For the love of food and people
A look deep inside Mohawk House Restaurant
By Joseph Picard
After opening the Mohawk House 14 years ago, co-owner Steve Scro had some tough moments at the local supermarket.
“People would bump into my cart while I was shopping and give me advice on how to improve dishes or service,” he recalled. “Other people would complain about having to wait 15 minutes for their salad. Those were difficult days. I’m a perfectionist and the criticism got to me.”
When the archer misses the target, according to an old Chinese adage, he doesn’t blame the bow or arrow but looks to correct the flaw in himself. Scro rose above his anxieties and, together with co-owner and wife Rachel Scro, faced and met the challenges of their ambitious enterprise.
“It took time and effort to achieve consistency in our dishes,” Scro said. “It also took time and effort to get our basic team together, and for Rachel and I to learn the business. But we were committed from Day One. We knew we had to stay focused and hone our skills. We weren’t just building a business. We were building a relationship with people and the community, a relationship of mutual respect and friendship.”
Scro called his wife “the glue that holds this all together,” and together the couple painstakingly built their business and their community relationships. After their marriage they bought a farm in Sussex County. The idea of a restaurant arose from their shared love of food and country life. Originally, they considered moving to Vermont to open an inn, but things changed when a three-acre plot became available in Sparta. Hands-on from the start, and before a shovel ever pierced the ground, they drove the countryside scrutinizing various structures and “looks” to help them arrive at the kind of building they wanted to construct to house their dream.
“We’d drive around Bucks County. Rachel would doodle different designs on notebook paper. We wanted a structure that would fit in with our Sussex County country environment, that would reflect the area’s history and traditions. We were inspired by the old-world charm of various buildings and their materials. We wanted that kind of old-world architecture and timeless materials in our building to make people feel warm and happy just to approach and step inside.”
The Mohawk House Restaurant and Lounge, the result of the Scros’ loving search and design, stands at the intersection of Lafayette Road and Sparta Avenue, atop a wooded hill overlooking the township. With its rough-hewn stone façade, tall mullioned windows and towering chimneys and gables, the restaurant looks like a country mansion.
Inside, with its soaring timbered ceilings, iron chandeliers and massive fireplace, the main dining room has the feel of an old-time banquet hall. The bar with its copper lamps, and the several adjacent dining areas, like the Conservatory and the Garden Room, also exude country charm with exposed brickwork, stone and dark woods, and are adorned with antique signs and rustic paintings. There’s an open-air patio for dining outback, as well as another bar, pizza ovens and bocce courts. Upstairs are more rooms for private events and meetings, and a wine cellar in the basement to support the restaurant’s impressive wine list.
Staying local with food and materialsThey used an array of re-purposed materials, as well as wooden beams from local mills, customized steel from R.S. Phillips Steel of Vernon and bricks from demolished buildings.
“We bought loads of bricks from demolition sites in Paterson, trucked them up here and hand-picked the bricks we wanted from the piles,” Scro said. “Every room, every floor, every ceiling is different. We worked hard to keep the country theme yet make each section unique. It gives me great pleasure to hear people chatting at the bar, guessing that the building must be 100 years old or older.”
Scott Phillips of Phillips Steel said the Mohawk House proprietors are a pleasure to work with.
“When the projects come in from Steve, our guys are excited for the new and interesting challenges that they bring and the opportunity to put our own creative touch on the look and function,” Phillips said. “It makes you feel good about working with someone who wants to support and promote the local community.”
The Scros still search the region for materials, antiques and other items that reflect country life and country inns, and are regularly incorporating new elements in the spaces. The restaurant’s fare also reflects the region.
“It’s always been about the love of food and the love of people,” Scro said. “Rachel and I are pioneers of the farm to table movement in this area.”
Fresher food, quicker turn-arounds, knowing the food source and building strong relationships with local growers — these are some of the advantages of a farm-to-table practice, Scro said.
“We are sharing in each other’s dreams. Customers see it, feel it and appreciate it.”
Jake Hunt, proprietor of the family-owned Windy Brow Farms in Fredon, echoed Scro’s claim.
“Several years ago, Steve was one of the very few focusing on farm-to-table,” Hunt said. “Some restaurants like to claim they’re farm-to-table when most of their items are not. Steve is a real farm-to-table guy.”
One of a number of farms that deal directly with the Mohawk House, Windy Brow provides farm-made ice creams for the dessert menu, including a chocolate, peanut butter and pretzel concoction known as Mohawk Crunch.
“Farm-to-table creates a dynamic relationship that benefits everyone concerned,” Hunt said. “Not only is the food fresher, but we farmers get a market in some fruits and vegetables that we might not get to sell wholesale because we’re not growing large amounts. We can inspire each other, get creative, grow things we wouldn’t normally grow. It’s an interesting and healthy diversification.”
The Scros also deal with local breweries to stock the taps with beers and ales. Patty Gozdenovich, owner of Pattycakes, a custom-order bakeshop in White Deer Plaza, is another local merchant collaborator with the Mohawk House, with three cakes on the menu.
“Steve has helped me tremendously by believing in me and bringing my desserts into his restaurant,” Gozdenovich said. “He’s an asset to the community because he works with local businesses.”
Growing CommunityAnd not just local businesses. The Scros intended to build relationships with the entire community and have succeeded in so doing. The Mohawk House has often donated its space — not to mention food, drink, time, expertise and money — to benefit worthy causes.
The Mohawk House has held fundraisers for scholarship programs, animal rescue organizations, groups that aid the homeless, individual families dealing with serious illness and injury, youth sports programs, organizations combatting drug abuse, groups fighting cancer and other diseases, groups aiding unwed mothers and the pregnant homeless, organizations for the mentally ill, local food banks, first responder organizations, local and county law enforcement, veterans organizations, and for just about any reasonable charitable effort brought to their attention. The Mohawk House also regularly supplies meeting space for local government, business and social organizations.
“I have been fortunate enough to know and be friends with Steve and Rachel for many years,” Chief Neil Spidaletto of the Sparta Police Department said. “I remember being present for the opening of the Mohawk House and recall how Steve and Rachel described what they wanted the Mohawk House to be for the Sparta community and surrounding area.
“They have held true to their words that first day and have created something very special that has consistently given back to our community and helped so many different entities in need over the years.
They are givers in every sense of the word, and I know that's how they both measure their success.”
Coming NextThe Scros are not resting on their laurels. About a mile away from the Mohawk House, at the North Village at Sparta mixed-use development now under construction on Route 15, the Modern Farmer bar and grill is taking shape and should be open for business later this year. The Scros are pursuing this new enterprise with the same love, energy and penchant for local history that animates the Mohawk House.
The couple also owns a property on Lake Mohawk and have as-yet-unrevealed plans for its use. Although Scro is mum on what may rise there, he promises it will also be community oriented.
“We’ve heard the naysayers all along, regarding the Mohawk House, the farm-to-table, the craft beers, the Modern Farmer,” he said. “But we live for the challenge. When others say why, I say why not. I feel like I’m just getting started.”
Nowadays, rather than stop him to complain about the restaurant, people accost Scro to tell him of their good experiences at the Mohawk House and how visiting his establishment helped turn their day around.
“I am proud to consider the Scros friends,” said Josh Hertzberg, former Sparta mayor and current county freeholder. “And I am lucky to have them as partners in our community. The Mohawk House has become so much more than a staple restaurant in Sparta. It has become a force for good in our community. “