WESTERLY — Josh Welch and Dave Parr first met in a yoga class about 10 years ago. Today the two men are business partners and successful restaurateurs. Along with a third partner, Kevin Bowdler of Stonington, they own Graze Burgers on the corner of Granite and Cross Streets. Or, in true Rhode Island fashion, it's where the old Cumbies used to be.
Graze Burger, which opened unofficially in October, held an official opening and ribbon-cutting late last month. Along with their chef, Austin Almeida, a Westerly native, they have served roughly 10,000 meals since they first opened.
Graze Burgers serves hamburgers made from 100 percent grass-fed, hormone-free beef from American Aberdeen cattle raised humanely on Welch's farm, JW Beef, on Al Harvey Road in Stonington.
Burgers (plain or with cheese/nitrate-free bacon) can be ordered on either a brioche or gluten-free bun or wrapped in a lettuce pouch. Also on the menu are hand-cut French fries (regular, bacon cheese fries and truffle Parmesan fries are served with "house-crafted dipping sauces like buttermilk herb aioli, smoky barbecue, honey-mustard and sriracha aioli); all natural hot dogs; Impossible Burgers (with the "taste and aroma of meat" but made from wheat protein, soy, and yeast extract); Bell & Evans fresh chicken breast sandwiches; frozen custard milk shakes; and Maine Root organic fountain sodas and kombucha. Recently Graze started serving beer and wine. Parr and Welch are also experimenting with a delivery service.
On a recent Monday, Parr and Welch sat inside the converted convenience store, which has been transformed into an open, light-filled space that seats about 50 people. Since Bowdler, the third partner, was away in Australia, it was up to Parr and Welch to describe their new venture. Both men, who also own Bridge, a popular downtown restaurant, spoke repeatedly about their commitment to their employees, their community and to good food.
Almeida, the chef, has been working for Parr since he was a 16-year-old busboy at Bridge. Parr, who is the chef at Bridge, said that hiring and retaining staff in the restaurant business was "complex" and challenging. When you find good people like Almeida, you find ways to keep them, he said.
Welch said, "We do a great job of attracting talented people. We couldn't do it without them."
Both men described Graze as a business that aims to assist and support the local agriculture scene and to keep it sustainable.
"We really believe in the product," said Welch. "Our kids love it and our wives love it."
Welch's beef is served at both restaurants, and both places are focused on locally sourced foods, such as "Graze Greens," a seasonal salad bowl.
About six years ago, Welch said, as they noticed an increasing demand for simple, "high-quality, local, affordable ingredients," they started talking about opening a new place — an "elevated burger place" with a limited menu.
The French fries at Graze are hand-cut each day and cooked in beef tallow. They decided on the beef tallow after researching best practices and best tastes. Beef tallow, they said, is healthier, has fewer free radicals than other oils, and passed the taste test. Welch and Parr traveled to Vermont visit a well-known burger bar called Worthy Burger that serves its fries fried twice in Wagyu beef tallow, "the way real fries should be," and decided to follow suit.
Welch also said he was influenced by an episode of the podcast "Revisionist History," in which the writer Malcolm Gladwell lamented the day McDonald’s broke his heart by switching from beef tallow to a mix of corn and soy oil for its fries. (there's a golden arches next to Graze.)
These days, Welch added, there's an essential ingredient in the restaurant business: awareness.
"Awareness is an important part of our success," he said. It's important to build awareness about your philosophy and your products, to let people know what you're doing and why you're doing it.
For instance, there's a scientific formula, Welch said, that allows Graze to call its shakes frozen custard. They're made with an all-natural mix from Lloyd's of Pennsylvania that contains 10 percent butterfat. That makes it official to call it a custard as opposed to an ice cream, Welch said. At Graze, only organic syrup is used.
When they bought the building, the partners hired Providence-based architect Libby Slader to lead the rehab charge. Slader, who chairs the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, said, "We were trying to create a warm and comfortable environment, somewhat of a family place with a rustic feel."
The artistry of Pawcatuck welder and woodworker Eric Thavenet, who created the tables and benches and did the metalwork, contributes to that feel.
Slader said Westerly has an exciting arts, culture, design and food scene, and described Bowdler, Parr and Welch as "good people and really, really good operators."
"That makes all the difference in the world," she said. "They know what they're doing."
When the outdoor patio opens next spring, she said, it will add even more to the aesthetics of Graze.
Parr, 53, an Exeter, N.H., native who lives in Westerly with his wife, Molly, and his 15-year-old stepson, Liam, said he finds fulfillment being a chef.
"I love it," said Parr, who majored in political science at the University of New Hampshire before he went to the Culinary Institute of America. "It's what I want to do."
"I've always been inclined to work with my hands," said Parr who began his cooking career working for Mary Robertson at the Riverworks Restaurant in New Market, N.H.
"One day she lovingly fired me, gave me a check and told me to go to Boston," Parr recalled with a smile. So he moved to Boston and landed a job at Legal Sea Foods, where Jasper White was the corporate chef. Eventually Parr opened Jasper White’s Summer Shack at Mohegan Sun, serving as managing partner and chef. In 2009, he was ready to do something on his own. Around that time, he met Welch, at that yoga class. Soon afterward, they took over the operations of Bridge, formerly called the Up River Café, from Charles "Chuck" Chuck Royce and Daniel and Jennifer King.
Welch, 54, a Cambridge, Mass., native, graduated from Williams College and the Columbia Business School. He is married to Alejandra Welch, a co-president of the Stonington Garden Club, and they have three children — 17-year-old Mateo; 21-year-old Nicolas and 23-year-old Emilia.
The cattle on the family farm live on "a completely foraged, high-quality pasture diet, grow at a natural rate without hormones or growth-promoting additives, and are treated with care and respect for their entire lives," Welch said.
"When you choose to eat meat from pasture-raised animals, you improve the welfare of the animals, help put an end to environmental degradation, support local farmers, help sustain rural communities, and give your family healthy food," he said.
"There is something altruistic about running a grass-fed beef operation, just as there is something altruistic about teaching or journalism or cooking," Welch wrote in an email a few days after the interview at Graze.
"When one chooses to live in a small community one does so in part because one can make a difference ... by farming thoughtfully, writing well, cooking, [or] running the local Garden Club," he added.
That's something that's more difficult to accomplish in New York or Boston, or Providence, he said, but here, where Southern Rhode Island and Southeastern Connecticut come together, and where farmland meets the sea, and where the community has "a nice mix of people from all walks of life," it's possible.
"Our efforts and capital seem to count more" here, he said. "We're lucky to be here."