Ron Herman is one of the most generous people in the Ridgefield business community. How generous is he?
“My wife and I helped put our cleaning lady’s son through college,” Herman said. “He went to Cornell for the restaurant management school. He came to me when he graduated and said, ‘Ron, I want to open a place.’ I had just retired from 30 years at GE and I was always intrigued by diners and delis, and I said, ‘I found a place that is both a diner and deli and I’m thinking of buying it. I want you to run it.’”
In what might be considered the ultimate holiday gift, Herman bought the Wooster Hollow Diner and Deli on Route 7 in Ridgefield on Christmas Eve in 2014 as a platform to launch the young graduate’s career. However, the story did not have the ending that Herman expected.
“He ended up lasting only six months,” he said.
Herman had no previous experience in the food trade — he served for 15 years as president and CEO of GE Equity and six years in Abu Dhabi as CEO of GE Capital in the Middle East — and his learning curve as the owner-operator of an eatery was acutely sharp.
“The first two years were really, really hard,” he said, noting that he was operating at a loss. “In the first year, I issued 25 W2s for a restaurant that had anywhere from 10 or 11 employees. In the third year, we turned profitable, though we are still not rich. But we are definitely trending in the right direction.”
Nonetheless, Herman’s can-do spirit never deflated. Now known as the Wooster Hollow Cafe, the restaurant has grown a loyal following for its focus on innovative meals that go beyond standard diner fare.
For starters, Herman insists on only the freshest ingredients — canned vegetables are forbidden in the kitchen and the pancakes must be made from scratch. And while his customers came to appreciate the focus on freshness, at least one would-be vendor was baffled by this approach.
“In the beginning, we had a very persistent salesman who was selling mix,” Herman recalled. “He came in four times. And each time, I said, ‘Sir, we really don’t need your products.’ And he said, ‘Sir, you don’t get it — everyone else in town uses my mix.’ And I said, ‘Sir, no, you don’t get it — that’s why we’re never going to use your mix.’”
Herman also enabled his kitchen staff to experiment with different and sometimes eccentric creations. “Once we took an orange pepper and carved it into a jack-o’-lantern and roasted it,” he said. “We put pasta inside it. It took a great picture, but we only sold three or four of them. It was a little too gimmicky.”
Another time, the kitchen staff created an omelet that combined avocados, black beans, bacon, onions and cheddar cheese. While Herman loved the Latin American-focused ingredient blend, he was worried about the name that the kitchen staff gave their creation: The Trump Hates Mexico Omelet.
“I said, ‘Guys, the omelet sounds like a great idea, but we’re not political here,’ ” he said. “So, I renamed it as The Presidential Omelet — with that name, it could be anything.”
Herman also noted that his kitchen crew members have repaid his respect for their abilities. “The kitchen is 100 percent the same as when we bought it.”
Herman has also sought to mix traditional diner selections with more eclectic choices. Thus, gluten-free and wheat-free pancakes are on the menu alongside comfort food, including Shrimp Mac and Cheese and the Brazilian Burger. New specials are brought out each week alongside the regular menu.
In the beginning of his ownership period, Herman attempted to expand the Wooster Hollow Cafe’s appeal into the dinnertime hours, but he admitted that “no one really thought about us as a dinner place.” He dropped the dinner menu and concluded that a restaurant “can be OK at three meals, but you can’t be great at three meals.”
The restaurant features monthly exhibitions by area artists and many of their paintings have been sold from the venue. Herman has worked with the local nonprofits Ability Beyond, which connects people with disabilities to employment opportunities, and Danbury Grassroots Academy for staffing.The restaurant has a policy of offering free coffee to active-duty and retired service members and first responders.
“It is just our small way of thanking them and they are always grateful,” said Herman about the free coffee.
Four years into his restaurant odyssey, Herman admitted he still faces challenges — most notably with the $2,000-a-month electric bill for his walk-in refrigerators — but he also pointed out successes, including an average of slightly more than 1,000 customers per week. Herman tracks patrons from as far away as Norwalk. He plans to add a coffee bar in 2019 to further expand the venue’s offerings.
“When a restaurant starts to do well, the success endures and it builds upon itself,” he said.