The Charleston Profile: Living their Dream
Visionary duo Leighton and Tara Derr Webb reinvent their lives with a culinary-meets-conceptual art venture
One day I’ll…” Hopeful words easier said than done. One day I’ll take a sabbatical and move to Paris. One day I’ll complete my novel. One day I’ll open a farm-to-table restaurant in the center of Charleston’s new creative hub.
That last reverie is in fact the dream of a fascinating pair of recent Lowcountry transplants. Perhaps you’ve heard of their enterprise, The FARMBAR, a restaurant/art installation/boutique coming soon to 1600 Meeting Street. The duo behind the concept, Leighton and Tara Derr Webb, hope to prove that the space between dreamer and doer is smaller than most think. To learn more, we found them down a grassy road at their Awendaw farm.
“Welcome, come on up,” a blue-eyed woman calls out as I pull into Deux Puces farm, French for “Two Fleas.” Tara leads me up to the porch of a classic beach house where her husband, Leighton, waves hello, laptop at hand and Great Dane Milo and Australian shepherd Eloise, at his side. I can see the Intracoastal Waterway lapping just beyond a newly outlined crop bed, while out back a pasture hosts four happy goats. “We’d like to increase the herd to 10 to 14,” says Tara. “We’re just going to do dairy with them. Cheese for special events at The FARMBAR. Oh, and we’ll probably do a private label black goat milk soap.”
It’s hard to keep up. How did this seemingly metropolitan couple, the hypnotically talkative Tara, once the assistant to PlumpJack Hospitality Group entrepreneur-turned-California Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, and Leighton, the former vice president of digital media for Oprah’s OWN network, end up on a rural plat of land in the Lowcountry enthusiastically discussing goats?
It all began 25-plus years ago in Virginia when Leighton and Tara met. “High school sweethearts, I know, ridiculous,” laughs Tara. The two went their separate ways after senior year.
Tara headed to San Francisco’s Art Institute, paying her way by working in restaurants. “I was a terrible waitress,” she says. Luckily, the plucky photography major had a knack for the business side of F&B and stumbled upon employment with James Beard Award-winning chef Reed Hearon at his LuLu, Rose Pistola, and Rose’s Café. “I observed, I tasted, and I learned,” she notes, describing the city’s early ’90s food scene as a sort of locally sourced dreamscape. Soon she was recruited by chef Arnold Rossman to begin at PlumpJack. There, managing partner Newsom showed her how to run an environmentally sound and successful restaurant.
As for Leighton, he’s currently the VP for marketing of tech company Xen. But before college, he took a year off and worked front-of-house at Williamsburg’s The Trellis restaurant. The chef/partner was Marcel Desaulniers, an early adopter of the local food movement launched by people like Alice Waters. “I never thought of working there as working in a ‘restaurant’,” Leighton says. “It was part of a movement.” To this day, he considers the time one of the most memorable of his young adult life.
A short stint attending St. John’s College in Santa Fe—before transferring to William & Mary—found him working for another up-and-coming chef, Mark Miller of Coyote Café. In a twist that only the small world of the culinary elite could provide, Leighton says chef Hearon (who Tara was working under) was influenced in part by Miller. “Pretty ironic!” Leighton says.
Despite the food fascination, Leighton decided to pursue another passion: digital media. He earned his MBA at Monterey Institute of International Studies, not too far from Tara in San Francisco, and that’s where the couple’s paths crossed again. From 1998 to 2003, Leighton oversaw AOL Games as general manager, then took a position with 20th Century Fox. The couple, by then married three years, moved to Los Angeles.
“After living all over—L.A., London, and Paris—thanks to Leighton’s job,” says Tara, “we decided to come back to the Atlantic coast for good. It felt like everyone we met would put their hand on their heart and say, ‘I love Charleston.’” The couple pointed their sails east and made harbor on the Isle of Palms.
That’s where their FARMBAR concept started to take shape. The successful creatives knew they wanted to own a locally sourced eatery, but something that mirrored their artistic aesthetic. A place for food, fellowship, and goods, all constructed as a living, breathing work of art.
But first the city slickers had to learn another art—that of farming. Tara took off on a WWOFing (Willing Workers for Organic Farms) exchange at Greendale Farm in Madison, Georgia. There, she not only learned to push a hoe but also brought a new addition to the family. “I called Leighton and told him, ‘I’m coming home with a goat,’” Tara remembers.
Still, one goat does not a farmer make. So the Webbs left South Carolina for two years to learn farming in the Hudson Valley. They found 10 acres in Accord, New York, where they spent most of their days herding goats. Tara initially had grand intentions of finding more WWOFing work, but was, she says, “reduced to day visits to farms.” One day, she happened upon the Essex farm of her hero, Kristin Kimball, author of The Dirty Life. “It was the most extraordinary game-changer,” she recalls. “When you live a creatively fractured life, it’s often hard to anchor, to root. But going to Kristin’s farm, walking with her, picking chamomile, nuzzling her draft horses, sharing a meal—that day was transformative. I came home and immediately started to look for property in Awendaw.”
Before leaving, she discovered something else. “I found the Spartan,” she says, eyes gleaming.
The Spartan Landcraft is a 1949 metal trailer conceived by oil tycoon William G. Skelly to meet the post-WWII demand for affordable housing. Tara found it on her neighbor’s property and spent the next four months convincing him to sell it to her. Once he did, she used her own strength to strip the rusting vehicle down to its bones.
This spring, the couple launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $26,000 for its rehab by Kurt Lebeck, owner of Cabezon Design Group, who will complete the build-out in Charleston. Ultimately the coach will become the café and anchor of The FARMBAR, which will be setting up shop at 1600 Meeting, the creative space being developed by Kate and Lindsey Nevin. “1600 is about talented people and good ideas coming together in a new way,” says Kate, “but it’s also about inviting the community in, so a meeting spot where people could linger is a key piece of the project.”
The FARMBAR menu will feature 10 of the couples’ favorite items, such as a porchetta sandwich, duck fat hash, and doughnuts. They’ll also serve coffee, but not just any coffee—San Francisco’s Fourbarrels coffee. The Webbs had to apply to become vendors and train at the company’s headquarters. It’s another example of their focus on craftsmanship. Says Tara, “Learning how to make coffee is an art form. Milking a goat, making cheese, working in the crop bed is the same. We all need to be workers.”
Ultimately, the Webbs say The FARMBAR will be a “quiet offering.” A beautiful space centered around a piece of Americana. An exhibit of culinary ideas and aesthetics distilled through two lifetimes. A “one day I’ll” come to life. That’s the idea anyway. In an historic city that not only embraces creatives but nurtures them, one can only hope the best for these two dreamers—now doers—who’ve washed up on our shore.