Chef is now chairman of boards

He liked a wood shop's work; now John Brandt-Lee is in the cutting-board business.


Chef John Brandt-Lee began renovating his Avalon restaurant in West Chester on the cheap a few years ago.

One feature was the wooden cheese table in the middle of the dining room. No thousand-dollar table crafted by artisans. Not on Brandt-Lee's budget.

It was handmade and topped with 12-by-12 floor tiles. The cheese boards themselves were made of bamboo and were always falling apart, he recalls.

A customer directed him to a small woodworking shop in Montgomery County to get better quality. The brothers who owned the shop, whose specialty was cheese and cutting boards, were eager to get their name into the restaurant community, "so they gave me a great deal," Brandt-Lee said.

The boards were beautiful - handmade of reclaimed Pennsylvania hardwoods such as cherry and walnut - and their craftsmanship was top-notch. Brandt-Lee commissioned the brothers to build counters, tables, and other furniture for his second Avalon restaurant, in Downingtown.

Then last year, they told him that they wanted to get out of the business.

Brandt-Lee bought it.

"It makes sense," he said. "I told my wife, 'If we do one more restaurant, [the wood order] would be the same as buying the company.' "

It just so happens that Brandt-Lee is building a restaurant and marketplace in Malvern whose centerpiece will be a gigantic antipasto bar.

Brandt-Lee hired Chris Conlon, a woodworker who had done jobs for him, and moved Philadelphia Custom Block & Board Corp. from the Schwenksville garage to a vast warehouse in south Coatesville.

Many chefs have side businesses selling food. Brandt-Lee already was doing that with jams. But woodworking? He said he knew nothing about carpentry and craftsmanship when he got into it.

Conlon, who does the sanding, routing, cutting, planing, and other grunt work with an apprentice, Jim Hamilton, allows Brandt-Lee to apply food-grade oil to the finish. Brandt-Lee also does the laser engraving and packaging.

It is shaping up to be a tidy side business.

Under the Avalon name over the holidays, Brandt-Lee sold boards online and from a cart at a mall in Exton. Chef Guillermo Tellez ordered a bunch for Red Owl Tavern at the Hotel Monaco in Center City. Chef Michael White has ordered boards for a new restaurant in New York.

Then the big leagues called: a restaurant customer, an executive with Bed Bath & Beyond. Next thing Brandt-Lee knew, an order came in for BBB stores in Springfield, Delaware County; Plymouth Meeting; Pottstown; Wynnewood; Radnor; Jenkintown; Brandywine; and Exton. Brandt-Lee just learned that 50 Bed Bath & Beyond stores on the Eastern Seaboard will carry them, at $49.

What happens if this thing goes national? Quit the restaurant industry? Brandt-Lee ran his fingers through his hair, grinned at Conlon, and said: "No way."


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