David Gulak, aka Mr. Organized Chaos
Co-owner of the Meridians shop and restaurant; owner of the Meridians farm.
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Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the small lobstering town of Harpswell, Maine. Very classic Maine-coast picturesque, and also removed and pretty solitary, so I am now starting to fulfill a youthful craving for more action, buildings and people. Though anyone not from here would find it hilarious that Fairfield’s one-horse downtown achieves that for me.
What brought you to Fairfield, then to Waterville, and back to Fairfield?
Mostly fate. I was living in Harpswell with my dad at 26 years old and needed to branch out and find my own lands. I pulled over on the side of Maine Street in Fairfield one day and there was a handwritten FOR SALE sign on the house next to me. I asked the gentleman smoking a cig on his front porch if it was really for sale. He coughed and exclaimed, “Why yes!” He showed me around the house … The turn-of-the-century architecture and the meandering canal out back sold me. The price was right and I decided that Fairfield (the ironic “crossroads” of Maine) would be where I made my stand. Then I met Shannon Haines—the unregistered Queen of Waterville—who talked me into starting Barrels, a local natural foods coop in Waterville. When I left Barrels five years later, I wanted to start something in the downtown where I lived.
How did you and Josh Sullivan meet?
He and his lovely wife, Lucy, used to come into Barrels. I did my classic, “Hey, who are you, you look young and cool… Why are you in Waterville (next to Fairfield)?” And they, surprised, said, “Well we moved up here.” And that’s how the friendship began. In 2010, not that many young hip couples were moving up here, especially if they weren’t working at Colby or the hospital. They actually sought this area out.
So one night at a party at my house, I asked Josh if he would be open to the idea of starting a business. He said, “Yeah, whatcha got?” and I started off on the idea of a wine and beer shop. He liked the sound of it, so we got together with our third partner at the time (Nate McNab), started crunching numbers, found a spot downtown and the Meridians empire was birthed.
Meridians is an interesting collaboration of distinctive personalities working to create harmony and strength in the three areas that make up the business. As co-owner of Meridians shop and restaurant with Josh Sullivan, how do your distinctly different personalities play off each other?
From the very outset, I’ve been organized chaos—as Josh likes to say—and Josh is Mr. Conservative. I’m, “Hey I have this idea, let’s do it!” And his response is always, “Wait, how do we know it will work? How will we fund it? How do we know people will come?” etc. He’s the nervous dad and I’m the outlandish stepson. You can imagine … But we meet in the middle and it all works out. Plus, we spend a lot of time poking fun, so it eases any tensions.
And farm manager John Clay?
John is Mr. Infallible. You can’t make fun of him, you can’t get a rise, nor can you make him do anything he doesn’t really want to do. He’s played the great stabilizing role in many of our meetings and been witness and referee to some serious throwdowns. He’s super committed and up for the ride, but he’s going to think about every decision, articulate his viewpoint, and make damn sure that we have a proper plan and implementation strategy for anything new and ambitious. He’s also Johnny Blue Eyes, and the only single one amongst us, so we field a lot of suitors for him. John’s a gentle, handsome philosopher; what’s not to like?
Spring brassicas with Meridians' farm kitchen in the background.
You grew up in a cooking family … How has this helped you?
Instincts. My dad wasn’t a recipe cook, he was a “garbage cooker,” as he called it. Open the fridge, peruse the cupboard, check the gardens in season and construct a dinner. He taught me to think of cooking more along the lines of technique and approach than specific genre or recipe. I do that a lot now, particularly with our cocktails because I manage the bar, but also with the kitchen (on the rare occasion JB accepts my suggestions).
Any advice that has stayed you?
Have faith in people, give them something good and they’ll respond. Everyone loves good s%#t. Create a good scene with a good product and reasonable (not cheap) prices and people will come, rich or poor. Don’t work in a restaurant with your wife (she’s the one that reinforced that, and it was great advice). And always try to find the reason why your idea will fail: If you aren’t proven wrong, if the pieces keep falling into place, maybe it’s meant to be. And that’s what happened with the shop and the restaurant. Things just lined up—the people, the property, the financing, the vibes.
What was the time frame for starting the farm, shop and restaurant?
Started the farm in 2007 as a CSA, my own personal project, but I realized farming alone wouldn’t be enough for me. I kept it going, but simultaneously opened the Barrels co-op in 2009. Then when I left Barrels we started the shop in 2014. After five years, it was time to expand and we opened the restaurant in June 2019.
You mentioned that the shop started as a joke … Care to let us in on it?
Mostly that when I had Barrels I could order wine and beer wholesale, so when I left and had to go back to buying wine at the only place in town (the gas station) I told my wife Emilie, “I might have to open a wine shop. If I have to keep buying it retail, I’m going to go crazy and broke!” Without missing a beat, she said, “Maybe you should?” I laughed, but then pondered it, and thought I was joking (maybe) when I suggested it to Nate and Josh. But they didn’t hear it as joking, so thus we were on our way.
You’ve walked a fine line with the restaurant and shop … pushing people’s palates with both food and wine. You’ve gained the community’s acceptance and trust. What’s been the key?
