Belchertown restaurateur to open new cafe on 202

Last modified: Thursday, June 05, 2014
BELCHERTOWN — For years, Joan Almeida thought the land across from the Footloose School of Dance on Route 202 heading west out of the center of town, where she spent much time bringing her daughter for lessons, would be the perfect place for a restaurant.

“Trust me, I’ve traveled this road many times,” she said sitting in a booth of Almeida’s Country Café when it was still a construction zone in mid-March.

The countertop at the main point of sale had yet to arrive. Once it did, it would soon be show time for her investment of 4½ years and many dollars.

“Don’t ask me how much, it will make me cry,” she said. “It would make my husband’s head spin.”

By the time the cafe is open — which she said Friday she hopes will be soon — Almeida expects to have up to 25 employees. She said a steady stream of people have dropped in since November to fill out applications. In an email, Almeida said she’s “found it best” not estimate when it will open. (“I haven’t been right yet,” she said.)

There are a lot of details to attend to when opening a new restaurant. “I just want everything to be as close to flawless as possible,” she said.

Almeida, 50, has dreamed of owning a restaurant since going to work at Burger King near her hometown of Loudenville, N.Y., at age 16. She has always loved the fast pace of the food industry.

“I couldn’t be a cubicle person,” she said. “I have to be on the go, moving, staying busy.”

The parcel she eyed as a dance-mom for 15 years is where she is making her stand with a menu that will include what she calls “quick, grab and go” breakfast items including made-to-order eggs, French toast and Belgian waffles. Lunch will be soups, salads, baked potatoes, hot panini sandwiches cold sandwiches and an assortment of side dishes.

The lot once belonged to the Belchertown State School until it was closed and the land handed over to the Belchertown Economic Development Industrial Corporation.

Almeida kept a time line from when she read that the land was available for development in October 2009 and attended her first BEDIC meeting two weeks later. In the winter of 2010 she got the go-ahead to put the wheels in motion to pursue her dream. In the spring she contacted an engineer to make a plan to ready the site.

It was risky. “I had it surveyed, paid for the engineers and all that stuff and I took that chance because I just kept saying, ‘It’s such a great location,’ ” she said.

That is also when she quit her job as the production control manager at Hood, a food company in Agawam, to devote herself full-time to becoming a restaurateur.

To some degree she knew what she was getting into. She had managed a slew of Friendly’s restaurants earlier in her career after going through a six-month training program right out of college.

In April 2011 the Planning Board signed off.

“By the time I called the bank I had already invested $40,000, just with engineering and surveying, I did not even own the property,” she said. A year later, in April 2012, she closed on the 1.86-acre piece of land at 146 State St. and the invoices continued to mount.

“I really went out on a limb and I kept going,” she said. “I kept saying, ‘I can’t turn back now,’ so I just kept investing more and more money.”

When all was said and done, the cost of preparing the land and doing the site work accounted for 57 percent of her construction costs. The other 43 percent was for actually building the structure.

The floor plan she designed is 1,800 square feet and can accommodate 50 patrons in booths, tables and a counter at the front window. She will also have tables outside in the warm months. The layout enables the person at the sandwich board to see the whole seating area and at the same time communicate with the kitchen. “That is the key person who will be able to look out the window and see if there is a line, or if people are waiting,” said Almeida.

A drive-through window will be limited to items that can be prepared in two minutes or less, or to pick up phoned in orders.

She said on a nice day, if vehicles are backed up she would send someone out with a tablet computer to take orders from motorists behind the wheel. It’s the type of thing restaurants that like to take care of their customers do, she added.

“I want to cater to the people who are at the school who just get a half an hour — the courthouse people who want to just quick run in and get something to eat and go,” she said.

The idea is that people can “get in and get out within five minutes, or you can just sit and linger.”

Almeida isn’t planning a grand opening. After almost five years of planning, she wants to make sure everything is perfect before making a big announcement. “It’s very scary, but I’m so excited that I think that takes over the scariness because it’s something I always wanted to do,” she said. “I have to have things right. I have put so much into this, so much money and so much time that I only get one chance to open, so I want things to be just the way I want them.”

When that day comes, “I think I’m just going to put an ‘open’ sign in the window and see what happens,” she said.

In addition to breakfast and lunches she will be open for dinner on Tuesdays and Fridays, offering items such as fish and chips, meatloaf, roasted chicken and Almeida’s top-secret lasagna recipe. “Country comfort food,” is how she describes it. Deserts and holiday specials also will be available.

“Everything could evolve,” she said. “I’m going to cater to what people want.”