Food + Culture

We’re the Restaurant People: A Q&A With Sara & Sohail Zandi

Sara and Sohail Zandi with their daughter, Violet, in Bovina, New York. | Photographer: Christian Harder

A happy accident—a sweet Airbnb and a great egg sandwich—inspired Sara and Sohail Zandi to move from Brooklyn to Bovina, New York, in 2014. Seeking a slower life and a place where they could build something of their own, they found what they were looking for in this small town of 600+ residents surrounded by dairy farms in the Western Catskills. Six years later they own and operate three businesses in Bovina—Brushland Eating House, Russell’s General Store, and four Airbnbs—and enjoy the freedom that comes with being their own boss.

Q. You haven’t exactly slowed down in Bovina. What’s up with taking over Russell’s—an old school general store?

Sara and Sohail Zandi with their daughter, Violet, outside of Russell’s. | Photographer: Christian Harder

Sohail: First of all, running a store isn’t as stressful as running a restaurant. And secondly, and more importantly, this store has been part of Bovina since 1823. Cecil Russell took it over in 1919. In 2000, his daughter Marjorie left the building to the Bovina Historical Society. Last year when the store sat empty for six months, it didn’t feel right. Russell’s was such an important part of the town, and we all missed the store’s famous egg sandwich.

Sara: When people need to talk it’s always at Russell’s. Big snowstorm coming? A death in the community? You’ll know because of who comes and holds court. There’s a bulletin board where you can post rideshare information or ask if anyone has seen your lost pup. My favorite is the sunshine basket. It appears by the register when someone is in need. It could be a meal, clothes, or borrowing a car—and the community contributes. Recently, a neighbor’s daughter was sick, and the basket filled up quickly. It’s a way to spread sunshine in the community.

Q. In early March, you closed all of your businesses in Bovina. How did you pivot once you realized that COVID-19 was here to stay?

Sara: Russell’s closed March 12, 2020. The communal nature of the store—a long, shared table, pour-your-own coffee—didn’t lend itself to riding out any COVID uncertainty. Brushland Eating House, our restaurant, closed March 16. Our Airbnbs quickly morphed into long-term stays for fleeing city families and couples. By the end of March, we had turned Russell’s into pick-up only for bread, pies, and staples, but the store didn’t officially re-open until June.

Sohail: Just like Sean is the plow guy (and also the maple syrup guy), and Sarah and Jamie are the egg ladies, we’re the restaurant people. We’re Brushland and Russell’s. We had an obligation to turn the lights back on and start feeding people. I broke out my Big Green Egg the end of March and started BBQ Thursdays—take out, picnic tables, or BYOB (bring your own blanket). I was cranking out 250 orders a week off that grill. My beef ribs were a huge hit, but my brisket had its fans too.

Sohail manning the barbecue. | Photographer: Christian Harder

Q. How important has Russell’s been to your town during the pandemic?

Sohail: While Russell’s looks Norman Rockwell from the outside, we had conceptualized it as an upstate bodega—keeping beloved items while adding products (like a Filipino fish sauce, Purple Yam Pringles, or Garbage Pail Kids cards)—that might surprise and delight. But with COVID, we knew that we had to up our staples game and save our neighbors from a trip down to the grocery store. We never ran out of toilet paper, and I’m proud of that.

Sara: Russell’s has a far broader audience than Brushland, which makes sense when it’s $50 a person for dinner and drinks versus the cost of a cup of coffee, an egg sandwich, and 100+ years of tradition. It has been so important for us to keep the traditions going during this pandemic, whether it’s Halloween pumpkin carving for the kids, classic pies for Thanksgiving, or Christmas caroling at the store.

Q. When your daughter, Violet, arrived in August, bumping the population of Bovina up to 612, what impact did her birth have in regard to your understanding of your place in Bovina?

Sohail: For maybe the first time, it made me feel that we weren’t just the “restaurant people”—we were the new parents in town. You could sense the community was excited, as there haven’t been many new Main Street children in the last 10 years.

…When Violet was born, we knew that we had chosen the right place to raise a family and realized how important it is to try and preserve all the things that make Bovina great.

—Sohail Zandi

Sara: I’ve always loved the role of “host,” and “mother” is just an extension of that—keeping those in your care warm and nourished, with the understanding that they will be looked after for the time that we are together. The town embraced us when we first moved here, now it’s our turn to embrace our neighbors in a new way together with Violet.

Sohail: We tell people that we opened a restaurant so that we could live in Bovina. But when Violet was born, we knew that we had chosen the right place to raise a family and realized how important it is to try and preserve all the things that make Bovina great.

Sarah: There is such sweetness to being a parent here. And what a great place to be a kid; the bike gang who goes fishing in the summer and rakes leaves in the fall, late night rendezvous on front porches, and Christmas carols at Russell’s. I’m still me, the lady from the restaurant, but with a sharpened sense of what it means to give to, and take from, this community.

Blueprint contributor and acclaimed food writer Michael Bonadies

Michael Bonadies is president of international hospitality firm Bonadies Hospitality, LLC. An accomplished entrepreneur and James Beard journalism award winner, Michael is the author of Sip by Sip: An Insider’s Guide to Learning All About Wine.

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