Blue Heron’s newest owners look to keep tradition alive in Sunderland

  • The new owners of the Blue Heron in Sunderland are Executive Chef Justin Mosher and Nick Ruggiano. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • The first-floor dining area at the Blue Heron in Sunderland. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Justin Mosher and Jake Snizek behind the bar at the Blue Heron in Sunderland. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • Megan Vezina sets a table on the front porch of the Blue Heron restaurant in Sunderland. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • The Blue Heron restaurant is located in the former Town Hall in Sunderland. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

  • The terrace dining area at the Blue Heron restaurant in Sunderland. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 10, 2022

After 25 years of fine dining under the steady ownership of Deborah Snow and Barbara White, the Blue Heron has officially changed hands with the sale of the business to the restaurant’s longtime chef and his business partner.

Justin Mosher, who has worked at the Blue Heron for 14 years, and his lifelong friend Nick Ruggiano, who also worked at the Blue Heron when it was in the Montague Bookmill, officially closed on the sale of the business on July 13. That day marked the first day of operating the restaurant on their own, although the Blue Heron remained open throughout the sale process.

Mosher said Snow had talked about retiring about a year ago. He floated the idea of bringing in Ruggiano, who had left the restaurant world to explore the heating, ventilation and air conditioning industry — although he said he kept up with food trends and kept his skills sharp by cooking at home for his family.

“When she brought that up, I talked to her for a little while and I said, ‘What do you think about if I bring Nick on and we do this in a partnership?’ and she was just flabbergasted,” Mosher recounted while sitting at a table on the second floor of the restaurant. He added that Snow told him if he didn’t want the restaurant, she was going to close the doors for good.

“She wants the legacy to carry on,” he said. “I’ve been with her for so long and we’ve pretty much built the menu together. We always bounced ideas off each other. She was at my wedding. She really is like my second mother.”

“She’s like my aunt,” Ruggiano added.

While they both have years of restaurant experience, the Blue Heron is the first restaurant both men have owned. Still, Snow said Mosher and Ruggiano have a “leg up” on other people who break into the industry because of their deep roots.

“That’s super important,” Snow said of their experience at the Blue Heron and other restaurants. “You don’t know what you don’t know (when opening a restaurant) … so that learning curve should be less for them than when Barbara and I first built it.”

The two men began their kitchen careers working together in Mosher’s father’s restaurant, Spaghetti Freddy’s in Northampton, before they made their way out to work at the Tree Room — owned by Robert Redford — at the Sundance Ski Resort in Utah in the late 1990s. There, they received hands-on training in fine dining.

They soon came back to their native Pioneer Valley, where they worked in several kitchens before finding their way to the original Blue Heron in Montague Center.

When that building closed in 2003 — it reopened a year later in its current Sunderland location, when Snow and White bought the building for $1 — the recently married Ruggiano decided to start a career on the “completely different end of the spectrum” in HVAC, while Mosher stuck around the Blue Heron until 2009 before moving to New York City and Boston. Mosher returned to the Blue Heron’s kitchen as executive chef in late 2014.

After so many years working in the kitchen together, going into business with Ruggiano was a “no-brainer” for Mosher.

“He was the best man at my wedding,” Mosher said.

Ruggiano said it’s a “lifelong dream” to take over the Blue Heron with his friend and they’ve had these discussions over the years while sitting through quiet periods at various restaurants.

“There were nights where we would be sitting on milk crates for four hours behind the line and we wouldn’t see a single person, and this is what we would talk about,” Ruggiano recounted. “If the Blue Heron wasn’t the Blue Heron, I wouldn’t be buying a restaurant, I’d be working my 9-to-5 sales job.”

For Snow, she said “it’s time to pass it on” and retire. She said she takes satisfaction in seeing “what we built and our connection to the community.” She also takes pride in the many awards the restaurant has received, including a 2006 feature in Bon Appetit magazine and her and White being named semifinalists in this year’s James Beard awards, which recognize chefs and restaurants across the United States.

“It’s just time. Barbara, who is the other owner, has been retired for 10 years and now I need to retire,” Snow said. “There are pieces that are hard, but I will have to say, I think when people are truly ready, which I was, it’s not as hard as one may think.”

She added that selling the restaurant to a longtime employee was a part of her long-term vision and she is pleased to hand off the business to Mosher and Ruggiano.

“I’m very excited,” Snow said. “It was such a pleasure to be able to start with a vision, to have achieved that vision and the vision of ending this by selling this to an employee. … To leave it as the Blue Heron is a wonderful completion of our time.”

Both men said customers should expect no major changes to the restaurant, although they’d like to explore having more live music on the stage on the second floor, as well as other community events. They also emphasized their desire to “carry the torch” of social justice causes that White and Snow have championed.

Ruggiano added that they’d like to bring back a burger and oyster night as an affordable option so everyone in the community can get a taste of the Blue Heron.

“We’re doing everything that we can to keep the legacy going,” Mosher said. “This is something that a lot of people want, and we’re here to give it to them.”

“This place needs to be, and remain, a celebration of food. … There’s a lot of different things going on here and they’re all done really well,” Ruggiano said. “Keep it simple, keep it fresh, keep it moving, that’s what it’s all about.”

The Blue Heron, at 112 North Main St., is open for indoor and outdoor dining from Wednesday through Sunday from 5 to 9 p.m.