Valley Bounty: Something Special Cafe
Published February 19th in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
By Jacob Nelson
Restaurants feed us. And when they use locally grown food, they feed our community in more ways than one. That’s something special – at least for longtime local chef Laurie Bernier, co-owner with her husband Barry of Something Special Cafe and Catering in Granby.
When Something Special Cafe opened in May of 2021 in a bright yellow farmhouse on Route 202, it wasn’t the first time Something Special came to Granby. In the 1980s and 90s, Barry and later both Berniers ran two different iterations of Something Special Restaurant. Then in 1995 they bought their current building and narrowed their focus to catering.
“We specialized in weddings for over 30 years with a lot of success, and really enjoyed it,” says Laurie Bernier. “But our plan was always to re-open a cafe. We liked the idea of cooking for our neighbors.”
The pandemic has been anything but kind to most local restaurants, yet interestingly, it did beget the new Something Special Cafe. “We were so busy with catering,” says Bernier, “but when COVID-19 hit of course all the parties stopped. So we moved forward with the cafe.”
“It was a risky thing to do,” she acknowledges, “but a good thing too, and we finally had time for it. We still offer catering, but now it’s just hot and ready trays people can pick up, and people can rent the cafe space outside our usual business hours.”
Opening a full year into the pandemic gave the Berniers the opportunity to plan Something Special Cafe around our new reality. Though arrangements for takeout ordering and outdoor seating were in place from the beginning, “we still wanted to create an intimate dining experience in this farmhouse, which was built in the early 1900s,” says Bernier.
Walking in, “first there’s our grab-and-go counter with pastries, coffee, ice cream, and where you can pick up food to go.” People can also sit down in their warmly furnished dining room, which fills the main part of the house. “And in warmer months of course we have outdoor dining on a spacious patio,” Bernier finishes.
When it came to creating a menu, “our main focus was on using local food,” she says. “With the pandemic, there was just more awareness of why local businesses supporting each other was important. It helps them, it makes a strong local economy, and you form personal connections.”
Bernier also sees a trend in more and more restaurants using and talking about local food, and feels that “local food is usually fresher, healthier, and more delicious.”
“The Valley just has so much to offer for local food,” she continues. They try to make the most of it, using, for example, maple syrup from North Hadley Sugar Shack; bread from Ludlow Central Bakery; and coffee from Esselon Coffee Roasting in Hadley. “Double C Ranch here in Granby also sells us beef from Texas Longhorn cows, which is special.”
Bernier would like to expand their list of local ingredients, but it isn’t as simple as swapping things out. Take eggs for example. “I’d like to use fresh local eggs,” she says, “but I’ve got to find a supplier who can fully service us. I mean, we go through six cases of eggs a week.”
That’s over 1,000 eggs each week, and well over 50,000 each year. If one hen lays 250 eggs each year, Something Special Cafe on their own could keep at least 200 hens – and the local farmers raising them – in good business. The struggle is finding local farms big enough to produce that many eggs, consistently, at an affordable price. Plus, buying from many individual farms is more complex than ordering many ingredients from one food distributor, which most restaurants already do for staple items.
From a restaurant’s perspective, it would be easier to buy more local items if distributors carried them. “When we talk to our distributors,” says Bernier, “we always ask them what’s most local and try to use that. But often, local farms can’t provide enough volume for distributors to carry what they grow.”
To overcome this challenge, some distributors or food hubs aggregate items from multiple farms to offer more volume. Then a restaurant could place one weekly order for eggs, but the eggs might come from four different farms. This often works but can be logistically challenging for the distributor.
Another solution would be for more farms to scale up to a size that can serve restaurants like Something Special Cafe directly. Yet scaling up brings risk, and restaurants’ needs are different than other wholesale customers. They are large buyers, but not typically as large or stable as grocery stores and schools, and usually have less storage space too, meaning more deliveries. For many reasons, it can be trickier for farmers to build long-term business plans around restaurant accounts.
Whatever the case, community demand for local food is one big thing that reduces uncertainty and emboldens restaurants, distributors, and farmers alike to overcome these obstacles. It gives them reassurance that their efforts will pay off. This is especially important to locally owned restaurants, most of whom operate on very thin margins. Bernier says they’ve dodged the supply chain challenges others are facing so far, but they can’t avoid the rising cost of ingredients.
For Bernier, the focus on keeping things local is also very much about human connection. They both employ and provide a gathering place for people in their community. “There’s not a lot of other restaurants in our area,” she says, “so it makes our town a little better.”
It’s also a culmination of their lifelong joy of cooking for their community. “I’ve been a chef in this area for over 35 years and Barry 45,” reflects Bernier. “We asked ourselves the other day, ‘What would we do if it wasn’t this?’ Really we don’t know! We just love feeding people.”
Something Special Cafe is open Wednesday through Sunday, 7am-2pm, serving breakfast all day, lunch, and daily specials. To learn about them and find more restaurants serving up local food in your neighborhood, visit buylocalfood.org/find-it-locally.
Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).