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Two Starts and a Stir

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 22, 2005

In 1996, two wealthy women with extensive experience in the business world moved to a rural Northern Virginia enclave long associated with horse breeding and old money -- and newly affected by suburban growth. Both have since opened small retail food businesses that they thought the area needed. But not everyone in the community appreciates how they went about it.

Everything went smoothly at last month's debut of Home Farm, Sandy Lerner's high-end butcher shop in Middleburg. Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems Inc., an animal-rights activist and philanthropist, showcased the cuts of meat from her humanely raised and slaughtered, rare-breed cattle, pigs and poultry that she produces from her 800-acre Ayrshire Farm estate in nearby Upperville.

Her problems started before that, when she tried to open an English style pub, also in Upperville.

For Lerner, the legal and personal resistance from the community was painful: "I would never do it again," she says.

A few blocks away from Home Farm sits Market Salamander, an expensive takeout shop that opened early last year. Owner Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, educator and philanthropist, started the market when her ongoing battle to build a luxury resort on the outskirts of town became mired in controversy. Last month, Johnson, who lives on a 200-acre estate in the vicinity, brought in a new management team for the pending project as well as a new chef-manager for the store.

"I've learned you have to have the right people in place. And there was a lot that was not done right in the beginning," she says.

Lerner and Johnson say they were surprised that their pet projects were not greeted with open arms by the locals. Though they have their supporters, both are aware that there are people in the area who don't care for them or the way they do business.

"Middleburg is a funny place," says real estate agent Phillip S. Thomas, whose firm, Thomas & Talbot, handled the sales of Ayrshire Farm to Lerner and Salamander Farm to Johnson. "People here don't take well to having things shoved down their throats."

For her upcoming 50th birthday, Lerner plans to treat herself to a heavy-duty road roller that will groom the 14 miles of lanes that wind through her property. That should guarantee a comfortable ride, whether she chooses to cruise the rolling hills at the wheel of a Land Rover, on a Harley-Davidson or atop a highly polished carriage drawn by a powerful Shire horse. Her hobby is jousting in period costume, which gives her "a chance to spear cabbages."

At Ayrshire, all roads lead to Lerner's circa-1912, 42-room Edwardian-style mansion, which she restored from a tattered state to Virginia grandeur. (Still, she prefers to live alone in a small tenant cabin.) But don't expect a hunt supper with a satisfied pack of hounds on the front lawn. Fox hunters are not allowed to cross her property, and a disdain for the tradition inspired her restaurant's name -- Hunter's Head Tavern.

On a recent morning, Lerner is seated in a glass conservatory in the main house that serves as a breakfast area as well as a bedroom for her many pet cats. The northern California native grew up on a farm, where she tended her own small herd of cattle. It was at Stanford University in 1984 that Lerner and her former husband, Leonard Bosack, developed the multiprotocol router -- an advance that linked formerly incompatible computer networks. Their Cisco Systems subsequently grew into a multibillion-dollar company and made Lerner her fortune. When Cisco was sold in 1990, Lerner got half of the $170 million sale price.

Fresh from her 300-acre estate in Hampshire, England, Lerner has a bit of a cold and appears pale, with the exception of her edgy, turquoise nail polish. But there is a feisty tone in her voice when she talks about her first few years in Northern Virginia. Just steps away in the mansion's main kitchen, an enormous workroom that houses an extensive collection of copper pots and pans, cooks are busy piping the filling into sausage rolls and beating batter for banana walnut bread. The kitchen in her restaurant two miles away is too small.

She moved to high-toned Upperville "because I could." Her first task was to restore the elaborate barns and stables of Ayrshire. Then she turned her attention to a historic (and dilapidated) roadside log building, the circa-1750 Carr House, which she bought in the quiet village in 1997.

"I thought to myself, wouldn't it be nice if we had a local restaurant," says Lerner. But there were lots of locals who thought otherwise. When she proposed her plan for rezoning the property to the Fauquier County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission, she was turned down repeatedly.

There were petition drives against her project. She received hate mail. "Don't Middleburg Upperville" bumper stickers appeared on cars. (The business district in Upperville is tiny compared with Middleburg, which itself has one traffic signal.) She singles out the fox hunters who are denied access to Ayrshire. "They were my nemesis," says Lerner. "They said that since I rode a Harley, I would open a biker bar with live music."

After three years, Lerner had had enough. In a bold move, she threatened to erect a demolition fence, tear down the Carr House, build low-income housing and allow the Virginia Department of Transportation to widen the road through town. That's when she received permission to open a 60-seat restaurant.

On a tour of her farm, it is obvious that Lerner is an animal lover. One minute she is hugging and affectionately addressing a Gloucester Old Spot piglet and the next, softly stroking the feathers of an American Bronze turkey poult. A new project is the humane raising of young, dairy-born cattle for veal production, in small groups, without confinement and on a wholesome diet. Calves are fed roughage by five weeks of age, and their foods are free from antibiotics and growth-promoting hormones.

Last month, Ayrshire was certified as the first producer of young dairy calves to meet the standards of the Herndon-based, nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care. The organization previously certified the farm's beef, pork, eggs and poultry, which carry the label: "Certified Humane Raised & Handled." All are available at Home Farm and Hunter's Head Tavern, co-owned with Lerner by businessman Don Roden.

