Old Town Cafe: The little eatery with the big heart

Annual Thanksgiving feast for the local needy is just one example of this restaurant’s commitment to community

Diane Brainard bought the Old Town Café in 1995. While she described her early years as ‘running a café on a shoestring,’ a loyal following has allowed her to add needed items and keep a welcomed consistency to the menu, as well as continue the eatery’s tradition of helping those locally who are down on their luck.

   The trendy, well-heeled thirty-somethings hang out at Nimbus. The old-school Bellingham natives who smoke cigarettes with high school buddies hang out at Le Chat Noir. Families with young children and a hankering for Motown hang out at Boomers. Hyper-caffeinated students hang out (and occasionally study) at Tony’s.
   Everyone hangs out at the Old Town Café.
   On a summer Wednesday afternoon a line of people waited for a table outside the café. Some sit on the wooden bench in the narrow foyer padded with Bellingham Weeklies and Whatcom Independents, while others wait outside on Holly Street, taking in views of the Georgia-Pacific site backed by the green Sehome hillside and Bellingham Bay.
   Inside, the tables are filled with a diverse palette of people. A Hispanic family of four, two businesswomen on lunch break, four middle-aged men and women, mothers and their children, long-haired hippies, astute-looking college students, and a few singles reading nonfiction books and newspapers, all crammed into the two dining rooms.
   The waitstaff pads around in Tevas and Chacos and appears simultaneously busy, friendly and efficient.
   “I was raised in an army family and we always moved a lot. I think I always missed the idea of knowing people for a long, long time and it’s nice to mold that kind of community here,” Diane Brainard, owner of the Old Town Café, said in her scattered, slant-roofed office. “I love it that people (in Bellingham) stay in the same place forever, and they travel, but they always come back.”
   Two large photo collages of her employees hang on the wall next to her desk.
   Despite recent closings of two nearby institutions, the Calumet and Stuart’s Coffee House, the Old Town is not only maintaining its long-standing culture of community, it’s thriving.
   This may be because the spot has a tradition of opening its doors to a diverse population. Housed in the building known as the Oakland Block, built in 1890 and listed on the National Historic Register, the space now occupied by the Old Town Cafe has been a restaurant for 90 years, according to Jeff Jewell, photo archivist for the Whatcom County Museum of History and Art.
   In 1904, the space was one of the only African-American-owned businesses in Whatcom County, called The Mobile Restaurant. It specialized in short orders, an early form of fast food.
   The space continued its custom of open-door community through several owners during the course of the century. After The Mobile Restaurant, it was Matt and Millie’s place for about 35 years, serving the rough-and-tumble crowd from the mills. Then, Brainard recalled, it became a “hippie spot” during the ‘60s and was officially named the Old Town Café in 1967. Its reputation grew as a place where people down on their luck could get a free meal. Brainard began working there in the early 1990s, and bought the restaurant in 1995.
   She described her early years running the restaurant as “running a café on a shoestring,” until business grew and she could afford a walk-in refrigerator to replace the five stand-alone ones.
   Two Fairhaven residents, Heather Blake and Stephanie Smith, who had just finished a noon breakfast, each come to the Old Town about four to five times a year. “I only come downtown to eat at the Old Town,” Smith said, joking about how if she could, she would come to the café five times a week.
   When the Calumet closed in April earlier this year, co-owner Mauri Ingram said she and her husband decided to close it partly because the restaurant, once a hot destination for hipsters on Magnolia Street, appeared to be losing customers to the recently bustling Fairhaven, according to an article in the April 2005 Bellingham Herald.
   Brainard said she wasn’t seeing that occur at her eatery. “I was here when the mall sucked away business from downtown. That was awful,” she said. Now, Brainard sees downtown Bellingham as thriving.
   This is certainly the best word to describe her café. On days when business seems slow, Brainard reminds her waitstaff (who have almost all worked there at least five years) that a year ago they would have felt swamped by the same number of customers.
   Brainard credits her café’s success to customer and staff loyalty. She says customers appreciate the café’s affordable, healthy “real food,” made entirely from scratch and mostly from local and organic ingredients. She said the menu hasn’t changed much because she can’t take anything off of it without a public outcry.
   “The funky special has been on the menu since the beginning,” she said.
   Anne Treat, 26, who has worked as a server at the Old Town for three years, says she appreciates the “integrity in the food” that she serves to her customers.
   Other aspects of the café that appeal to customers are the community-based traditions that have made the Old Town a stalwart symbol of the best type of local businesses.
   Two community tables that seat eight to ten people each let strangers chat with each other over a Farmer’s Skillet and coffee — or simply to eat a Number 9 (the Old Town’s version of Eggs Benedict with a sun-dried tomato hollandaise sauce) in blissful silence.
   Children are also more than welcome at the café; an entire play area is full of toys and books that Brainard swears she never bought. “They just appear out of nowhere,” she said of the piles of battered Fischer Price plastic and blocks.
   Since 1989, the wood-paneled and exposed brick walls of the café have rotated local artists’ work for sale. A “curator,” currently Libby, a server who is also an art major at Western Washington University, manages the artwork. The walls are booked for an entire year, Brainard said.
   Local musicians, such as Robert Blake, also get their share of exposure at the Old Town, and a free meal for every hour they play.
   In fact, Brainard does her fair share of food sharing for people in need on a regular basis. “People come to the back door and I give them potatoes and toast,” she said. She also donates food and coupons to a lot of local charities.
   On top of this is the Thanksgiving feast Brainard provides for free to anyone who wishes to come, a tradition that will celebrate its 33rd year this November. Many of the café’s loyal customers donate food for the event and also volunteer—some for the past 15 years—to help serve food. Albertson’s and the local Longshoremen’s union donate the turkeys.

Before it was the Old Town cafe, the site on Holly Street was a working eatery for years, first as The Mobile Restaurant, then for more than 30 years as Matt & Millie’s Place, where the namesake owners, above, prepared box lunches for local mill crews.

   In an industry known for high staff turnover, the Old Town has a solid retention rate. In fact, Brainard and Treat note that not only do the employees stay for a long time—one server has worked there 13 years—but they tend to come back after leaving. Treat, for example, said she missed the café and thought of it often while she spent last winter quarter in Mexico.
   The café is run like a benign collective. All the staff, whether they work in the kitchen or on the floor serving (almost three-fourths of them switch back and forth between the jobs) pool their tips and divide them equally at the end of the day based on hours worked. Treat said the workers usually average about $7 to $10 an hour in tips, in addition to their hourly minimum wage. She also added that Brainard gives profit-sharing to workers who have been there about a year, essentially giving her employees an added bonus to their paychecks every quarter depending on how many hours a week they work.
   Brainard said she likes her employees to feel ownership of their jobs, and Treat agrees. “I think it’s a sign of a thriving business that we’ve all stayed here for so long,” she said.
   The Old Town is recommended in both Let’s Go and the Lonely Planet travel guides and Brainard said it has won almost all of the Bellingham Weekly’s “Best Breakfast in Town” awards, but Brainard tries to make sure she and her business don’t get pretentious.
   “You know, people always say I should put up those ‘Buy Local’ signs in the window and things like that,” she said. “Believe it or not, I’m not that business savvy. I don’t have a big marketing plan.”
   The only plan Brainard has, really, is more of an army kid’s dream of a community where people stay for a long, long time—a plan that has 90-year-old roots and is being realized one California Omelet at a time.


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