Hmmm, I guess as I think about answering this question it comes from two perspectives. On the one hand, never sell your customer short. Believe in them. If you have something super cool you want to put on the menu, but it’s weird and/or hard to define, do it anyway! Let them be the experimenters we all want to be. They’ll tell you if they don’t like it. On the flip side, to focus only on things we are super passionate about. Don’t force them on people, but if we dig an idea, figure out how to make it accessible and put it out there. Rabbit stew, octopus tentacles, curried mussels, bitter greens, pickled radishes, chicken livers, steak with fermented chili paste, whatever we are super psyched on at the moment, give our customers a chance to be as well.
How has Chef Justin Bard (JB) furthered your vision for the Meridians restaurant?
To start, the funny part is your assumption that he has furthered my vision of Meridians. I think the opposite is true. The restaurant has become much bigger and more dynamic than I ever hoped or planned for. I was thinking a very simple farm-to-table menu with charcuterie boards, wines, beer, maybe a few liquors, pickled vegetables in season, uncomplicated starches, more about just transitioning what’s available in season to some easy and simple food options to go with good wine and beer.
JB had worked as executive chef in multiple restaurants, and I think was excited to come on board and essentially make this his opus. In a really good and powerful way, he takes a lot of ownership in the restaurant; at the same time, it means we’ve gone a little more in his direction than what I originally had in mind. We have a very complex if not extensive menu that changes constantly, and ranges in prices from under $10 up into the $40s for the occasional dayboat fish fillet or grass-fed ribeye. It means we appeal to a broader array of people, and at this point are pretty much busy to capacity almost every night we are open. We have both simple and complex appetizers, burgers, tacos, ramen, pasta dishes, elegant entrees, salads, soups—the works.
Crab and lobster ravioli with cream sauce and borage.
In a sense, it has become his vision as much as mine. And we are still sorting that out; it is a constant evolution. The one thing we see very much eye-to-eye on is the need for seamless service from the preparation of dishes to the final goodnight to our customers. That’s where he has really helped complete the vision because he has an influence beyond the kitchen, interacting with all the front-of-house staff, helping with bar, talking to customers. We are a pretty powerful duo as we continue to create and figure out what exactly the Meridians experience is. Our tensions and differences help us evolve as much as our similarities do. And while we do have flare-ups and outbursts, we are both pretty good at keeping it calm, collected and congenial during service.
Into the future for the restaurant?
The next frontier is bringing people to the farm for on-farm open-air dinners, and also to open a more laidback lounge with a limited menu and comfy seating next door.
The Meridians team, from the left: John Clay, farm manager; David Gulak, co-owner; Josh Sullivan, co-owner; Chef Justin Bard.
What about Meridians makes you most proud?
That we have successfully created and built a local community that gathers under our ceilings and beyond. Of all things, that’s always been most important to me and Emilie. It’s all about community; without it we have nothing. And now what makes me smile most is watching it happen … Welcoming hundreds of people in, employing dozens and even now as I sit here typing in the office, I can hear the bright voices of our servers, the laughs of our kitchen crew, the animated conversation of our diners. Night after night fun times are had here and at the shop. That’s what makes me think we’ve done something worth doing.
If I talk about any more ideas about what’s next at this point, I run a high risk of losing my wife, my children, my biz partner, my chef, aaaaaaand my sanity.
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Josh Sullivan, aka Mr. Conservative
Co-Owner of the Meridian shop and restaurant.
Josh Sullivan, left; David Gulak, right.
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Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Billerica, Massachusetts, a suburb outside of Boston, next to Lowell. It was a pretty typical Mass. suburb at the time—working class, very Irish and Italian. It transformed from a cow town to a Boston suburb in one generation after a lot of flight from the city, so I was fortunate to end up working on the last of the old family farms left in town.
How did you combine academics and farming?
For years farming was more or less just a way to make a living and have full-time work for the summer and part-time on the shoulder seasons (along with odds-and-ends labor jobs in the winter) to work my way through college. As I began to really love farm work and understand that world more, I fancied that someday I could live the Wendell Berry lifestyle and work fully in both academia and the humanities along with agriculture. By the time I was doing graduate work at Iowa State, I began to understand that post-recession academia was more of a meat grinder than I realized, and that my grand Wendell Berry visions were likely naïve, to say the least! I thought that if I could tie agriculture in with literature and my research, I could keep it interesting to me and at least halfway relevant to the real world. I did so through grad school, thesis publication, some creative writing ventures and then teaching at the college level for some years.
But, to make a long story short(er), I eventually turned away from academia. Along with many peers, it seemed like the only roads were either perpetual enrollment in ongoing education or cobbling together part-time teaching gigs, neither of which I desired.
Why did you move to Maine?
I’d taken a break from college after my undergrad degree and moved to Buckwheat Blossom Farm in Wiscasset about 11 years ago. At the time it was simply an escape, a new experience, a place to get by and a way to learn more about farming. I fell fully in love with Maine, and though I moved back to Mass. and then went on to grad school, my wife, Lucy, and I decided to head north when we were ready to start a new chapter of our lives.
