With weeks yet to go before its March 10 debut, Agricola — the farm-to-table restaurant ensconced in the space that for 91 years was home to Lahiere’s, the Princeton landmark — had already amassed more than 900 “likes” on Facebook. Curiosity and anticipation were high not only because once-and-future patrons were eager to dine at this prime location, but also because the building’s owner, Jeff Siegel, president of the investment group ML7, had gone on record as saying that he had fielded as many as 12 inquiries a day about the space.

ML7 purchased the building that spans 5 to 13 Witherspoon Street, reportedly for $4.6 million, from longtime owner Joe Christen and family shortly after Lahiere’s closed in late 2010. Jim Nawn, whose Fenwick Hospitality Group has leased 8,200-square feet of it for Agricola, thinks he has come up with a winning formula.

Escorting this reporter on a walk around his Great Road Farm in Skillman, which supplies vegetables and eggs to the 200-seat Agricola, Nawn talks about the reception his “rustic American” restaurant has received, and what he sees as the key elements to making his investment pay off. He begins by saying that even he was taken aback at the sheer number of reservation requests that came in before the restaurant had opened its doors, and that they have continued unabated. The second surprise has been the volume of “covers” the fledgling restaurant has had to deliver from the first hour of the first day, under the direction of executive chef/partner Josh Thomsen.

“How well Josh is doing in delivering them speaks volumes, especially about consistency,” Nawn says. Nawn knows a thing or two about consistency: From 1999 to 2010 his Fenwick Group built 37 Panera Bread cafe franchises in North and Central New Jersey, including the one on Nassau Street. In 2007 U.S. 1 reported that the Fenwick Group’s Panera sales were running about 10 percent higher than the national average.

Though Nawn spent 11 years in the quick-casual food business, he considers himself a businessman rather than, as he puts it, “a food person.” The first definitive step toward his becoming a restaurateur occurred in 2007, when he and wife Ann purchased 112 acres of farmland-assessed property along the Great Road for $1.95 million from Ophelia Gallup Laughlin, the granddaughter of pollster George Gallup.

“My wife is an equestrian therapist,” Nawn says as he points to an area of the farm he calls “the horse world.” Its 12-stall barn and enclosed riding arena were completed in 2011. There, Ann, who is also a licensed social worker, has bred three foals with Tracy Wagner of Haderway Stables in Kingston. “When we bought the place, it was to build a barn for Ann — and I had prepared a small plot for planting lettuce and greens for my Panera cafes,” he says with a chuckle.

“But then in September of 2010 I sold my Panera holdings back to the franchisor. I had always had an exit point in my mind. The Panera brand was a good place to be and at that point we had finished our build commitment and could have taken on more. And I do have to say there are days when I miss the dependability and I miss a lot of the people. But this [creating Agricola] has been a wonderful experience.”

Just a couple of months after the divestiture, Nawn decided he wanted to be exposed to the world of full-service, high-level dining and so enrolled in the eight-month professional chef program at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York. “I went into the city five days a week, spending every day in the kitchen,” he says. “Frankly, cooking is not my passion, and I had two classmates young enough to be my sons. In that kitchen, in the summer — let me tell you, it’s hot!”

Nawn went on to complete a six-week externship at Veritas, a Michelin-star restaurant in New York, where he was assigned such low-level tasks as mopping floors and running to the basement walk-in coolers for ingredients. “I spent three days just peeling Brussels sprouts,” he says, shaking his head. “But I also took the management piece of the ICE training,” he says, so he could learn about aspects of the business that he hadn’t been involved with in Panera, including how to write a menu and deal with alcohol. “In class, my mind would wander. So at one point I determined I’d like to open a place in Princeton,” he recalls. His first thought was a brasserie, which is typically open every day of the week and serves the same menu all day.

“Obviously, Panera had informed my thinking. I mean, it’s a good business model and a good product, and it made me understand how to do volume and consistency. Their answer was a limited menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”

While he was studying, Nawn made a point of dining at certain New York restaurants, including bistros such as Balthazar. “Each week I’d go to one or two restaurants,” he says. “My thinking started to shift away from the brasserie concept. In the management class we were given an exercise about creating a restaurant. That’s when the farm-to-table concept started to take root. Eventually that evolved into Agricola.”

