By Sally Haase
(February 1, 2023) — What would put Higganum on the map? Perhaps, aliens landing on the green might do it. What has put Higganum on the map is a cozy small town breakfast restaurant. Jack’s Country Restaurant has been voted the Best Breakfast Restaurant in Connecticut in the Connecticut Magazine’s Readers’ Choice Awards for 2023.
When Nicole Martin, as a teenager, wanted a car, her parents told her she had to earn it. Nicole took a job at a pizza restaurant and found she loved serving good food to people. Waitressing and bartending through college, she soon came know that she wanted her own restaurant. For two and a half years Nicole worked seven days a week at three jobs saving for her dream restaurant. In 2018, her mother, Lisa, who worked as a cook for Jack Murphy, called to tell her Jack was ready to sell. And so it began.
Nicole hired her fiancé, Tyler Clarke, who was the executive chef at La Vita in East Haddam, to run the kitchen. Along with Lisa and the waitstaff who worked for Murphy, Nicole runs the popular breakfast eatery on Killingworth Road in Higganum. Nicole, unaccustomed to receiving accolades and honors, praises her staff Lisa, Tyler, Jane, Gay and Coleen for the success of the business. Her goal is to ensure customers enjoy a breakfast made to high standard in a comfortable atmosphere.
Nicole kept most of Jack’s menu items and recipes that customers loved. Favorite items include the Cinnamon French Toast with Cinnamon Butter that Murphy created. The bread, for French Toast, is baked in-house three times a week. Another favorite is the cornbread. Murphy said it was his mother’s secret recipe. How can it be so moist and still not crumble? Jack and Nicole’s team know. Her weekend specials give her a chance to experiment and use her creativity. Successful items are then added to the weekend menu rotation. Her specials are always designed with the seasons in mind, using fresh and locally grown food.
How much food is needed to run a small restaurant in Higganum? Once again, she tries to support local businesses buying locally produced products. Tyler uses 3,000 eggs a week, 400 lbs. of potatoes and 120 lbs. of bacon. Nicole has seen the price of four cases of eggs increase from $90 a year ago to $688 today. With the cost of propane, electricity and labor increasing, it’s difficult to keep prices down. But Nicole is intent on keeping her standards high in this inflationary period.
The pandemic presented challenges that were stressful and yet gave her an opportunity to look at alternative ways to stay in business. Initially, it was just takeout orders and delivery orders. Occasionally, that meant driving an egg sandwich to Killingworth. Yet, she says she was shocked at the response from the community in support of her business. Takeout orders and holiday catering along with generous tips kept her business open. When customers were eager to get out as the summer weather appeared, the addition of outdoor dining expanded the restaurant and gave everyone a sense of safety.
Nicole credits her staff, some of whom have worked in the business for forty years, with her success. (Photo above, left to right, Nicole Martin, Lisa Peterson, Jane Nemecek, Gaye Smith; Not pictured, Colleen Totman)
They know the business, the customers by name and in many cases what they regularly order. In addition to her regular staff, she is proud of her student help. She says they are responsible, on time and eager to do a good job. These young students she believes are a tribute to the parents and the community they were raised in.
What will she do with her newfound fame? She says it won’t change her, but it continues to make her day when “new faces appreciate her food and familiar faces just put the icing on the cake.” She hopes to support the community as they supported her in the past four and half years.
As a lifelong reader of Connecticut Magazine, Nicole often thought “Wouldn’t that be cool?” to be on the Readers’ Choice list. Yes, Nicole. It is cool.
Photo provided by Jack’s Country Restaurant