Although few outsiders get a chance to peek in the back of Young’s Family Restaurant in Durham, NH, owner Ken Young’s commitment to sustainability and local farm-fresh service is no secret. So much so, in fact, that the first stop on his tour of the eatery wasn’t the dining room, but rather the basement, where frozen meats and produce lie silently waiting to be diced, sliced and cooked into whatever entree their local clientele desires.
The beginning of the end of the farming season was evident from the start, as symbolized by a short blue crate of orange, yellow and green tomatoes that sat at the end of the first flight of stairs from the back of the kitchen. Young, 61, said they are the last generation of tomatoes of the season to come from his two-year-old greenhouse in Dover, NH, grown and cared for on land he has owned and farmed on for nearly seven years.
Also from his greenhouse – and in the freezers – were various collections of organically-grown greens, ranging from arugula for salads to herbs like parsley, oregano and thyme, among many others.
What wasn’t in his freezers, Young showcased through pictures, swiping through images of red chili peppers and red Russian kale – which he said could go for as long as another month in his garden – in the greenhouse alongside blueberry plants and other fruits growing nearby.
Today, that commitment is evident through poster boards advertising his garden near the front of the restaurant and his descriptions of self-grown produce. But ten years ago, it all started with a napkin note.
“I got a note…from a local community person. She was on the board, the [Durham] Town Council…she left a note and asked me why I wasn’t using more local food; and she left her name and her number,” Young recalled on Oct. 10. “Now, people can complain to me all day long about how I do things if they’re professional about it, and so on and so forth. But when someone leaves me a note like that and they put their name and number on it, I had no idea what she was talking about.”
And so Young called the name on the napkin – Durham Town Councilor Diana Carroll – and after a three-hour-long call, received an “education” on sustainability that not only changed how he saw and prepared his foods, but also motivated him to get more involved in local and collegiate efforts – such as the University of New Hampshire’s Trash-2-Treasure initiative – to better promote the topic.
It wasn’t just events in the Durham community, however, that changed how he gave back.
“Africa changed my life forever,” he said as he remembered a trip to the continent shortly after finding Carroll’s note, “how I saw the people in the villages there and what they had; and they offered me the shirt off their back and they had nothing. It brought tears to my eyes…it broke my heart to see how these people live.”
Despite their circumstances, Young believed that the people of Africa – as well as the people of countries like Cambodia and Vietnam, where he has also travelled in his lifetime – were happier living their own lives than the average U.S Citizen, and that they should have the right to live the life they want to live.
“You hear all the negative crap in this world that comes from news media and whatever, people complaining; they want this, they want that; these people [in Africa] had nothing,” he said. “And their smiles on their face, they take care of their family, and they go to work every day…those people have everything they need to survive as long as we don’t screw them up.”
Young’s life experiences reflect a larger history surrounding a restaurant that has strived to remain true to tradition and its Durham community while also adapting to changing times and attitudes.
That journey began in 1916, when Jack Grant opened a cafe in a portion of Pette Block to serve local residents and students of the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts (the predecessor to UNH). By the start of the 1920s, Grant had purchased enough land on Main Street for a small yet improved restaurant successor that could fit just one counter’s worth of seating.
Over the next decade, Grant and his family expanded the building, added more seating, and by 1936, served three meals a day; additional seating in the back of the establishment was added on in the 1950s, according to Young.
The Grant family’s control of the restaurant ended in 1968, when it was turned over to Young’s parents Dick and Annette Young. Ken was 11 at the time, and his father had previously owned a coffee shop and bakery in Dover. Shortly after buying Grant’s Cafe, Dick Young chose to narrow his focus to his new restaurant and sold his other coffee shops in the wake of a rising national brand of coffee shop-bakery hybrids called Dunkin Donuts.
Young’s father, upon buying the property, proceeded to transform it from what Young described as an Irving gas station “without the gas” into its current restaurant state, including a significant renovation to the front of the restaurant in 1987. He continued to manage the restaurant – renamed Young’s Restaurant and Coffee Shop of Durham – until 1990, when Young’s wife Cathy took over head operations alongside her husband, both of whom continue to operate it to this day.
Young called the restaurant’s 102 years of service under just two families “remarkable” and a testament to the loyalty of the Durham community.
“It says a lot for the families, but it also says a lot about the community,” he said. “…like my father always said ‘you support the community, it will support you.’”
While Ken and Cathy’s reign has also incorporated additional changes to the eatery – including another renovation in 2007 – Ken told The New Hampshire his major focus these days is continuing to not only serve the community classic dishes, but also cater to a changing industry he calls a “moving target” for its increasing emphasis on diversity.
“If you see all those shows on TV about ‘chef-this’ and ‘chef-that,’ the food is constantly changing,” Young said. “We’re getting more ethnic flavors into our menu mix, which I think is exciting and great for people; it gives them more choices. And you’re seeing that in Durham, too…it’s competition [with UNH Dining Services], but at the same time, competition makes us all better, and I think it’s good for the community.”
In terms of the community, Young remains committed to improving how young people are educated about the environment and sustainability in general, as well as aiding in local initiatives like Trash-2-Treasure. He also hopes to continue farming at his greenhouse and finding ways to contribute his home-grown produce to the restaurant, even after he officially walks away from day-to-day operations at the eatery. Beyond Durham, Young plans to continue his travels around the world, having already climbed four of the Seven Summits and visited numerous countries ranging from Cambodia to Hong Kong to Vietnam, among other journeys.
Above all, however, Young hopes to do the best he can to aid and inspire future generations to do what is right and best for their communities.
“All I am is one little guy in the world just trying to give back 101 percent,” he said. “I can’t do that, but I’m trying to achieve it; so the more I’m doing that, the closer I am to it.”
Correction: the original version of this piece incorrectly named the Durham Town Councilor. The name was Diana Carroll, not Diane Carroll.