Nawn, 47, grew up in Holden, Massachusetts, just outside of Worcester. His parents, both in their early 80s and, he says, in good health, still reside there and his father’s company, Nawn Enterprises, is there as well. Nawn describes his father as “an entrepreneur who at one time owned a small fiberglass plastics company.” His mother worked at home, raising Nawn and his five sisters. As the only boy, he jokes today about having grown up in a henhouse and now owning actual henhouses. His sisters all live in New England, most in Massachusetts.

His parents sent him to the Holden public schools, but at one point he transferred to Saint John’s, an all-boy Catholic prep school in nearby Shrewsbury. He went on to Holy Cross University in Worcester, where he was a Classics major and studied Latin. “It was my college roommate who works with me now that convinced me to name the restaurant ‘Agricola,’” he says. (The name, which means “farmer” in Latin, is pronounced ah-GREEK-oh-lah.)

That fellow is Rich Galvin, who worked for many years in public accounting. “Seven years ago he came home to New Jersey, helped me with the Panera business, and he’s been with me in the Fenwick Group for five years,” Nawn says. Galvin is currently Fenwick’s CFO. Asked about the origin of the name “Fenwick,” Nawn replies, “Fenwick was the name of the founding bishop of Holy Cross, and the oldest building on its campus is called Fenwick Hall.” Formerly the Fenwick group had other principals; these days it is Nawn’s alone.

At Holy Cross Nawn met Ann, his wife of 21 years, who grew up in Iowa. The couple has three sons: James, who is just finishing up his first year at Holy Cross; Peter, who is about to graduate from the Hun School; and Henry, a seventh grader at the Pennington School. After Holy Cross, Nawn earned an MBA from Boston College. For 10 years he worked in finance for the Swedish pharmaceutical company now known as AstraZeneca.

“My last stint was in Budapest,” Nawn says. “Then the Panera opportunity came up — the Northeast had only a couple of franchises then, in 1999.” Because the company wanted to establish cafes in northern and central New Jersey, the Nawns decided to live in the central part of the state, eventually settling in Princeton.

Having decided during his ICE experience that a farm-to-table eatery was what he wanted, Nawn then went about developing his 112-acre site into a working farm. Currently, it grows 120 varieties of vegetables, using natural methods, as well as producing 200 eggs a day. But when Nawn purchased the parcel back in 2007, he says, “it was just land; nothing was on it but fields, woodlands, and tree stands. Someone told me that in the 1950s the government had a program where they provided pine saplings. There’s evidence that very few had been harvested, and the fields (now fenced in for the most part) had been planted with winter wheat and that sort of thing by a tenant farmer. Those fields had been farmed conventionally.”

With preserved farmland, Nawn was allowed to build one residence but as many agricultural buildings as he wanted. Besides the Nawn homestead and the equestrian structures, which take up about half of the 65 acres that are developed, the farm includes a handsome, two-story brown fieldstone building that serves as Nawn’s office and a soaring barn that this September will be the site of a dinner produced by Outstanding in the Field, the national (and international) company that partners with local farmers and celebrity chefs to mount dinners on long tables on farms, ranches, and other natural settings. Tickets are already sold out for the $200-per-person event.

Steve Tomlinson is Great Road Farm’s live-in farm manager. Tomlinson has experience in both organic farming and permaculture design, but this Pratt Institute graduate also worked for artists Cristo and Jean Claude on their renowned “The Gates” project in Central Park.

Though the farm is not certified organic, Tomlinson employs organic practices on the five acres that are allocated to cultivation. “No pesticide sprays or chemical fertilizers,” Nawn says. “We feed the soil with compost and cover crops, and Steve works with beneficial insects.” Nawn and chef Thomsen plan to have the Agricola staff regularly come out to work the farm and harvest its bounty.

Additional farm structures Nawn built include two chicken coops for the farm’s100-plus hens, a standard greenhouse, and a “high tunnel” commercial greenhouse. “We’ll use the high tunnel to grow tomatoes in the summer because by having a cover over the soil, we can control the water and other conditions, to extend the growing season,” Nawn explains. “There is the danger that people will come to believe that everything at Agricola is grown on this property. It is not, but vegetables in season will be. Beef, for example, will never come from here,” he says, although he is considering adding pigs.

