Harpswell cafe fueled by charter school, naturalist chef
HARPSWELL — A former cafe that reopened as the food service provider for Harpswell Coastal Academy is again open to the public.
It's being run by a scientist-turned-naturalist-turned-chef, who prides herself in using natural, healthy ingredients and local food sources.
The Schoolhouse Cafe, at 506 Harpswell Neck Road, had its soft opening on Dec. 4, months after it began serving more than 100 meals a day to students at the nearby charter school that opened this fall.
"So far it's been nice to have a soft opening," chef and manager Amy Aloe said, "but now we're ready."
The cafe is open five days a week, from 6:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., with a changing breakfast and lunch menu that includes baked goods, Wicked Joe Coffee and Maine Root soda.
The price range is from around a couple dollars for items like baked goods, to $6.75, which is the daily price for lunch specials that match what is served daily to students at HCA, where the food service contract is the cafe's primary source of revenue.
On Tuesday, for instance, students and customers were treated to a black bean enchilada casserole with rice, peas and apple sauce. Other items this week included chicken and biscuits, cheese lasagna with homemade bread, and sloppy Joes.
Aloe said the menu spontaneity will last throughout the school year, until the summer, when it will be replaced by a daily menu.
She said there's also a possibility of opening the cafe on weekends and for dinner, but the cafe's current staff of two limits what can be done.
Because HCA is projected to grow to 280 students by 2018, the Schoolhouse Cafe is expected to grow along with it.
"Once we reach that point we will have to use another facility to make school meals," Aloe said, "and we will have many more people working for us."
While the business is operated independently from HCA, it was incorporated by the school's headmaster, John D'Anieri, to provide the charter school a local and healthy food source that could grow along with the school.
Aloe said the Schoolhouse Cafe has a business model that should succeed, primarily because of its symbiotic relationship with HCA, which will fill a revenue gap during the traditional off season.
"The hope is that the school contract will get us through the winter months when business is slower," Aloe said, "then summer will push us through."
Prior to joining the cafe in August, Aloe worked as a chef at a wilderness lodge at the Appalachian Mountain Club in Greenville.
She was hired as a chef there in December 2012 after discovering her love for cooking as a naturalist working at AMC in New Hampshire, where she learned how to prepare meals in high-mountain huts.
"People would say, 'that's the best chicken I've ever had,'" Aloe said, "and I was like, 'Oh really? Alright, I guess I have something here.'"
Previously, she was trying to figure out if she wanted to pursue a career in genetic counseling, for which she holds a graduate degree. But it wasn't coming together.
Mac McCabe, co-founder of the former O'Naturals restaurant chain and a consultant for the Schoolhouse Cafe, was the first person to have a face-to-face conversation with Aloe about running the cafe.
"What really impressed me about her is she has a contemporary understanding of healthy food, staying local and making it taste good, which is important for students," McCabe said.
Aloe said her position as chef is her dream job.
"A good way to figure out what you would like to do the rest of your life is ask, 'what would you do if you didn't have a job?'" she said. "My answers are go for long walks and cook all day, so it's a nice fit."