has already created a stir among the city’s sweet teeth.

On Friday, the bakery sold all four-dozen of its cronuts within an hour. Owner Sarah Plumley fried up another four-dozen cronuts the next day and sold out within 45 minutes.

“I literally had a line of people come in,” she said.

Some customers called to reserve a cronut, but Plumley said she is not taking pre-orders. If she did, there might not be any left for walk-in customers.

“They’ll sell out before I cook them,” she said.

Plumley had never made a cronut before receiving her deep fryer last week, but researched recipes online, reading articles on blogs and watching YouTube videos.

“Apparently, they are a huge hit in the Philippines,” she said.

Although cronuts are a relatively simple treat – it’s just croissant dough shaped into a ring and deep-fried – Plumley said preparing them is a very labor-intensive process.

“You’ve got to make the dough, let it rise, fry them, let them cool and then fill them,” she said.

Sarah’s Bakery has a small kitchen and a small deep fryer to match, which limits Plumley’s ability to churn out large batches of the flaky pastries.

Just making the dough is a long process. Croissant dough is known for its flaky layers, but to achieve that effect, Plumley must subject the dough to round after round of folding and rolling. That’s why Sarah’s sells its cronuts for $4.25 apiece.

Customers are more than happy to pay the price for Plumley’s hard work, however.

“I’ve had a lot of people coming and saying ‘Finally cronuts come to Charleston,’ ” she said.

Except the bakery cannot call them “cronuts.” That name is trademarked by Dominique Ansel, who invented the pastry in his New York bakery.

“I’m just calling them ‘croissant doughnut,’ ” Plumley said.

The bakery currently is offering two standard flavors, brown sugar bacon chocolate and vanilla cream, but Plumley hopes to experiment with more flavors in the coming weeks. She plans to make strawberry cronuts for Valentine’s Day.

The bakery will continue selling the pastries on a first-come, first-served basis for the time being. She recommends customers show up around noon to get one.

A Taste of Tradition

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

Imagine your great-great-great-grandpa rambling down some cobblestone street, out on the town with his buddies. They bust through swinging doors into a dark saloon, step past the tables and brass spittoons, and belly up to the bar. What do they order? Whiskey or bourbon or rum, maybe, but beer—probably not. More than likely, the barkeep serves up big mugs of hard apple cider.

“It was the quintessential American beverage,” says Josh Bennet, co-owner of Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead, located just outside Lewisburg. “There was more cider drunk in the 1700s and  1800s, per capita, than all soda pop now.” This is difficult for us to imagine, in a time when hard cider commands about as much respect among serious drinkers as a strawberry daiquiri. But that’s why Bennet and his friend Will Lewis started Hawk Knob last year. They wanted to create a product—available soon in stores and restaurants around the state—that would remind Americans of this forgotten chapter of our palliative past.

Cider began to fall out of fashion in the 1800s but it was Prohibition that really struck the industry to its core. When the 21st Amendment made it illegal to produce or sell alcohol in the United States, apple  growers suddenly had lots of fruit and no one to sell it to. All the apple pies in the world couldn’t replace the demand lost when cideries closed. Many of the nation’s orchards were razed as farmers were forced to find other, more profitable crops.

Prohibition was lifted 13 years later but the cider business has never fully recovered—until recently. Sales of cider increased by more than 75 percent between November 2013 and November 2014, raking in $366.4 million according to a January report by FiveThirtyEight, the website run by statistics guru Nate Silver. The vast majority of those sales went to large cideries like Angry Orchard, Woodchuck, Johnny Cider, and Strongbow. But the guys at Hawk Knob are quick to point out their products are very different from—much more in line with tradition than—those grocery store brands.

“What we do and what Angry Orchard does is not the same thing,” Bennet says. He says big commercial cideries use newer apple varieties like Fuji, Red Delicious, and Granny Smith for their products or, in some cases, pre-made concentrate. Hawk Knob uses heirloom apple breeds like Yarlington Mill and Kingston Black, varieties traditionally used for cider production.