Great Road Farm also supplies vegetables to Sprig & Vine, the vegan restaurant in New Hope, and this year will be at the West Windsor Farmers Market. The farm also has its own CSA (community supported agriculture) program. “The pickup point for CSA members — their bag share — will be on Thursdays, at Agricola,” he says. “It reinforces that these are the same vegetables used in the restaurant.” There are still some shares available. As we take in a panoramic view of the farm, Nawn concludes, “I spent a lot of money building this place.”

Then, of course, there is the long-term lease he signed, in January, 2012, for the restaurant space. (Nawn declines to discuss the terms.) “The Lahiere’s space first got my attention a couple of months into the ICE culinary program, in 2011. But with so little time into the experience, I did not have the confidence to go ahead with the deal,” Nawn admits, adding that he has “a personal need to open up every detail” of whatever field he’s involved in. “So I continued on for the management piece. Then in September, a mutual friend of mine and the landlord [Jeff Siegel] put us together.

“The space offered was 8,200 square feet, of which I intended to take 5,500. But it turned out that wasn’t going to yield enough seats. Now, you have to realize that the average Panera is half that size. And there’s the conformity with Panera: with each unit the investment and sales range are pretty steady, pretty much the same. Now here I am signing up for a space —and designing the menu and finding furniture — all things Panera took care of. Plus I’m doing it in a community where people know me! I recognize the institution that Lahiere’s was, but my concern was, how will I pull this off at the same time I’m trying to get a farm going. That’s why I’m so thankful now for Steve [Tomlinson] and this partner I have in Josh [Thomsen].”

“So I took a big breath and signed the lease. Now, when I opened Panera on Nassau Street in 2001 I knew Panera and I knew the market. It was my seventh unit,” he says, adding that the “corporate” Panera had rejected the idea two times, balking at the location (a downtown) and the costly rent. “But I said, ‘I want this in Princeton,’ even though it was more expensive to build and there had been previous failures at that location. So the issue was how to get X dollars out of the market. It worked — given the price point of $8 per guest check and the number of visitors, it meant traffic would support it.”

Although the Princeton Panera experience had given him confidence, Nawn allows that Agricola “is twice as large and a lot more expensive. I made a commitment also to what I thought the Princeton market would respond to. The menu had to be executable at a certain level of quality and consistency. Consistency may even be more important, because that is how you build trust. It’s a narrow range.”

Simplicity, consistency, and a limited menu seem to be his keystones. Agricola seats 40 in the bar and 165 across five separate dining areas, including a private dining room for 50 downstairs and a small patio in the rear. The dinner menu is limited to eight starters, eight main dishes, and seven desserts, augmented by a three-course “farmhouse menu” and two flatbreads (mushroom and housemade sausage) from Agricola’s wood-fired oven. There are no dinner specials.

Typical of the offerings are the Great “Dirt” Road Farm Martini, $12; the Market Salad (“whatever our farmer brings”), $10; Lancaster County Roast Chicken with Tuscan Fried Potatoes, Sauteed Farm Greens, and Green Olive-Fennel Tapenade, $23; and Devil’s Food Cake with Black Pepper Icing and Tcho [brand] Chocolate Sauce, $9. Locally sourced ingredients, beyond Great Road Farm’s, include mushrooms from Princeton’s Shibumi Farms, cheeses from Valley Shepherd in Long Valley, and coffee from Rojo’s Roastery, which is based in Lambertville and is about to open a cafe on Palmer Square this spring.

“So this space,” Nawn concludes, “well, it will be as good as we’ll be. A lot of people will pay our price point if we do what I have done in the past in terms of value proposition.” But he admits that he didn’t sleep well after signing the lease — and at that point he expected to have Agricola open by August, 2012, or September at the latest.

“From the start I made one decision: to think about this as a brand, like Panera, and to spend money on branding. Think about the journey the customer takes: the website is the first encounter. Then, at the restaurant, in sequence: the vestibule, their table, the restroom. These are the touch points. We thought of it as a whole, not pieces.”

He hired the New York-based branding design firm Mucca, which also designed Balthazar. “Roberta Ronsivalle at Mucca gave me key advice early on. She said, ‘Don’t change your mind during the process,’ which I interpreted to mean stick with your original vision and don’t be swayed. That was valuable guidance.”

