Assignment: Descriptive Piece (+interview)
By Daniel Nott
On November 5th, Amherst Center’s unique variety of worldly cuisine received an addition of something a little more local— A hamburger and hotdog joint called “White Hut” that began 72 years ago in West Springfield, MA.
The new restaurant sits in the space left by Newbury Comics’ move to North Hampton last year, and faces the currently developing Boltwood Walk. The name “White Hut” is illuminated with an orange glow on a freshly painted white awning that pops next to the dark brick colored buildings surrounding it. There is still fluorescent yellow construction tape at the base of the building indicating the ongoing work.
Upon entering, the newly painted interior glows white, and six employees are bustling around the hardwood floor. Some are wearing white polo shirts and others are sporting tie-die maroon shirts with the White Hut logo. The shirts contain some of the only color currently in the bright room, except for the matching maroon bar stools arranged along the walls and counter. From one of these counter seats, customers can watch and listen (and smell) their food being cooked to order.
At the register is listed a simple menu presented on printer paper: Hamburger, $2.65. Cheeseburger, $2.90. Double Hamburger $3.65…
At around 3:30, the restaurant is empty except for the staff—some of which have been brought from the original location in West Springfield—giving them a chance to continue setting up and teaching the new local employees the procedures associated with running the business. The mood is happy and excited, and no one is dragging their feet as they run around.
The Amherst White Hut has surprising lack of logos, either a sign of the business’s simplicity or of the work that still needs to be done following their recent opening. Soda is served in plain clear cups, and the hamburger, ordered “for here” is served on a standard white napkin.
The lone picture on the wall is a small, framed print of the original White Hut in West Springfield surrounded by now-ancient automobiles. At the bottom, the print is signed “Best Wishes from E.J. and Bobby –Mitch Borowiec UMass ’62.”
Aside from the main room, which is divided by a counter into a kitchen and a dining and ordering area, there is a back office that is just big enough for a small managers desk with a computer and some yet to be unpacked shopping bags from Target.
Closer to 4 p.m., people start wandering in, often stepping to the back first to take in the new space and its menu. It’s a normal mix of Amherst residents that flow in and out: high school students hanging out after class, college students taking a break from schoolwork, and older Amherst residents scoping out the new fixture in their town.
The air becomes filled with chitchat: “I haven’t had it yet.” “How is it?” “It’s good!”
When you see Bobby Barkett, it’s clear he is the owner and president of White Hut. He’s dressed in a white polo with an embroidered White Hut logo and black dress pants. He clearly wants to make a good impression, giving customers his undivided attention, and often ignoring his constantly buzzing cell phone.
Barkett explained that White Hut started looking into Amherst as a location about 15 years ago, but the economy has been a roller coaster. He explained that they started looking at moving to Amherst with a strong intention in July 2010.
The Amherst White Hut was slated to open on Nov. 1st, but the snowstorm caused some delay in setting up, Barkett explained. He pointing out the menus presented on printer paper and empty wall space behind the register where a menu board will be.
White Hut is a 3rd generation business in the pioneer valley, “a regular-customer kind of mom and pop store,” Barkett explains. Other establishments include the original in West Springfield, which was founded by his grandfather in 1939.
“When people come in, we ask your name, we don’t give you a number. If you’re coming in on a semi-regular basis, we want to remember your name, and what you like to order,” Barkett explained.
In West Springfield, the White Hut staff has a 6-year employment average and a 30-year manager. Barkett brought in four staff members from West Springfield to help train employees and export the culture, trying to balance the West Springfield traditions with hiring Amherst locals as staff.
The Amherst White Hut has had to make some changes from the original West Springfield model. While West Springfield White Hut opens at 6:30 in the morning in order to serve breakfast sandwiches, “that didn’t seem to make sense for college kids,” Barkett explained. Instead, the Amherst Branch will open for lunch at 11:30 and serve “Rockies,” or an egg on a hamburger for late night.
“And while West Springfield is a freestanding building, space is at a premium in Amherst. It’s truly Amherst to be in a cluster of businesses,” Barkett said.
While Barkett says that they advertised heavily with their regular customers in Springfield, they have been letting news spread by word of mouth in Amherst. He noted that the construction took long enough for people’s curiosity to be sparked.
“There’s been a very warm response from the community of Amherst” and a “tremendous” response from the business community, he said.
“UMass is a great because there are a lot of students from the Greater Springfield area that have heard of us. We’ve had a lot of students, firefighters and police come in, and they have been extraordinarily supportive.”
Barkett noted the advantage of the adjacent Boltwood Apartments, which are expected to be completed this January, and the amount of development going on in that section of town.
“We’re in it for the long haul, we’ve made investments, he said, nodding toward the large grill installed behind the counter. “We’re really excited about the possibilities in this community.”