It’s a Friday afternoon in December at the Cupboard Cafe, and owner-operator Mary Dee Grant is all business as she waits for 17 50-pound bags of flour to be delivered and prepares to pack countless boxes with her family’s famous cinnamon and sticky buns.
The cafe at 137 Huddle Road in New Harbor is only open seasonally, but every December Grant and her small staff are inundated with holiday orders from across the nation for her family’s famous buns.
Food has been part of Grant’s family tradition for over 90 years, and her heritage on Huddle Road dates back even further.
“Each generation adds their twist,” Grant said on Dec. 9.
Cyrus and Narcissa Ellis, Grant’s great-great-great-grandparents, settled on Huddle Road in the mid-19th century in the house where Grant’s father still resides. In the 1930s, her great grandmother, Myrtle Parmenter Crocker McLain, opened a restaurant and inn at the family homestead and Grant’s grandparents inherited the operation.
“Our family’s trademark was always feeding people,” she said. “You didn’t go into my grandmother’s house without getting fed, and it didn’t matter if you’d already eaten.”
Grant’s parents, Claudia and Fred Hatch, continued the family tradition by opening the Cupboard Cafe in 1995 with Grant and current kitchen head Jennifer Leeman, eventually building their Huddle Road location in 2004.
Now, Grant is bringing her own entrepreneurial ingenuity to the cafe, but her parents’ fingerprints on the business are indelible.
Claudia Hatch, responsible for the cafe’s most popular recipes, worked in the kitchen until she passed away in July this year, and Fred Hatch continues to make dough for the cafe to this day, despite his best intentions to fully retire after a professional life spent between buns and Bath Iron Works.
“The amount of backbone that my parents put into this business gave it the ability to withstand a lot,” Grant said. “(They) laid a strong foundation to build on.”
The buns were only meant to be a small piece of the cafe when it opened, but soon lines of patrons out of the cafe’s front door, all waiting to order their buns, became a regular occurrence.
Grant said the pastries have become a fundamental part of many full-time and seasonal residents’ Bristol experience.
Grant is not certain what it is specifically about the buns that set them apart and keep people ordering every year; Leeman and Fred Hatch put a great deal of effort into crafting them by hand, according to Claudia Hatch’s recipe, and Grant said they meet the vital criteria for the best buns.
“They’re big, they’re soft, they’re gooey,” she said.
Leeman has been with the cafe since it opened in 1995, and she is responsible for baking each and every bun by hand while Hatch comes in to make dough. With a good deal of creativity and ingenuity of her own, Leeman also makes lamps out of antique wooden buoys and sells some at the cafe.
“She is the most diligent master of time management that I’ve ever known,” Grant said.
After a few years of operating mostly as a seasonal business, Grant and her parents learned that residents would order the buns even once they left for the season, and so the cafe began shipping them across the country.
The kitchen will bake up to 45 dozen buns a day and ship them three days a week with prep on Sunday. The buns are baked, cooled, and wrapped on the same day that they are shipped, with the icing sent in a baggy separate from the buns.
Grant does the processing and wrapping for the orders, and she goes as far as to hand-write a note for every box. It’s a marathon from Thanksgiving until the cafe’s last day of local pick-up on Dec. 23, by which Grant and her small crew are generally exhausted but awash with gratitude.
“We did nothing big to grow it. It was all word of mouth and just a very slow, steady development,” she said.
Since beginning to offer nation-wide bun shipping in all four seasons, Grant began to look for other ways to continue to operate during the fall, winter, and spring without fully opening the in-person cafe.
Thus, Grant, Leeman, and Hatch kicked off their first Cupboard Cafe Market this fall. The market is a weekly rotation of meals including pies, pizzas, chowders, and other popular recipes from the cafe’s repertoire that customers can preorder and take home on a set day every week.
Like the cinnamon and sticky bun orders, the fall market was built on another of Claudia Hatch’s most popular recipes: Her chicken pot pie. From there, Grant and Leeman continued to build out the menu.
Grant said that the market has been a hit this fall and that some customers have gone so far as to purchase a few meals at once to freeze some for the remainder of the week.
After a short break, the market will return around mid-January.
The fall market represents just another twist that Grant’s family has added to their pursuits in food service. Carrying on the family business was something that came naturally to Grant, but she emphasized that the business would not be the success that it is without the community around it.
“What a blessing… we sit here in the middle of New Harbor and we talk with people all over the country and we’re part of people’s traditions… and that’s just one of the best parts,” she said.
The cafe’s last local pick-up for the holiday season will be on Dec. 23. Those interested in ordering buns before Christmas should call the cafe at 677-3911 and visit thecupboardcafe.com for more information.