For their first commercial pressing last year, Bennet and Lewis purchased their apples from Morgan Orchard in Monroe County—they’re committed to having an entirely West Virginia-grown product. They plan to grow some of their own apples, too. Last year, Lewis grafted 175 apple trees at Bennet’s farm in Pocahontas County, although it will be several years before those trees are fully productive.

Bennet and Lewis also hope to convince local farmers to plant apple trees on their farms. “This region of Appalachia is a perfect apple-growing region. We want to create a network of farmers that work with us. There’s plenty of opportunity,” Bennet says. “We can guarantee we’ll be there every year to get them.” He says West Virginia should seize this opportunity to boost its agricultural output. With enough commitment from farmers and cider makers, the state could become a leader in the growing hard cider movement.

Great-great-great-grandpa would be proud.

A Cut Above

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of WV Focus.

The butcher block in Ralph Richmond’s shop is warped from years of use. The block was already old when Ralph inherited it from the original owner 38 years ago, and years of blood and knife cuts have left the surface looking like a three dimensional map of a West Virginia landscape. Ralph’s store, appropriately called The Butcher Block, is a lot like that maple slab. It shows its age, but that doesn’t detract from what it offers: reliability, with a solid dash of character.

Ralph grew up in Pluto, in Raleigh County, but moved to Washington, D.C., in the early 1970s with his wife, Janet, looking for work. They both applied for jobs at the CIA. She landed a job as a secretary, but Ralph was turned down for a job as a courier because he failed the required physical due to high blood pressure. Instead, he went to work at a Giant supermarket, where he eventually ended up in the store’s butcher shop.

The Richmonds lived in Washington for five years, but like many ex-pats, they began looking for a way to move back home to West Virginia. They found a small brick grocery store, Henry’s Market, along U.S. Route 19 in Beaver. The owner was well into his seventies and looking to retire. Ralph now had several years of experience in grocery stores and figured he could run the store, so the couple purchased the business and renamed it The Butcher Block.

When Ralph first took over, the store was a full-service grocery store—the shelves were stocked with canned goods and groceries of all kinds, as well as animal feed, health and beauty products, and just about anything a family would need for daily life. But in the 38 years that have elapsed, drug stores, convenience stores, and big box stores have cropped up in the surrounding community, and shoppers no longer looked to small stores like The Butcher Block for their staples.

But Ralph knew his strengths and played to them. When people stopped buying their groceries at his store, he pivoted the business to focus on something chain stores could not offer: top-quality meat and intensely personalized service. While many grocery stores now stock their meat departments with precut, prepackaged meat, every single cut in The Butcher Block’s foggy glass case passes through Richmond’s hands. He’s the one who sharpens the knives to trim the fat off the pork chops. He’s the one who runs the meat grinder that turns beef shoulder into ground chuck. He wields the razor-sharp saw transforms a rib roast into prime rib.

If a customer doesn’t like what he’s got in the case, well, that’s fine too. Ralph is happy to do a custom order. Want your steak two inches thick? No problem. He usually keeps the meat-to-fat ratio in his ground chuck pretty lean, but one elderly customer preferred his ground with lots and lots of fat mixed in. “He liked it white,” Ralph says. Of course, the old fellow hasn’t been in the shop for a while. “I’d say his arteries clogged up.”

Ralph doesn’t advertise, outside of the occasional ad in the local high school football program. He doesn’t need to. “The best advertisement is word of mouth,” he says. His commitment to customer service has earned The Butcher Block a solid base of regulars. “People will come here and they won’t go anywhere else,” Janet says.

After returning from Washington, Janet spent 33 years as an elementary school teacher for Summers County Schools. When she retired recently she began working with Ralph in the store. They are The Butcher Block’s only employees, so when the couple have to go to doctors’ appointments or take vacations—as they do a few times each year—they just close the whole shop down. It might stay closed for a few hours or a whole week. But they don’t have to worry about losing customers. They always come running back.

Janet tells of one family who were so discontented with the quality of the supermarket meat they purchased during one of the Richmonds’ vacations, they just gave up on dinner and offered the leftovers to the family pet. “They said the dog wouldn’t hardly eat it.”

Word of mouth, indeed.