Happy 10th Birthday, Union Street Cafe!

In the fall of 1998 I started watching a television show filmed in Prince Edward Island.  It was called the Inn Chef, and it featured a tall, handsome man who was giddy with enthusiasm for the elaborate food he was preparing.  The Inn at Bay Fortune, where Michael Smith both filmed the show and was chef of their fine restaurant, even maintained their own garden to supply the kitchen.  Each episode featured a visit to a local farm or producer that supplied the food he was showcasing that day.  I was hooked.  Inspired by Michael Smith’s philosophy of garden to table cooking, I made a decision:  I wanted to be….a farmer.

I would be the one behind the beautiful overladen farm market table in braids and overalls.  I would not only be able to grow the food, arrange it attractively for sale and price it accordingly, I would hand out cooking tips and recipes, too!  I began work on a house on land my parents had given me, and they made room in their garden for me to experiment in.

The summer of 2000, my mother told me that her and my aunt Kate wanted to buy the Apple Town Café in Berwick.  We had always talked about opening a restaurant, but mostly it was in the way of “when we win the lottery we’ll open a big Mexican place”.  It had been an unrealistic fantasy, something we had dreamed about doing but knew would never really happen.  Now they were talking about actually making a family restaurant a reality, and they wanted my sister Meagan and I to be partners in this ridiculous scheme!  Of course we said yes.

 The Apple Town Café was owned by our neighbour, Margo Armstrong, who had been running the place herself for eight years.  She had a wonderful clientele, including us, who came for her homemade chowder and the beautiful sandwiches on thick sliced bread.  
We dreamed and planned all that summer and a date was set: November 6th 2000.  To get ready to transition into this new enterprise, we each spent a day a week working with Margo and learning the ropes.  The week before we were to take over, we drove around the Valley together picking up carrots and onions from Sawler’s, feta and olives from Holmestead, and meeting with our accountant, who told us we were nuts.  He wasn’t the only one.  The current staff at the Café looked at our huge food purchases as we lugged them in and shook their heads.  What were we going to do with all that food?  Wouldn’t it go bad before we could use it?
That’s Meagan, my Mom Anna, me and Kate in 2000

The four of us had come together for this project with a common goal: to showcase the local foods being produced right in the Annapolis Valley, to make healthy, flavourful dishes that people would savour, and to do it all with joy and love.  It seemed obvious to us:  Foods produced locally are fresher, so they taste better!  If we bought them in large enough quantities, they would actually be cheaper than imports, which is not a small consideration for most restaurant owners.  Since we came to this business with a love of cooking, we reveled in the labour-intensive process of working with these raw ingredients and helping them become something wonderful to eat.

My mother Anna had limited restaurant experience and had been working for Lois Hare, Naturopathic Doctor.  In her time there, she had met many people with dietary restrictions recommended by Lois and she enjoyed helping them with cooking advice and recipes.  She worked on a special menu catering to these needs, and we simply inserted this into the Apple Town Café’s menu for opening day.  We decorated the glass topped tables with leaves we had pressed that Autumn along with an open letter to our customers new and old that said “welcome to our little Café”.

Since there were four of us, we figured we could cover everything ourselves and that meant working from 7am to 7pm every day, six days a week.  Most days flew by, as word spread of good cooking from scratch made with local ingredients.  You see, our first new customers were our suppliers, the first of many unexpected benefits of our method of doing things.  They helped by supporting us, telling their friends that their own products were being used at the Café.  The response was incredible.  By our first summer, lineups were common and we were really overwhelmed.  People were so enthusiastic, and we were delighted as sales quadrupled in our first year.  We survived a restaurant review by Stephen Maher without one critical remark.  It truly was a dream come true, albeit with much harder work and longer hours than I had ever fantasized about.  

This is the simple truth: most people enjoy food more when they feel a connection to it.  By drawing attention to the fact that the food on their plate not only looks and tastes better, but contributes to a healthier economy and planet, their enjoyment is heightened.  Instead of consuming items of which we know almost nothing about and connect with almost no one to obtain, we can turn this transaction into a deeply satisfying human exchange.  When I take Spinach and Tomatoes and Garlic grown by Dora and Henry Penner and bake it into a pizza with Holmestead Feta, it is a spiritual experience for me and maybe even my customer.  Add a glass of wine made in Grand Pre, and you truly are in heaven.

Of course, there are challenges and temptations along the way.  It is understandable why some restaurants enjoy the convenience of one or two big trucks pulling up twice a week as compared to the  constant stream of producers at our door.  Some are too busy to deliver and that means if you want it, you must go get it, not always easy to do.  But some of my best conversations in a week are held over a case of free range chickens or a box of portabellos and over the last ten years, that means a large part of my life has been shared with people I otherwise might never have met.
Focusing on local carries a responsibility to do the best you can.  While we buy only local tomatoes from March to December. I still have a typical restaurateur disease: Fear of  Not Serving Caesar.  In the winter that means cases of romaine from California.  I do dream of taking it all the way and shunning all reliance on foods grown outside Atlantic Canada.  I’d turn our basement into a winter hydroponic garden and grow basil on the roof in the summer.  But for now I try to take the responsibility of employing sixteen plus people and balancing that with pleasing the public and feeling good about the choices I make.  Basically, if the product is available locally we will buy it!  That’s what our customers expect.
Food consciousness is contagious.  When you enter our Café, the names of our suppliers are proudly displayed around the diningroom in chalk.  It’s a joy to watch that list grow and to let folks in on our enthusiasm for these products.  We can tell them where they can buy the foods they’ve enjoyed in their dinner here.  I hope that this can become a bridge from farmer to food lover. 

Over the years, we have changed and grown.  We moved in 2003 to the old Rice’s restaurant on Commercial Street.  This location hosts many memories for folks who grew up around here and that history adds to the feeling that we’re here to stay.  My partners moved on to other projects in 2006, but Meagan came back to work shortly after and I could not do it without her.  My mom Anna now does most of the baking at the restaurant, and Kate has a sweet little coffee shop out front. 

I feel grateful to this small town for being wonderfully supportive.  Our wonderful, ever evolving family of staff is truly amazing.  And being in the Valley just makes it so easy to make great food.  Thank you to all of the gardeners, bakers, cheesemakers, farmers and glorious food loving folks that make Union Street Cafe what it is.  I love each and every one of you.

This morning, I got a phone call from Michael Smith congratulating us on our success and encouraging me to keep doing what I’m doing. I think I’m good for at least another ten!