Big shocker: A one-time mining town that was practically abandoned in 1954 and re-populated by anarchist hippie artists has some infrastructure problems.
"Sometimes you walk through town and you see people's septic systems overflowing, like actively, and that's horrific," Joshua Novak, owner of Madrid restaurant The Hollar (2849 NM-14, Madrid, 471-4821), tells SFR.
Faulty septic tanks catacomb their way under Madrid and leech their contents everywhere it isn't wanted, and the specter of muck has threatened Novak's popular New American institution since the very beginning.
"When I purchased the business in 2008, we were immediately having issues," he says, starting a long story that for Madrid residents is now familiar fare.
Novak replaced The Hollar's original septic system almost immediately, at a cost of more than $42,000 (and for which he is still in debt). That system only lasted four years until it had to be replaced again. Novak is super up-front about not just his struggles, but also his passion for food and community, so it's not like I'm exposing his dirty, er, sewage to the world—this is a huge problem not just for Novak and The Hollar, but for practically everyone in Madrid.
I bet you were expecting a nice holiday food story, maybe some secret hot toddy recipe or where to buy the best locally-made fruitcake. But reality bites, baby! More specifically, it reeks, and unless we wanna lose one of the most inspired and down-to-earth takes on American cuisine in the county, we're gonna have to talk shit.
Really, it's about greywater storage in general, which is a little less gross to think about.
The Hollar's most recent problems started with the opposite of a problem— booming business. Successful restaurants use a lot of water. Novak's always kept a close eye on his water usage, but a busy summer tourism season had him using over 650 gallons a day—more than his tanks could handle.
"On the 15th [of November] I got a phone call from my manager saying that they were smelling something … I came down and looked at the tanks and there was water in everything." Cue septic trucks and the $1000 bills, weekly. Estimates for a new system once again land in the $30,000-$40,000 range, and he's trying to raise money—with some success.
Novak launched a GoFundMe on Nov. 18, to which more than 160 people have already contributed, raising over $11,000. The 2010 census counts 204 people in Madrid, so you can see how special The Hollar is to the townspeople who love it—who knew restaurants could be subscriber-supported?
When I went to check out the place for myself, I was not accosted by any odor. I found the whole location charming, and even truly special, being nestled directly in the middle of town. Novak tells me the interior design was done by his sister Heather French, and it reflects Madrid's hodgepodge aesthetic in the decor on the walls while being imminently clean and inviting.
My mind was far from the septic issues when I ordered the fried okra ($7) to start. They came out quick and kept their crunch throughout the meal despite being such a soft veggie. I was, however, surprised by the biodegradable paper plate and plastic water cup. I later learned from Novak that those were emergency choices to cut down on water needed to clean dishes.
"We have taken our water usage from about 450/day during wintertime to less than 200 gallons a day," he told me, "which is huge."
Novak is also completely conscious of the waste.
"It's gut-wrenching that I'm putting so much plastic into the earth right now. I really hate it," he said, saying that he hates it several times. He also mentioned that biodegradable cups are on the way.
For mains, I enjoyed the fried chicken and grits with green chile ($16) while my companion had a buffalo biscuit burger ($18). Between the chicken and the okra, they've definitely mastered the foundational technique of American cooking, the deep fry. The chicken was served with a surprisingly versatile lavender bechamel sauce that brought out the chile's heat in one bite and the savory depths of the chicken in the next. The burger was cooked exactly medium and the flavor tasted so earthy and fresh, as though it were from the mountain behind the town, which I later learned is the actual location of Lamonts Buffalo, their buffalo supplier.
The Hollar may be special, but the challenges of operating there seem insurmountable unless Novak can raise the funds to install a new septic system. Why does he keep going? "I like giving people an experience that they can come out and sit down and have a nice time with family, with friends or even by themselves. The other part of it is, I really love cooking good food. It makes me feel good when people sit there and say, 'that was one of our best meals.'"