So one day, you walked into Barrels, the Waterville co-op that David Gulak was managing … How did this change your life?
I met David! This alone has been known to change the trajectory of lives! We became buddies, I got involved out at his farm, he eventually got me drunk and tricked me into opening a business. … We opened Meridians, our retail shop, six months later, and the rest is history.
Are you and David co-owners in the shop and restaurant?
Yes. The long and short of it is that I manage the shop, he manages the restaurant and we work together collaborating on much of the day-to-day happenings of both.
Why did you choose to open the shop in Fairfield and rather than in Waterville?
David has always had a vision of Fairfield as a place with potential and, while I was skeptical at first, I began to see his perspective. Waterville is a great community and business center, and there’s a benefit to being in its orbit and having proximity to other cool businesses and the population center, but we always wanted to have space, both literally and metaphorically, to do things our way. Fairfield is the underdog. And, once we saw the space the shop now occupies in the old Gerald Hotel, we knew we’d found our way and a big part of our identity.
The name Meridians is such a connecting word with so much scope and melody. It’s perfect for how you view your role in the Fairfield community. How did you come up with it?
For starters, I read it in a book. I was reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy—a very weird, otherworldly, and epic western, for anyone not familiar. While the content had zero to do with my inspiration, the repetition of the word made me realize its poetry and capacity for summoning up an older concept of meeting places, commerce, novelty and stories from around the world. It was love at first listen.
The shop … retail … a big change for you. Big learning curve?
Retail was a change and I never thought I would do it as a living. I had the same shitty corporate retail jobs that many of us did as kids and looked down my nose at it. But the allure of the opportunity took hold and I dove in. While there were components I was naturally good at, I wasn’t great at much of it: selling in a way that can actually build income, merchandising, maintaining a robust inventory, etc. I was a slow learner with some of it, but it’s second nature now.
Have you enjoyed learning about wines?
Very much so. Real wine (not corporate, commodity wine) is so thoroughly an agricultural product, and so intimately tied in to the minutia of where and when it was made, who made it, how they made it, the sun, the moon, water in the soil and air, that it bridged that gap for me between a simple retail endeavor and a connection to agriculture and ecology. Wine is a beautiful blend of the esoteric and scientific. It’s too fun to not fall in love with.
What aspect of wine knowledge have you found easiest and most useful for wine novices to connect to?
Place. People love seeing on a map where their bottle of wine came from. It’s a way to travel from home. It’s a way to learn about other cultures, places, histories, economies, etc. Anyone can look at a map and let their imagination wander a bit.
Name some of the more popular Maine craft beers that the shop sells.
The beer world is fickle, so what’s popular today may not be tomorrow, but we always stay up on what customers are craving and stock the top dogs. Right now that’s Bissell, Orono, Oxbow (who I love!) and all sorts of others. Lagers are trendy right now, which I’ve been waiting for since we started Meridians seven years ago! Tomorrow, who knows?
The shop also sells some special food products …?
Our cheese selection is probably our biggest driver for food. We keep our fridge stocked and we’re constantly rotating in artisanal cheeses from Maine and abroad. Most of our charcuterie is local or at least from New England. Our freezer is stocked with only local meat, along with ice cream, bagels, perogies and other treats! We have local eggs, coffee, yogurt, pasta, bread on Fridays and all sorts of grocery staples.
Prior to Meridians, did Fairfield have a craft beer and/or wine shop?
Does the shop hold events?
We’ve just begun to dabble in public wine tastings again, so keep an eye out for those. And, we’ll be starting a wine club in the near future.
Do you enjoy cooking at home?
Very much so. Unfortunately, I don’t have as much time at home as I’d like to really develop my cooking skills. Luckily, I have an employee and friend who gives me some good pointers!
Name three of your favorite dishes to cook at home.
Oooo, tough one. My cooking style is pretty rustic and simple. If it involves more than a couple pots and pans, I don’t have time for it. Homegrown or harvested is best: veggies and herbs from the garden or friends’ farms, lamb, deer, lots of mushrooms. My winter staple is curried lamb … nothing fancy. I take a rustic cut and braise it down all day in North African or Middle Eastern herb and spice blends, throw in some homegrown carrots, parsnips, whatever we have, and serve it over some rice! Lucy makes great tortillas so tacos from scratch are a weekly meal. I love making paella, soups of all sorts, risotto with some homegrown shiitakes, basic Italian dishes … you can see a trend here with the one-pot dishes!
Name three of your favorite summer wines.
Definitely rosé. I can drink rosé all year, but it’s especially perfect in the summer. A great north Italian, Austrian or Eastern European rosé can’t be beat. I’m drinking a lot of pét-nat (Pétillant-Naturel: naturally sparkling) style wines this summer as well. With their low carbonation it’s sometimes more like drinking wildly flavorful beer than wine. I’ll mess with reds all summer too but I usually keep them light: Alsatian, German and some Austrian reds, French Carignan and Cinsault, very light reds from Sicily and southern Italy and Chile. There’re so many good options.
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