The Accidental Innkeeper

Flora and her husband, Jeff Cohen

Anyone who spends even fifteen minutes with Flora Tonthat in the middle of a busy workday at Salem’s Northey Street House Bed & Breakfast will see she is energetic, friendly, and very good at what she does. The young woman balances cooking a healthy breakfast with answering phones and greeting guests with no trace of ruffled feather or exhausted sigh. True, it’s only 8:30 on a Saturday morning, but for Flora, this is one of the busiest parts of the day. Rising early, she starts at 6:00 or 6:30 to serve her guests breakfast at 8:00 a.m. during the peak-season, and 8:30 a.m. during the off-season.

This particular Saturday is rainy, but cozy and warm inside the elegant bed and breakfast. Flora and her husband, Jeff Cohen, greet me at the door, and when I seat myself in the foyer, they wait while I don the comfy slippers provided for each guest. On our way upstairs for breakfast, Flora lets me peek into two of the B&B’s rooms—the Woodbury Room and the Captain’s Quarters. Both are named for Captain Isaiah Woodbury, the sea captain who lived in the house with his wife, Sarah, the daughter of the original owner, Nathaniel Appleton, Jr., a notable Salem cabinetmaker for whom the house was built in 1809. Both rooms are charming and elegantly furnished. Each of Flora’s rooms has a private bath—a feature not shared by all bed and breakfast accommodations.

I walk through the elegant living room into the tastefully-decorated dining room and kitchen, a relaxing haven of comfort, with homey smells of muffins baking and coffee brewing. When I ask if Flora has had any special training for balancing the business and practical aspects of her B&B (along with cooking the amazing breakfast that was to come), she says “Sure. I’m a mom!” Flora is a tremendous cook and baker and admits to spoiling her two daughters, now both art design majors in college, with healthy food and baked goods while they were growing up.

When Jeff, Flora, and I sit down to a delicious and unique breakfast, I ask how she decided to open a B&B. Half expecting the typical response of “I’ve always wanted to have a B&B,” I’m surprised by Flora’s response to this question. A Los Angeles software engineer turned B&B owner, she calls herself “the accidental innkeeper,” a term I am absolutely delighted with. After she moved to New England for a job over 12 years ago and bought the house—and after 9/11—she found herself without a job. While thinking over her options, her regular jogging route took her through the Salem Common. She started looking at B&B’s in the area and thought, “I can do that.”

And ‘that’ she did. She started renovating the house, which used to be a two-family dwelling, and converted it into the B&B. She started small with one room—‘Phase 1’—and gradually offered more rooms. Then she added a deck, an Asian-inspired garden, and a third floor—not necessarily in that order.

Jeff is quick to say that the B&B is solely Flora’s business; the house has been a B&B now for 10 years out of the twelve Flora has lived there. But you can see her husband of one year (yes, all this, and she’s a newlywed, too) is very supportive of her business. A bit quieter than his lively wife, Jeff is still clearly excited about the B&B and helps out when and where he can, even though he works elsewhere at a solar company during the day. Together, the two make charming hosts.

The breakfast now sitting before me looks amazing: freshly brewed coffee, orange juice, fresh fruit, my own individual Tomato and Onion Quiche and, in culinary terms, the most gorgeous Pumpkin Cranberry Corncake I’ve ever seen, beautifully topped with toasted pecan halves.

Flora is one of those cooks who doesn’t often open a can. She uses freshly cooked sugar pumpkin in the muffins, and the difference is marked, duly noted when I bite into its velvety texture. The Tomato and Onion Quiche is the same—infused with layered, yet delicate, flavor. Along with the fruit accompaniment, this is the most satisfying breakfast I’ve had in a while.

Other mornings, Flora serves a savory bread pudding, whole wheat banana and chocolate muffins, or her signature Northey Glory Muffins with carrots and pineapple. She is also easily able to accommodate diet restrictions, including gluten-free options.

Flora receives all types of guests: authors, artists, museum curators, tourists, business people, wedding parties, honeymooners, and repeat customers. Her apartment suite can even handle small families since it is secluded from the other rooms, and she prides herself in being able to accommodate ‘extended stays’ during the winter, including people in transition.

Flora’s face lights up when she talks about Salem history—she adores it. So when a guest suggests “there’s nothing to do in town,” she cringes. She quickly steers them in the right direction, providing an ‘insider’s guide’ to the sights of Salem, and no guest has ever been disappointed.

An area of the dining room wall is plastered with award certificates. Not only has Northey Street House earned the #2 spot on Trip Advisor for three years running, but it has also received Best of Northshore (BONS) Reader’s Choice award for three. In addition, Flora won Salem’s Green Business Challenge Award this year, which resulted in her being invited to participate in a panel discussion for future challenges.

The criteria for winning this challenge are stringent, yet seemingly simple to this forward-looking young woman. Many B&Bs encourage new towel requests only when needed, but Flora takes it a step further and adds a garage roof outfitted with solar panels, four rain barrels (two of which are ‘food grade,’) and a worm composter. She uses the rich ‘worm tea’ mixture to water her vegetable garden, which at any given time of the year (except deep winter) has raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, rhubarb, herbs, tomatoes, and beets. If you plan your stay in the spring, you have a strong chance of getting homemade strawberry-rhubarb jam at breakfast.

Flora not only recycles waste and Styrofoam, but Jeff, an appliance salesman in a former life, also suggested water- and energy-saving European appliances, which get vigorous everyday use. Flora’s philosophy is to be ‘green,’ serve healthy food to her guests, provide clean and comfortable rooms and baths, and a social, enjoyable atmosphere at breakfast.

I ask Flora if she has advice for anyone wanting to open a B&B. She says “start small, maybe just with one room, then build up. Hire help when you can. You have to know you’re going to like it because you become a ‘jack of all trades’ and have to do it all. It’s a lifestyle, not a job.”

When Flora started the B&B, she was single with two young children and a beagle named Charlie. From that, she has grown the business into a thriving and popular B&B, received help along the way, and learned a lot about herself in the process. Anyone knowing Flora’s story might think there’s nothing this young woman can’t do.

I’d have to agree.

Robbin Lynn Crandall is a Food & Travel Web Copywriter, Certified Social Media Consultant, and Freelance Writer at Crandall Copywriting. She works with small- to mid-sized business owners to improve their marketing strategy and social media presence, along with a slew of marketing materials. A self-proclaimed foodie and lover of All Things Italian, she loves living in New England and snow, and never more than when someone else is shoveling it.  You can contact her at robbin.lynn.crandall@gmail.com

 

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