Ronsivalle has worked with many high-profile clients, including Target, Victoria’s Secret, and Patina Restaurant Group. Nawn says feedback he has received from customers in Agricola’s early days has reinforced the value of the branding initiative. “Their first comment is about how everything fits together. They tell me, ‘the food tastes like the walls look, and the lighting matches both.’”

Nawn declines to give dollar figures on what he and ML7 invested in the construction, except to say that, “Jeff [Siegel] excavated two feet down and installed a lot of footings — he had to shore it up —which allowed the great height we now have in the basement. There were structural issues, but remediation was not needed.” Nawn did have to run electricity from the back of the building because there was no remaining capacity on the Witherspoon Street side.

During the seven-month period between assuming the lease and opening the restaurant, Nawn had made a financial commitment to Thomsen. “The silver lining was that Josh and I got to do a lot of the details together, and it gave us the opportunity to learn how to talk things out,” he says. “We know how to work together without wasting a lot of time; we have a relationship.” For his part, Thomsen spent much of those seven months canning and pickling local produce —the result of which can be seen in the hundreds of glass jars and bottles that line Agricola’s many open shelves, backlit like jewels by its front and rear windows.

I remark on what an attraction the restaurant’s large window on Witherspoon Street has become with passersby, who stop to watch the kitchen at work. “All credit goes to Josh,” his boss says. “We were set to go with keeping the kitchen in the back, where it was for Lahiere’s, but Josh wanted it up front.”

Though Thomsen, 42, grew up in Bergen County, he spent much of his career in the San Francisco area. In 2010 he was named a Rising Star by StarChefs, after honing his skills under such high profile chefs as Michael Mina, Joachim Splichal, and Thomas Keller. (In fact, Thomsen’s “office” at Agricola —it’s more like a cubbyhole — is modeled after Keller’s at his famed Yountville restaurant, the French Laundry.) He was also the opening chef for the 400-seat Tao restaurant at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, which became the highest grossing restaurant in the U.S. during Thomsen’s two-year tenure.

During a three-day weekend that Nawn and Thomsen spent together in the San Francisco area last June, Thomsen took his future employer on a sort of tour of other restaurants that featured what he wanted to incorporate into Agricola. One of those was a similar window set-up at Cotogna in San Francisco (www.cotognasf.com). Agricola resembles that restaurant in other ways, including its modern-rustic interior featuring exposed brick walls, wood floors and trim, windows rimmed in black, hefty wood tables (some with benches), and one communal table. Interior design was done by Seed Design Studio of New York.

The communal table is particularly representative of the vibe Nawn is going for at Agricola. He and the restaurant’s website term the 200-seat restaurant a “community eatery where friends gather” for drinks and seasonal American fare that’s “fresh, down to earth, and full of flavor.”

“The restaurant has done very well in its first weeks,” Nawn says. “I don’t think of any other Princeton restaurants as my competition. I’m pleased with how the restaurant feels. Very important to me is how the food reflects that: the details, those fundamentals. We’ll be as busy as we deserve to be.” Brunch was initiated on April 20 and “practice” lunches began the following Monday. Nawn is contemplating adding a limited breakfast menu and late-night entertainment after 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

I ask if finding serving staff was a challenge. “Looking around town, I’d say the typical service is just average,” he responds. “I’m pleased with our starting team; they’re nice people to be with. I do have a little bit of operator frustration, though. I’ve noticed how we started with strong servers and middling servers, and how the stronger servers are beginning to drop back. You have to, one, find the person who can perform the task but, two, have a manager who can provide the tools and training to let them perform. The pressure is back on us, the management team.”

He estimates that there are 20 to 30 employees, full and part-time, at the restaurant at any given time. “It depends on the time of day. Right now, more than we might need —because some may not make the cut.” I mention that on average the front of house staff skews young. “That’s a two-sided situation” he says, alluding to their energy, but also to the challenge of keeping them in line. “Josh has put together a terrific kitchen team. They’re working very hard to produce this quality at this volume. The numbers have been better than expected. Now it’s our job to maintain them.”

Agricola, 11 Witherspoon Street, Princeton 08542; 609-921-2798; Jim Nawn, owner. www.agricolaeatery.com.

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