By Stephen Petrick
Indoor dining is out and outdoor dining is in at Wintergreen Maple Products and Pancake Barn, a beloved long-time business along Gelert Road.
But it’s not a story to sob about, insisted its charismatic and talkative owner Tom Dawson. He said the story of his food business’s change is just more proof that when there’s crisis, there’s also opportunity.
“We’re branching out and turning over a new leaf,” said Dawson, delivering one of many quotable quotes in a phone interview where subjects ranged from Chinese proverbs, to world religions, to the history of the pickle.
He shared that Wintergreen has been in business for 35 years and has a loyal base of customers, who often shopped in their retail space and ate products indoors. The business, located at 3325 Gelert Rd., is also run by Tom’s wife, Diane, and their son, Ryan, and daughter, Kate.
When the Delta variant spread last fall and the business could not allow eating inside, he and his family set up picnic tables and worked to establish an inviting outdoor space for customers. They found that they were saving on utilities and utensils and many customers were enjoying their “Garden of Eaten.”
They found that doing business this way was more beneficial for themselves and their customers. Dawson found that, due to re-construction of the highway and rising population in the county, their business seemed to be in a position to benefit from a new way of doing business. They started making plenty of money on takeout, which they hadn’t offered before.
“Everything that we’re doing here is unconventional,” he said. “It’s crazy until it works, then it’s genius.”
The business, Dawson explained, is open by appointment during the winter. It’s now getting ready for maple syrup season and expects to be open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each weekend in March and April. After syrup season it expects to re-open its BBQ and patio for weekends, from May to October.
Dawson prides himself on offering customers a unique experience, saying that his business is a place where storytelling happens. He can talk at length about unique marketing strategies and brain-twisting philosophies. He said, once while vacationing in Cuba, he started talking to a woman who recognized him as “the guy in Gelert who talks a lot.”
“In a world, that is supposedly more connected, people are more isolated and distanced than they’ve ever been in the history of the planet,” he said. “People have to have contact. The reality is here, because we’re in a hole, you can’t get Internet access. You’d think that was a bad thing, but people can’t be distracted by it and you can talk to them.”
He believes his customers come because they not only love the food products, but hearing the stories behind them and hearing about what makes Wintergreen a special place.
“It’s the intangible that sells the product, it’s not the product itself,” he said.