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A passion for cooking and a commitment to the environment inspired Joan Dahl to open Roadhouse Café, a small but bustling breakfast and lunch place in Belchertown. After working in restaurants all across the country and gaining two degrees in Environmental Studies, Joan witnessed that the choices restaurant owners make about where to source their food make or break quality, nutrition, and environmental impact. She decided to open her own place to see what it would entail, willing to spend more in food costs in order to serve a product that would make her customers happy and healthy without harming the environment.
We may be well-versed in the language of organic nowadays, but for consumers a decade ago is was something to get used to. When Roadhouse first opened its doors customers would ask, “So what does organic mean?” Joan credits the Local Hero program, of which Roadhouse has been a member for nine years, with getting people’s attention and outlining the benefits of supporting restaurants who serve local. In the years since, the fantastic food and word of mouth have created a loyal customer base. After a tough few years when the café’s finances were stretched thin, it was the customers who clamored and convinced Joan not to sell. “These people keep me going,” she says, “I figured if there were some customers who liked it that much then there must be more out there.” In 2009, GQ magazine declared the organic blueberry pancakes at Roadhouse the best in the Northeast. Modest Joan thinks they got lucky, but adds that the freshness of an organic, local product has everything to do with it.
Creating a menu that caters to people who may not be used to organic is a process of trial and error, says Joan. She tells me about the time she filled up the freezer with local squash and added a pumpkin coffee cake to the menu, only to get customers who rejected it; steadfast in their loyalty to regular coffee cake. “I had to throw out a lot of squash that year.” Joan makes it a priority to talk to people, educate them about the flavor and nutritional values of organic recipes, while also working with people’s tastes. “Now I have a clientele who trusts me,” says Joan, “they come in every Sunday and order the special no matter what it is.” The specials change daily, which means she can work in what’s fresh and in season. It is often a matter of, “this is what we can get, so let’s try it,” says Joan, “right now people are going mad over the Turnip Truck omelet, something I don’t think we could have paid people to buy a few years ago.”
The Roadhouse Café menu is a testament to their unswerving commitment to organic and local products. Real food, real organic is the motto. I read that, “all meals are made from scratch, keeping in mind the values of good nutrition. Organic fruits and vegetables purchased from local farmers are prepared carefully to lock vitamins,” and recognize a menu that echoes Joan’s values. The twelve varieties of bread, including Apricot Walnut and Four Seed, are made with local flour from Four Star Farms. The milk that graces bowls of granola and mugs of coffee is from Mapleline Farm. Many of the fresh veggies come from nearby Stone Soup Farm, a young farm which Joan takes pride in supporting and watching grow. It is clear that her relationships with the farmers who supply her ingredients are more than just a business arrangement; they are genuine and hinge on mutual respect.
Although Roadhouse Café is now thriving, Joan says she is continually on her toes. Joan is honest when she says that more work, higher food costs and less profit make the restaurant route a tough one to take. It is confidence in the quality of her food and the knowledge that she is making a difference in the environment and in people’s lives that makes it all worth it.
Roadhouse Café is open Monday to Friday from 6am-1pm and on weekends 7am–2pm. Call 413-323-6175 or visit the webite for more information.