The Root Cellar

LL The Root Cellar16The adage says it takes a village. Greg Menke, owner and chef of Beestro, The Hive Market and The Root Cellar, contends it’s not a village it takes—it’s a hive. That’s the model for effective, healthy communities—ones that renew and aid their landscape rather than deplete it—he’d like to see adopted. “The bee is really just a metaphor for how to live locally, live sustainably and give more than you take,” Greg says. And he’s taking over one storefront at a time on East Marcy Street to import it.

Greg inherited his infatuation with honeybees from his grandfather, an aeronautical engineer who studied honeybees and honeycombs, and applied those principles for lightweight strength to his work. Pouring through his grandfather’s old journals and workbooks, he found inspiration and answers to questions he hadn’t known he had. He’s come to see bees, providers of honey and beeswax for candles, as an emblem of sweetness and light, both of which are in need of spreading.

In Greg’s own work, those ideas have manifested in the form of the honey-centric businesses that have grown in recent years off the established lunch spot, The Beestro, which opened six years ago. The Hive Market, which opened in November 2015 in the former home of the Blue Rooster and the Rouge Cat, began as a holiday pop-up shop themed around “gifts from the hive.” The aim was to take a test run at the space and the idea of a store centered on honey-based products. It worked.

LL The Root Cellar12In one corner of the market, every shelf is laden with a different variety of honey, each from a different kind of flower, clover, wildflower, mesquite cactus or acacia. A tasting bar allows shoppers to sample the contents of those jars prior to purchase. Another wall is stocked with mead, an alcohol made from honey, some of it infused with strawberry, raspberry, peach or blackberry. Bath and body products include beeswax lip balm and shaving soap. There’s a spread of chocolates, pistachios, pecans, and red and green chile from local producers.

Over the course of a year, Greg ripped out the previous nightclub-style bar and DJ booth that were stationed downstairs, and replaced them with the makings of a gastropub. The Root Cellar, accessible through the upstairs Market, opened in November 2016.  “It’s this whole master plan that’s just been steadily growing,” Greg says. “I started selling sandwiches and soups door to door from the back of my station wagon, and built the brand slowly.” The reputation he’s accumulated means that when it was time to make the dream of The Root Cellar a reality, Greg had the option to go for help just in the place he’d like to find it: the hive. He rounded up 19 local investors who bought into the idea for somewhere between $500 and $5,000, with the promise of a 6-percent return and credits to spend at the still-theoretical restaurant. The approach helped make sure people passed through those doors as soon as they did open. “They’re invested in it, so they bring their friends,” Greg says. It’s the colony ethos—put your money not in the game played in some stock market, but in the community where you live.”

LL The Root Cellar010The space they helped to build thrives in warm, dark shades. That it feels older than its half-year life is likely imbued in part from the recycled and repurposed materials smartly used around the place. A former copper bartop from the La Fonda on the Plaza hotel makes the bar. The cork floor came secondhand from a workout studio that went out of business. The brass and copper finishings, like the staircase balusters, were found buried in one of the adjoining downtown catacombs, as was some of the paint. Southwest by Santa Fe, an El Paso-based hardwood furniture maker, built the tables from New Mexico alder wood. High-backed booths keep conversations private, and cork floors and acoustic tiles in the ceiling buffer the noise. Several nights a week, the room fills with live music. “We wanted to create a space that was a little more intimate, a little quiet,” Greg says. “We wanted a meeting place where people could gather, socialize and have their own space.” German ratskellers, a cellar tavern meant to be a gathering place for all people, from the city councilor to the local janitor, provided the model. As it is, with an entry through The Hive Market upstairs to a basement location, the sense of a speakeasy or a locals’ secret carries through here, too.

LL The Root Cellar09The all-things-bee theme continues even with the art. A partnership with the Encaustic Art Institute puts art made of wax and colored pigment on the walls. All the taps and wines come from local brewers and vintners, with beers from Bosque, Boxing Bear, Duel, Enchanted Circle La Cumbre, Marble, Abbey, Rowley Farmhouse Ales and Sierra Blanca, even New Mexico Cider Hard Cider, and wines from Vivác, Gruet and Wicked Kreations wineries.

Greg approached Falcon Meadery seeking a mead-making mentor, and that turned into purchasing the business, with its previous owner still providing a good measure of advice and a newly hired Head Meadmaker Michael Schiessl on the way. Mead—an ancient beverage, brewed not just from water and honey, but using fruit and herbs as well—ranks among the fastest growing categories in alcoholic beverages, according to the American Mead Makers Association, which reported that in 2003 there were 30 producers in the U.S., and as of 2016, more than 300. Menke sees an “everything old is new again” sentiment, with people curious to try new things. There may, as well, be some interest spilling over from Game of Thrones references.

LL The Root Cellar09Lightly sweet and effervescent, Falcon mead pairs well with menu items like the charcuterie and cheese plate, a spread of dry-aged salami, pistachio mortadella, gruyere, brie and cheddar, served with baguette and mustard. It plays nicely with mint and lime, making for an excellent mojito. Those deconstructed dishes and the match of a good beverage in a pleasant atmosphere are what Greg sees the world, and downtown Santa Fe, in need of.  “Restaurants have to do more things to create an experience for people, because they’re not buying like they used to. … They’re not out buying expensive stuff,” he says. “They’d rather shop on a budget, and pay for an experience.” A strong sense of place—of being by people and products only found in the region—is part of what can make that experience interesting. “My goal is to bring people here, keep them coming back and to give them an experience that’s unique. Because we lost it, and it’s up to us to bring it back.”

LL The Root Cellar18This summer will see The Root Cellar add an expanded menu, including dessert, as the bar that serves some food has instead turned out to be a restaurant that serves local beer, wine and mead. Expect to find items like lamb-stuffed collards, falafel sliders, tostadas, paninis and burgers. Down the line, the distilling of spirits will be added to the brewing of mead. As the Root Cellar’s first summer tourist season approaches, Greg returns to the bees and the farms they pollinate—each relies on the other, and cooperation within the community benefits both. “Like the honeybees, by ourselves, we’re not going to make it,” he says. “We need each other.”

The Root Cellar is located at 101 West Marcy St. #5 in Santa Fe, 505.303.3879, therootcellarsantafe.com.

 

Story by Elizabeth Miller


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