At Home Farm, the prime steaks cost as much as $27 per pound. Seven kinds of sausage are made in-house. In the prepared foods area, savory turnovers and pulled pork are ready for a picnic. Some of the organic produce is grown on local estates owned by margarine heiress Dielle Fleischmann and Mars candy billionaire Jacqueline Mars, whom Lerner calls "the lettuce queen."

Many of Lerner's former opponents are now customers who come to her restaurant for the shepherd's pie and organic steaks cut from Scottish Highland cattle. "People got to know me -- not as a California computer freak but just as someone who wanted to farm," she says.

Still, there are people who shun Hunter's Head.

Cheryl DeHaven Johnson, owner of Windrow, an antiques shop in Upperville, says "I've heard people say, 'I won't eat there.' She blocked hunting.'

"But this lady walks the walk. She stayed with it. And there is nothing phony about her. It's just that people are skeptical. Around here, you fade in, not stand out," says Johnson, who is not related to Sheila Johnson.

It's not surprising that Sheila Johnson's employees call her the Energizer Bunny. There's a spring to her step. She never seems to wind down.

In addition to her responsibilities as chief executive of Salamander Hospitality LLC, which manages Market Salamander and will operate the planned Salamander Resort and Spa, Johnson is president of the Washington International Horse Show and last month became part owner of the Washington Mystics women's professional basketball team.

But this former music teacher at Sidwell Friends School in Northwest Washington and native of Maywood, Ill., in 2001 completed the sale of Black Entertainment Television (BET), which she and her former husband, Robert L. Johnson, founded in 1980, to Viacom Inc., for a reported $3 billion.

The couple ended their 33-year marriage in 2002 and split the proceeds from the BET sale, making Sheila Johnson, 56, a billionaire. She also took possession of the couple's 200-acre Salamander Farm in Middleburg.

For the past three years, the 100-year-old main house at Salamander Farm, a rambling, 14,500-square-foot stone building, has been under construction. Johnson's continued enthusiasm for the renovation, which is scheduled to be completed next March, would inspire anyone caught up in a seemingly endless house makeover.

For the time being, Johnson is living on the estate in a double-wide trailer. "It will be extraordinary," says Johnson of the house as she gives a tour. The large entertaining spaces, designed by Washington-based Thomas Pheasant Inc., accented with extensive custom woodwork and leather-covered walls, will allow her to use the house as an extension of the proposed resort hotel several miles away. But she leaves no doubt that her guest list is selective.

"Now, not every Joe Blow Public will come. But if I have, let's say, the king of Jordan or Oprah or if the president comes, we can stage something wonderful here," she says.

Of particular note is the over-size kitchen that will have a special baking area for her special someone. On Sept. 24, she plans to marry Arlington County Circuit Court chief justice William T. Newman Jr. "My fiance is a gourmet cook who likes to bake cakes and pastries and make homemade ice cream," she says.

New terraced gardens have been planted with peach, cherry and plum trees as well as rows of Johnson's favorite vegetables: string beans, potatoes and greens. All will be available at Market Salamander.

After 16 months in business, Johnson is rethinking her market -- where, she says, "the loss window has shrunk." Jeffrey Potter, formerly of Carlyle Grand Cafe in Shirlington, is the new manager and chef.

"Everything was over the top and expensive," says Potter, who was hired in late April. Gone are the $39 bottles of olive oil, signature bed linens and bath soaps. "We'll be doing more ready-to-eat soups and salads and grab-and-go packaged sandwiches," he says. They are also depending on catering to bring additional revenue.

Johnson's plans for Salamander Resort and Spa Inn to be built on a 250-acre parcel of land previously owned by former ambassador to France the late Pamela Harriman, also have changed in the last several months.

Since Johnson announced plans for the hotel in 2003, Middleburg area residents have watched a controversy unfold between land preservationists who question the size of the project and others who think a world-class resort would boost tourism. There are traffic concerns and sewage issues as well. Thus far, Johnson has had two groundbreaking parties but still has not won final approval to start construction.

In the latest version of her plan, which was presented to the Middleburg Town Council in late April, the 58-room inn is a 120-room resort and spa. A wedding pavilion has disappeared, which makes way for a conference center.

One constant is the choice of Todd Gray, owner and chef of Equinox restaurant in downtown Washington, as Salamander's culinary director. Gray says the still-unnamed restaurant will serve locally grown products with entrees in the $25 to $29 range.

Johnson hopes to start construction by the end of the year and open in the summer of 2007. But she still must win approval from the health department for a water and sewage plant.

Early on, some local cars sported bumper stickers that said "Don't BET Middleburg." And Johnson received a racist hate letter and contacted the FBI, according to Dianne Murphy, her spokeswoman. Murphy said that she does not believe that the letter came from the community.

Johnson "always had an appreciation for this community," said Thomas, whose office is located between Lerner's and Johnson's markets. "Is a small inn and open space better than 60 McMansions? I think so. And I'm in real estate."

For Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, there are "startling contrasts" between what Lerner and Johnson have brought to the area.

"Ms. Lerner has done a wonderful job," says Miller. "She took an old building, made it work and revitalized all of Upperville. But what Sheila Johnson is doing has raised community concerns at every level. When you site a major facility on the edge of town, it detracts from the town. What she is saying is, 'Just trust us, it will work.' But it may not work, and ours is a long-term view."

Johnson says her new plan will win more supporters. "My vision is still being followed," says Johnson. "But in the beginning, there was not a real business plan. The design team was pretty haphazard. My whole strategic plan has changed in the last few months, and when it's finished, there's a book in this."

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