“Nutrition is something that we, as a society, overlook,” says Arlin Smith, co-owner and general manager of Big Tree Hospitality. “The fact that there is childhood hunger out there is crazy to me.” The co-owner and general manager of Eventide Oyster Co., Hugo’s, and The Honey Paw restaurants on Middle Street in Portland, Smith is active locally and nationally with organizations such as Cultivating Community and Share Our Strength. “I feel like it’s my responsibility to keep giving back,” he says.
Smith first developed an interest in hunger relief as a student at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. “I worked with some chefs that were really passionate about giving back, and I saw the benefits of that,” he says. Originally from Buffalo, New York, Smith was the first one in his family to go to college. “I did everything I could to get by as an honor student, as close as possible, but really I did not like academics that much,” he says, ducking his head shyly. Smith did enjoy assisting his father, a plumber. “I was more hands-on, more vocational,” he admits. Growing up, he enjoyed football, wrestling, and swimming, and began working in kitchens when he was 15. He found satisfaction in this creative and social space. “Pretty early on I knew I wanted to be in the culinary world,” says Smith.
Although he trained as a chef, Smith prefers to stay out of the kitchen. “I don’t do it professionally because I’m meant for hunting polar bears; I don’t like the heat,” he jokes. “Being out front allows me to take care of guests, which is something I really enjoy.” After graduating from the CIA in 2005, Smith furthered his education in hospitality by working in front-of-the house management at several well-regarded Hudson Valley restaurants.
In the winter of 2009, Smith was living in Rhinebeck, New York, when he and his then- girlfriend decided to make a trip to Portland, prompted by some friends. “They sort of grabbed me by the neck and said, ‘Please go to Portland. That’s your city. Everything about it,” he says. Booking a room at the Regency Hotel and Spa on Milk Street, Smith and his girlfriend learned that Hugo’s chef and owner Rob Evans had been nominated for a James Beard Award, and that the restaurant was offering a multicourse chef ’s tasting menu for $120—a bargain compared to New York prices. “We didn’t realize how big of a deal it was for them to be doing it,” says Smith. “It was a very mom-and-pop joint.”
This meal convinced Smith that he needed to be a part of the Portland food scene. “I was eating things that I had never experienced before. I could not believe that this city was supporting something like that.” A month later, he and his girlfriend moved to Portland. Soon after, Smith went to the Congress Street restaurant Local 188 and had a conversation with owner Jay Villani. “I noticed he had a little bit of an accent, and I called it out,” says Smith. “He was from Staten Island—that’s where my family’s from. We hit it off, and the next day I had a job.”
In April 2009, Evans won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Northeast and not long afterwards, Smith went to work for him. “They never had a front-of-the-house manager,” says Smith. “It was always his wife, Nancy. She’s a rock star.” Smith transitioned into this management role, and spent three years working side-by-side with Evans, before purchasing the restaurant in March 2012, along with his partners, Andrew Taylor and Mike Wiley. They opened Eventide Oyster Co. next door two months later; the Honey Paw followed in 2015.
Although being a restaurateur is more than a full-time job, Smith still finds time to relax. He frequently visits his daughter, Stellar, who lives in New York. When in New England, he likes to hike in the White Mountains, escape for a quick trip to Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport, or play pool at Old Port Tavern. He is particularly fond of Scarborough Beach. “I was there two days every single week for the first three summers I was here,” he says. Smith still likes to play with food. “Being able to cook for friends is a lot more fun for me than being on the line,” says Smith. “I’m always doing steaks and pork chops, things that are not too labor intensive, but have a quick satisfaction.” He also remains dedicated to nourishing those who need it most by using his culinary skills at fundraising events.
For Smith, offering hospitality—whether in his restaurants, at home, or in the name of hunger relief—is a gift that keeps on giving. “It’s connected me to a lot of great people,” he says, “And it’s very rewarding.”