An entrepreneur leaves his mark on Tiverton Four Corners.
By Larry Lindner
“Most every weekend, the line’s out the door; the seats are full,” says Jennifer Hilton.
“All my friends who never want to come over the bridge from Newport, East Greenwich, Lincoln — when I finally get them here, they’re just blown away,” chimes in Hilton’s friend, Holly Prentice.
The two are gushing between bites of roasted cauliflower salad, having managed to snag a bistro table on the porch of the recently opened Groundswell Cafe + Bakery at Tiverton Four Corners. The Parisian-style eatery takes up the ground floor of an 1870s building that housed a sandwich shop called the Provender for almost 40 years. On the opposite corner sits Groundswell Garden + Home, which is also new. The cozy home-goods-cum-gift-shop fills the interior of a 1754 house blessed with wide floorboards and working fireplaces. Even on a cold January weekday, business in the two establishments remains brisk.
The both-sides-of-the-street venture is the brainchild of landscape architect David Fierabend, principal of Groundswell Design Group. With offices in Philadelphia and Detroit, the firm works with clients across the country to “activate” spaces, as Fierabend puts it — everything from reimagining parks and other public spaces to designing restaurants and distilleries.
But this space is all Fierabend’s own. Blue velvet drapes adorn the café’s windows, while across the road you’ll discover carefully curated items ranging from garden decor to kitchen accessories, soaps, terrariums, throws and pottery that you’ll never see at the mall. Each room of the shop, formerly an art gallery, is enticingly set up to bring more delightful surprises.
The breads and pastries at the cafe are all made from scratch on the premises, while the coffee is locally roasted. Ingredients are sourced locally, when possible, for such dishes as vegetable panino (grilled marinated eggplant with homemade tomato paste and roasted bell peppers on ciabatta bread) and roast beef on a baguette with fontina cheese, heirloom tomatoes and horseradish aioli.
No small part of Fierabend’s vision for the place is informed by his love for Paris. “Paris was the first city I ever went to when I traveled outside the country,” he says. “It left a lasting impression. You can pause a little bit there. Life is embraced. And there’s an intimacy to the neighborhoods, a beauty to everything. All the senses become engaged.” He wanted to translate that for an American clientele.
Translate he did. Where Fierabend has really worked his magic, in fact, is in the distinctive, idiosyncratic way in which he blurs the lines of the cafe and the store so that there’s a sense of warmth, of ease, of the possibility of a more interesting sensory experience than what you might have anticipated. For instance, a fire pit where restaurant patrons can gather is across the street in front of the shop, so you can have your food and coffee while viewing objets d’art in the English-style gardens.
Once the pandemic is over, those who spill over from the cafe will also be able to enjoy the shop’s second floor, designed so people can relax with their provisions in a salon-like atmosphere. Fierabend even envisions hosting smallish weddings under a pergola to be built behind the shop; guests will assemble in the meadow just beyond.
But why Tiverton?
Fierabend and his husband, John McDowell, had been working conceptually on the idea of a café/bakery and garden/home center for two years. “We had created and reinvigorated a fair amount of coffee shops,” Fierabend says. “We knew that we ourselves wanted to be in the coffee business. But we were looking in Philadelphia and the Princeton area. Our house is in Bucks County, with our main office in Philly.”
Then Tiverton came into focus.
Fierabend had first learned about the town in the 1990s, when he owned dozens of specialty retail clothing shops up and down the Northeast corridor. One of them was in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and he says that when he made site visits there, everybody who had come to know him would tell him, “Go to Newport. You’ll fall in love.”
They were right. “Even with all the traveling I’ve done,” he says, “Newport drew me to it.” He opened a shop, Knits and Pieces, right on Bowen’s Wharf off Thames Street. Business boomed. “We’d be so busy in the summer months, just like craziness,” he says. “We used to come over to Tiverton to get out of Dodge, so to speak, and enjoy … a little respite and oasis from the summer crowds.”
The two would stop at the Provender back then, so they knew the place well. But changes were afoot. Fierabend manufac-tured everything for his stores domestically, and by the late ’90s it was becoming difficult to compete with European markets, which were bringing goods into the country at a cheaper rate. And, truth be told, he was ready for a change. “You reassess your life as you age,” he says. “I wasn’t having a quintessential midlife crisis, but I wanted to do something else as I got into my early 40s.”
So he let the leases expire on some of his shops and sold the rest. And he enrolled in Miami’s Florida International University in 2003 to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture. “I come from a family of people who love horticulture,” he says. “I did think about other careers, but landscape architecture picked me and, following the old adage of ‘Do what you love and the rest will follow,’ I decided to go after my passion.”
Tiverton receded into the proverbial rearview mirror as life took twists and turns. In 2005, a year before Fierabend had even graduated, he ran into an acquaintance at a pizza shop while visiting Princeton. The friend convinced him to work on a public space with him in partnership with Princeton University. From there, the Groundswell Design Group mushroomed, and Fierabend found himself traveling both nationally and internationally in placemaking ventures.
Then, serendipitously, while he and McDowell found themselves frustrated in their search for just the right spot for their own coffeehouse, the building that had housed the Provender came up for sale along with the place across the street. Their fate was sealed. “The building is iconic and gorgeous, and we love the village here,” Fierabend says. “We could not find a location that spoke to me the way this spot did.”
Watching Fierabend go about his day, you can see how personal this venture feels to him. He’s often the one who lights the fire pit on frigid winter mornings. He buys the flowers for the cafe (photograph-worthy orchids in different colors during one recent visit.) You might see him wiping down tables or the counter where people pour milk and sugar into their beverages. (No used stirring sticks or dirty napkins here — it’s always immaculate.)
He’s still called away frequently for Groundswell Design Group business — to Detroit, California, New York (for a distillery opening in SoHo), Atlantic City (for the reimagining of a popular casino), and elsewhere. But with the pandemic, he’s not traveling six or seven days a week for months on end. More is done remotely and, he says, “I’ve had the luxury to be here, to be very hands-on.”
Area residents are thrilled with the changes he has wrought. Jennifer Hilton, a lifelong Tiverton resident and one of the two friends lunching on the cafe porch, says, “Every single person I talk to is so excited. They say it brings a level of class that Tiverton didn’t have.”
While Fierabend is pleased with the venture’s early success, what he’s particularly looking forward to is seeing how the Groundswell enterprise at Tiverton Four Corners is going to serve as a backdrop for local life. “I start out as the architect of the effort,” he says, “but a place begins to take on the life of the community. It becomes a canvas for people to meet and interact in the ways that feel right to them.”
He’ll be in a good position to make observations. Over the years, he and McDowell, Groundswell Design Group’s CFO, bought and sold three vacation homes in Newport’s The Point. The area kept calling to them, and business ventures kept pulling them away. But they recently bought a larger home just a couple of miles down the road from their new enterprise. “The longer we’re here the harder it is to go back to Bucks County,” Fierabend says. “It’s just really pretty here.”