“You just have the luxury of being able to breathe a little easier – you have some space.” – Caleb Johnson
At a certain point in their lives, the hustle and bustle of Philly drove both Alex and Caleb Johnson away from their roots in Honesdale and Upstate New York, respectively. Both cut their teeth in the city’s fast-paced restaurant scene. In fact, that’s where they met.
A few years pass. Careers blossom. Wedding bells chime. Soon Alex and Caleb envisioned themselves chasing their infant son around the concrete playgrounds of Philly. Quickly, they realized they wanted more. They needed the mountains, the fresh air, the room to roam, creeks to splash around in, trails to wander, nature to restore their souls and center their minds – a slower pace. They brought their little family back to NEPA and found all of that and then some…
In 2019, Alex and Caleb brought years of hard-earned experience, a dash of formal training and a little of that Philly street cred to Honesdale in the form of Native. In the ensuing years, as the casual, upscale joint’s popularity grew, so too did their family. They added another little boy to the mix.
Between frequent hikes, camping adventures, discovering new local restaurants and making a go of it in one of NEPA’s coolest towns, the enterprising pair found time to sit with us for a chat. Of course, among other things, we couldn’t help but ask Why NEPA?
How long have you lived in NEPA?
Alex: I was here until I was 18 and then came back when I was 28. And I just had a birthday – turned 33… so, whatever the math is on that, I guess (laughs). Together, we came back in 2017, in March. So…
Caleb: A little over four years, yeah.
What brought you back?
Alex: I wanted to be closer to family and raise our boys here. We really love being outdoors, and there’s just so much more of that here. In Philly, we’d have to drive like over 2 hours just to go on a hike. That’s all just so much more accessible here.
Did anything about NEPA surprise you?
Caleb: Yeah. Definitely Honesdale, specifically. I grew up in Upstate New York, but in a very, very small town. We had a population of like 800 people. And even the nearest city was about the same size. Honesdale is just so much more lively. There’s so much to do, you know – different restaurants, shops, attractions. Mainly, there was plenty of good food around here, which was a bit of a surprise for both of us.
What do you love about your town?
Alex: I think it’s just like Caleb was saying, it’s bustling here. It’s great to see people walking around. There’s a good mix of businesses – you know, some have been here forever and others that are newer. And it feels like, most of the time, they’re not trying to compete. They’re actually looking out for each other and trying to help each other out.
Caleb: I would say the same thing. It’s really cool. We’ve done collaborations with Here & Now on multiple occasions. And between the Cooperage and all the community outreach going on, it’s really great to see. From a chef’s standpoint, with very little deviation, on my way to work, I can stop at like four different farms. And my commute is only a fifteen-minute drive (laughs).
What’s your favorite NEPA restaurant?
Alex: This is so hard because we live so close to the New York border and a lot of our go-to spots are over there and that’s not technically NEPA. But we definitely love Alter House.
Caleb: And Bar Pazzo…
Alex: I feel like we can’t really pick a favorite since we’re always trying new places. You know? We like a lot of tiny Mexican places throughout NEPA, but I can’t remember any of the names (laughs). We did get takeout from Volcan recently and that was incredible.
Caleb: I’d definitely have to say Alter House was our favorite though. They have a great vibe and great food. You step in there and kind of feel like you’re in a different place.
Alex: Yeah. And they’re kind of similar to us with the smaller plates. Yeah, that’s it.
What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?
Caleb: There’s also a couple different properties owned by the Boy Scouts, like the Old Growth Hemlock Forest in Damascus. That’s a really cool hike. There’s these 125-foot ancient Hemlocks. And we’re so close to New York, so we’re always going to the Tusten Mountain Trail, Jensen’s Ledges, the Bouchoaux Trail. That’s a cool one…
Alex: And we just went camping at Promised Land. We found a lot of really good trails there.
What’s next for you?
Alex: Uhh… Oh boy. What’s next for me? Why do I have to go first? (laughs)
Caleb: Well, I think, right now, we’re just settling in. We want to keep doing as much as we can do with the community. We love doing pop-ups. That’s like one of our favorite things to do. So, you’ll definitely see more of those. In the long term, I like to think we’ll open a burger joint…
Alex: We’re just having our first summer right now. You know, cause last summer was COVID. So, this is our first real summer in the restaurant and it’s been pretty intense. We’re keeping our heads above water (laughs). We’ve been so busy. It’s been so awesome. We’re so grateful. But yeah… a burger joint… let’s add it on.
Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?
Alex: I feel like COVID changed a lot. And I feel like there are so many people who’ve been forced to realize that they were ready for a change – like moving out of a city, or to their second homes by the lake or whatever. I feel like there’s been so much of that. I think there was a Philly Mag article about Honesdale and it was like, “is this going to be the new Hudson?” But I don’t think it necessarily is going to become that. I definitely see it expanding more and progressing. There’s definitely a lot of fresh blood coming to the area.
Caleb: Yeah. There’s no doubt a lot more people are moving here. Our friend is a local real estate agent and he’s been telling us how insane it is – the amount of people relocating here. From a chef’s perspective, I think we’re going to see a lot more really cool restaurants opening up. People are figuring out how to adapt and finding real cool ways to turn what we normally see as old, useless buildings into innovative restaurants, or using food trucks in new ways. I think it’s exciting.
Alex: Yeah. You’ll have to check out The Pumphouse in Cochecton (NY). That’s a really cool example of what he’s talking about.
Alex: Because it’s an awesome place to live. There really is a lot to do. You can still go to the bigger cities if you want to make a day trip out of it. We’re close enough. But there’s great food here. There’s lots of outdoor activities. There’s just so much… almost too much (laughs)… I don’t know…
Caleb: Yeah. All around you here, we have basically all of the same amenities people are looking for in bigger cities. Maybe they’re not all within walking distance. You may have to get used to driving, but everything is here. You know what I mean? You just have the luxury of being able to breathe a little easier – you have some space. You know, for the same amount that you can get a 2-bedroom apartment with a concrete backyard in Philly, you can get like a similar sized house with four acres here.