Best Bites: Northampton’s farm-to-table restaurant speakeasy: The Rooster Café serves the comfort food you want to eat

By ROBIN GOLDSTEIN

For the Gazette

Published: 06-29-2023 9:19 PM

After wrong turns through a few parking lots, lawns, sidewalks and lobbies, I finally found my way around back and came upon the semi-secret door to the Rooster Café, Northampton’s farm-to-table restaurant speakeasy.

Like many great speakeasies, the Rooster Café is entered through a seemingly unrelated cover business that gives no clue as to what lies hidden within. The Rooster’s innocuous front is the administrative office building of ServiceNet, a nonprofit agency that runs mental health clinics, group homes, and homeless shelters around western Massachusetts. It is a highly improbable setting for a farm-to-table restaurant.

Once inside, I found friendly faces on all sides and painted wooden roosters on every table. Light streamed through giant plate-glass windows onto a lively row of potted plants.

What I saw next shocked me: the menu and its prices. Every ingredient comes from local farms, and nothing on the menu costs more than eight dollars. Seven dollars gets you a half sandwich plus soup or salad. These are prices from a past era.

I never imagined that a farm-to-table speakeasy, if such a thing existed, would have a good deal on anything – never mind the best lunch deal in town.

I strolled up to the register and got a great warm grin from a red-bearded 24-year-old in glasses and a backwards ball cap. His name was William, and he told me he was a culinary trainee in ServiceNet’s vocational program, learning the skills he needs to get work in a commercial kitchen.

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William works at the restaurant three days a week, making tuna and egg salads, baking muffins and ringing up customers. He earns a living wage that, along with the cost of his training, is jointly supported by government contracts, ServiceNet donations, and happy customers. Every day, he understands the business better.

His love of cooking comes from his dad, whose homemade angel-hair pasta and eggplant parmigiana are two of William’s favorite things in the world. We found we had two uncanny similarities: we are both a quarter Italian, and my grandmother’s eggplant parmigiana also had a major influence on my life.

William told me his favorite menu item was the tuna salad sandwich. Unsurprisingly, given our shared culinary backgrounds, it was my favorite too, in the form of a tuna melt.

Off-the-menu secrets are essential to speakeasies. In keeping with this principle, the Rooster’s melts are hidden in an option called “hot off the panini press” that’s easy to miss on the LCD-screen menu. Many customers in the know – including Shawn Robinson, ServiceNet’s director of vocational services and 2023 Gazette Person of the Year – swear by the melts, and for good reason.

In case you’re wondering how I found out about the Rooster, I’m no master sleuth. My mom, Sue, runs the agency, and she told me about it. She’s worked at ServiceNet since I was four years old, and she helped Shawn and his team get the farm and restaurant going.

Like Shawn, I too can’t stop thinking about that cheddar-and-tomato tuna melt. William’s tuna salad gets the texture just right, somewhere between smooth and chunky. A light crunch comes from chopped onions (but thankfully not celery, my arch-nemesis!), and a splash of acidity from a Dijon mustard blend. Two slices of five-seed bread, ruffled with golden brown grill marks, hold it all intact, yielding satisfying, easy-to-take bites. I could eat this sandwich every day.

The vocational program began for William, as it does for everyone, with a year of farming at ServiceNet’s Prospect Meadow Farm in Hatfield. The farm and café are two connected components of the agency’s larger vocational program, overseen by Shawn, where people with developmental challenges learn skills they need to enter a variety of workforces.

William told me the biggest challenge of working there was operating the complicated checkout system – the stress of having customers standing in line and waiting for you to ring them up. It is especially when people encounter struggles like this that the Rooster Café is different from other restaurants. It is a business that includes patience and understanding among its stated goals.

Patience and understanding, along with culinary excellence, are words that well describe Theo, the 22-year-old director of culinary operations. This is the man who runs the Rooster kitchen.

Theo smiles a lot. He has floppy blond hair and stands tall over the kitchen he runs. He arrived at the Rooster Café with great commercial cooking experience (including at IYA Sushi in South Hadley), but he’d always wanted to get into social services. This unique opportunity excited Theo because it combined the two.

The Rooster Café opened in 2018. Its opening menu was created by founding chef Linda Schwartz of Curtis & Schwartz, once Northampton’s most beloved brunch spot. Theo has kept Linda’s original concept, and most of her recipes, intact. These are timeless, crowd-pleasing sandwiches and salads with simple preparations that show off the fresh farm ingredients.

