The Natick Board of Health meeting agenda item for Dec. 11 looked unremarkable enough: A discussion and decision regarding Lookout Farm Taproom’s request for relief from installing an exterior grease trap per town regulations. But Farm operations manager Jay Mofenson, in making his case against the installation, shed light on serious concerns about the farm’s future due to financial challenges.
“The farm is not profitable,” Mofenson said, citing a loss of $300,000 in revenue this year, plus $300,000 in expenditures, including $150,000 that went toward U-Barn operations. “We have other financial responsibilities within our family portfolio… [We] will not be expending any additional capital on the farm in its current condition as an operating farm. The next time we spend capital on the property will be in a different format, and we will have other discussions about that at another time.”
Mofenson added: “I don’t know if we’ll be operating in 2024… that’s just the economic reality of how the farm works. We will not be agreeable to spending any additional capital in any upgrade across the board.” He said that if the internal grease traps already added were not sufficient, then the Taproom would be closed by year-end, and if the town asks the farm to make additions to the U-Barn, it will be closed before the start of next season. Mofenson said the town’s requests have come following “the worst season possible” from a business standpoint. Later on during the meeting, he made reference to having 60 acres of residentially-owned land attached to the property and hinted at the environmental impact that developing it could bring (We reached out to Mofenson by email to follow up on his comments, but hadn’t heard back as of this writing.)
Board of Health members, who spent part of the meeting trying to clarify whether the Taproom is even a restaurant (it is), assured Mofenson that the body is supportive of the town’s businesses and wants to work with them to be successful. But they also need to make sure town health rules are followed to protect the public, just as state plumbing code is adhered to. Grease traps are used to keep especially nasty stuff out of the public sewer system, and external ones are required by the town based on criteria that the Health Department and the Farm weren’t necessarily in agreement on. Internal ones need to be pumped out monthly, external ones quarterly, with some possibility of flexibility.
“None of us want grease in the sewer, right?” said Board Chair Karla Sangrey. “You know what happens when there’s grease in the sewer? Someone down the street gets their toilet backed up in their basement.”
The Farm, which this season is focusing its restaurant business on its 133-seat capacity Taproom with an expanded menu rather than the sprawling Greenhouse venue that emerged during the pandemic, has already installed 2 internal 50-gallon-per-minute grease traps, 1 of them recently. The need for grease traps has increased, said Director of Public Health Michael Boudreau, as the Farm has shifted away from an operation that largely used plastic and paper utensils and dishware to silverware and plates that need to be washed. “We’re trying to be a bit reasonable in what needs to be done at this location,” he said.
Mofenson expressed frustration over being asked to install an exterior grease trap after having just complied with the internal grease trap request.
The Farm’s creativity in spinning out roomy outdoor and indoor restaurants during the pandemic to satisfy customers looking for a safe place to eat was touted by patrons as well as in the media. But despite its best efforts, the Farm faces financial struggles, Mofenson said.
“The farm business does not justify additional financial investment,” Mofenson said. “If I have to close it, I’m being as clear as I can be, I will close that whole property down. And when people ask ‘Why did you close?’ I will come back to this meeting…”
In the end, the Board of Health agreed to work with the farm to get internal grease trap pumping records for a quarter, and check back in the spring on the need for any further upgrades. Boudreau raised the point that it could be worth exploring alternative external grease trap offerings other than the standard concrete box variety.
Separately, Mofenson asked that the Health Department talk to him about the future of the U-Barn operations.