THORNTON, N.H. — For five generations, the Benton family has been sugaring on 200 acres in this town near Waterville Valley Resort in the White Mountains, selling fresh maple syrup and other maple products at Benton’s Sugar Shack. Today, brothers Mike and Brad Benton continue the tradition.
Everyone works in some facet of the business. Mike handles the sugaring operation, Brad manages the business, and on weekends, you’ll find them both in the kitchen. Greeting customers is their father, Brad “Pa” Benton, 73, with stories to tell. Until nine years ago, his late wife, Judy, the “Ma” behind the popular side dish, “Ma’s Baked Beans,” handled the register.
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A restaurant wasn’t Jacob Benton’s vision in the 1830s when he began selling his maple syrup products. Nor was it his son Alonzo’s. Things shifted with Alonzo’s sons, Bert and Scott. Bert made maple syrup in a sugar house on Millbrook Road, a back road in town. But customers found the unpaved country road too muddy to travel in spring to buy syrup, milk, butter, and other farm goods. In 1983, Bert’s son, Brad (now “Pa”), built a new sugar house with easier access on another plot of family property on Route 175, where it stands now. Looking to add income during the winter months, the Bentons turned the farmland into a ski-touring center. Unreliable snowfall, however, made for an unsteady business.
The brothers got the idea to offer skiers a pancake breakfast and light lunch. In 1987, they added a 30-seat addition to the sugar shack, where skiers could grab a quick bite from a short menu of winter fare — hamburgers, hot dogs, chili, homemade soups, pancakes, and Ma’s famous baked beans — before heading out to schuss. “More people began coming in to eat than ski,” says Mike Benton.
The rustic eatery opened weekends-only during sugar season, typically six weeks, beginning in late February or early March. Word spread and in 1993, the restaurant expanded service from January through April. “People said, ‘Don’t close down. We like breakfast,’ ” says Benton. In 1999, the brothers added a second addition, expanding the dining space to 62 seats. They decided to stay open year-round — still weekends only — and began offering a fuller breakfast and lunch menu.
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Recipe for Pa’s maple-cooked kielbasa
“Everything is mostly homemade,” Benton says, including fruit compotes and breads in varieties such as cinnamon, whole wheat, white, and the crowd favorite, banana bread.
Benton’s is several miles down a paved, rolling country road. You know you’re there because a long line of customers stands outside a rough-hewn building. Inside, the paper plates are overflowing, bread used on sandwiches or toast is homemade, the utensils are plastic, and the rustic decor extends to the table. Breakfast dishes range around $8; for a few dollars more, you can create your own omelet with up to three add-in ingredients.
On a good weekend, Benton says, the place serves 500 people. “We go through 200 pounds of potatoes, 90 dozen eggs, 60 pounds of pancake mix, and probably seven pounds of butter.”
Kathy Shiels Tully for The Boston Globe
Sugar Shack serves Ma’s maple-baked beans with its breakfast plates, accompanied by its own syrup.
Walnut French toast is one of the most popular breakfast dishes. After dipping the bread in eggs seasoned with vanilla and cinnamon, the cooks place walnuts on top and, using a metal press, sink the walnuts into the bread. “When the cook flips the bread over, the walnuts are embedded
,” he says.
Omelets are made with a 6-egg ladle. “So you probably get four to six eggs when you order,” Benton says. “Lots of people leave with to-go boxes.”
The shack stack offers two eggs, two wedges of French toast, one buttermilk pancake topped with berries, chips, or other fruits and treats, home fries, and meat (the usual breakfast selections along with kielbasa and corned beef).
But the big draw is the maple syrup. The liquid flavors side dishes like Ma’s maple-baked beans and Pa’s maple-cooked kielbasa. Poured warm in the kitchen, “The first bottle of syrup that’s placed on your table is always on the house,” Benton says additional pitchers are about $6.
It takes three people eight days to install 6,000 taps across the land (of which 4,000 are leased on state property). During sugaring season, customers can watch maple syrup being made as it trickles off the evaporator. The syrup and other products are sold at the gift shop.
Benton’s sign announces that it’s a “Maple Museum,” and you are indeed dining among antique sugaring implements hanging from the walls and ceilings, all used by the family over the decades, “so people can see how it used to be done,” says Benton.
BENTON’S SUGAR SHACK 2010 Route 175, Thornton, N.H., 603-726-3867, bentonssugarshack.com
Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at [email protected]