Whatever’s ready and in season comes from Prospect Meadow, and other local farms fill in the gaps. At my visit, the lettuce and parsley were from Lombrico Farm in Whately, the carrots from Honeypot Farm in Hatfield.

An unsung hero of the menu is the $5 English muffin breakfast sandwich, whose ground sausage patties and perfectly over-medium egg both come from Prospect Meadow. I’ve had breakfast sandwiches in town that cost twice as much and are half as delicious.

Good vegetarian options include the well-executed grilled cheese, with or without tomato; the Prospect-Meadow-egg salad sandwich; and a light kale, cranberry and feta salad whose vinaigrette has a nice kick to cut the sweetness. And everywhere you will find details that you’d expect only from restaurants charging three times as much, like homemade salad dressings, and Theo’s sensational garlic aioli.

Like most speakeasies, the Rooster Café isn’t trying to serve the fastest meal in town, nor do its customers expect lightning-quick service. For the training program to work, everything needs to happen at the right pace. William says he helps Theo understand his comfort level with different tasks: “Sometimes I want him to be right next to me.”

William also told me that his experience wasn’t just about farming or cooking. Trainees also participate in social events like going to movies together, and they get individualized help and coaching from Josie, the job coach, not only on manual skills but also with interpersonal challenges like working in groups or making small talk – essential elements of getting a job and keeping it.

William grew up on a farm in Amherst, and he enjoyed his time working and training at Prospect Meadow. He loved being outdoors and reveled in the simple pleasure of stacking wood. But his second year of training, at the Rooster Café, moved him closer to his dream of becoming a professional stovetop cook.

Many of the opportunities for professional cooks are in catering, and that’s another skill trainees learn at the Rooster. For starters, they prepare about 35 boxed lunches every day for the Prospect Meadow staff. Vans shuttle from Prospect Meadow to the Rooster, trading raw veggies for prepared sandwiches.

Rooster also does private catering for anywhere from eight to 300 people. Catering prices are even lower than the low restaurant prices, so the value is amazing. For bigger jobs, they’ll take off-the-menu requests, which means the staff get exposure to more complex dishes. Theo tells me they turn out some mean deviled eggs and a bluefish paté. I want that right now.

Prospect Meadow Farm supplies the Rooster Café with seasonal fresh produce, year-round. They also run a CSA farm-share program, where the public can sign up for the season and get a weekly supply of vegetables from the farm, grown and prepared by vocational trainees.

Allie, the director of operations at Prospect Meadow, told me all about the farm’s most unique product: shiitake mushrooms raised outdoors on hardwood logs, of which they are the largest producer in Massachusetts. Allie explained to me that most commercial shiitakes are grown indoors, in petri dishes, thus limiting their flavors and nutrients.

The woody, earthy aspects of log-raised shiitakes make them ideal for vegetable stocks. To wit, Prospect Meadow shiitakes feature in a hearty, well-seasoned, judiciously reduced mushroom-and-barley soup that is almost always on the Rooster menu. It costs $5. Don’t miss it.

The 2023 CSA season began on June 19, but people can still sign up for a pro-rated subscription for the rest of the season—see https://www.prospectmeadowfarm.org/farm-csa. You can pick up your weekly allotments at the Rooster Café, Prospect Meadow’s farm store in Hatfield, or a third location in Chicopee.

One more thing the Rooster Café shares with other speakeasies is the short hours when it opens to the public: Tuesday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. If you’re hoping to find the place easier than I did, then bear right at the fork in the parking lot sidewalk, and wrap your way around the right side of the building until you see a cheery chalkboard easel listing the farm-fresh offerings. Then turn left toward the door.

The Rooster Café is now 5 years old. A typical trainee might stay in the vocational program for 4 years, so graduates are now beginning to enter the job market. I was particularly happy to hear that one graduate is now cooking at Williston, where I went to high school.

I loved that cafeteria. In the years since 1994, I fear that the students might have lost their chocolate milk, but I am sure that in the hands of a Rooster grad, they are otherwise now eating better than ever.

Robin Goldstein is the author of “The Menu: Restaurant Guide to Northampton, Amherst, and the Five-College Area.” He serves remotely on the agricultural economics faculty of the University of California, Davis. He can be reached at rgoldstein@ucdavis.edu.

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