At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe owners celebrate 20 years
Owners Barb Neubert and Carla Blumberg prepare to hang up their apron strings, leaving a legacy of support for local farmers, creating an environment of inclusivity, and serving up homegrown food.
DULUTH — A foundation built on feminist ideals, paired with a desire to support jobs and local farmers has served At Sara’s Table Chester Creek Cafe over the past two decades. Its relocation, additional name and expanding space are just a few milestones the women-owned community restaurant experienced throughout the years.
During a ribbon-cutting and open house hosted by the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 14-15, owners Barb Neubert and Carla Blumberg celebrated 20 years in business with the announcement of a new cookbook written by Executive Chef Jillian Forte.
The 20th anniversary cookbook will highlight more than 90 of the restaurant's most popular recipes, each crafted by the various chefs over the years. This includes an original menu item, the popular Hippie Farm Breakfast inspired by Blumberg's farming days, Forte said. The cookbook also captures the essence of the business through interviews with its owners, a dive into history, as well as tips and tricks from the cooks.
"The only people that worked on the cookbook were people that worked in the restaurant," Forte said. "Everybody kind of gets their say in things, which makes it really wonky sometimes, but it's kind of what makes us unique, too."
The business has given its owners a platform for their generosity to local groups and causes. They take pride in creating an LGBTQ inclusive environment, supporting local farmers and serving seasonal dishes.
"The restaurant's commitment to locally sourced ingredients, environmentally friendly practices, and inclusive atmosphere set an inviting table," Forte wrote in an excerpt from the upcoming cookbook.
Raised on the shores of Lake Superior, Neubert first learned the healing qualities of whole foods from her grandmothers. After earning a degree in urban planning, Neubert went on to work with women at family planning clinics in Duluth and Superior, and later became a nurse.
In the 1970s, she became involved in feminist groups, often gathering with women to drink coffee and discuss life. This ritual inspired Neubert's novel, "At Sara's Table," the namesake of the modest women's bookstore and coffee house she and her then-girlfriend opened on Superior Street in 1994.
"We had to cook to make a living. We set up a kitchen with a fridge, microwave, two hot plates and a little oven. We cooked what we could, and the tourists came," Neubert said. "We had CD music going for the tourists. Mostly folk, like Gordon Lightfoot's song, 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.' That thrilled a lot of the tourists."
Once soups and sandwiches were added to the menu, the quirky coffee shop expanded into the space next door. That's when she first met Blumberg, who volunteered to help with construction.
"She had a restaurant in Texas, and she just knew we were all doing things wrong," Neubert said.
"'Wrong' is not the right word," Blumberg chimed in with a lingering southern accent.
Born in Massachusetts, Blumberg grew up in Texas. She earned an English degree from Texas Lutheran College, as well as a degree in molecular biology from the University of Texas, Austin. In 1984, she bought a farmstead in Austin and opened her first restaurant, Carla's, which crashed with the stock market just three years later.
Contrary to her experience living in Texas, Blumberg found comfort in Minnesota's European culture and acceptance in the company of fellow lesbians she met at Neubert's bookstore. During one visit to Minnesota while staying in a little rickety cabin on the North Shore with her partner at the time, Blumberg went outside to get wood for the stove. The waves crashed ashore as she looked up at the clear night sky and realized, "This is just where I want to be."
Eventually, Blumberg moved to Duluth, where she and Neubert married. At Sara's Table temporarily moved to Blumberg's hotel and restaurant on Park Point, before landing at its current home, the historic Taran's Market Place building at 1902 E. Eighth St.
The couple constructed their new restaurant while salvaging as much of the original building material as possible. Upon opening At Sara’s Table with an addition to the name, Chester Creek Cafe, on Oct. 15, 2002, it was instantly popular due to its proximity to two colleges and a busy intersection.
"We were busy from the get-go. I was pleased at how busy we were. Amazed even. Everyone said, 'What? Why do you want to be there? Don't you want to be in Canal Park?' But it was Barb who wanted to be in the current location," Blumberg said.
"Diane, the original cook at the first At Sara's Table location, thought they would be prepared for a soft opening with a case of eggs, but had to run to the grocery store and buy more food," Forte said.
Forte first came to the restaurant 17 years ago as line cook. As a 25-year-old single mother, she saw noticeable differences of the women-owned business in comparison to the typical "bro" culture she previously experienced in the industry.
The restaurant also became a second home to Forte's daughter, Aurora. From hopping on the school bus each day and spending afternoons doing homework in a booth, to helping bake cookies and eventually working in the back of the house as a teenager —the restaurant shaped them both into the women they are today, Forte wrote in the cookbook.
In the early days, elbow room was sparse on the cook line between the baker, food prep, line cook and dishwashers all sharing the tiny space.
"When we were all in the kitchen together, it was horrible because when Diane was in there baking her pies, she had on an unending political talk show," Blumberg said.
The first order of expansion became an official prep room. Next, they doubled the original patio to its current size. Blumberg redesigned the basement to house both the bakery and a private room to be used for book clubs, parties and meetings. The kitchen was bumped outward into the newly expanded parking lot. The building's most recent remodel, the Skyroom, includes an intimate private event room suitable for 30 people with views of Lake Superior.
Initial plans to rent portions of the building were scratched as the restaurant quickly grew to fill the entire space, Blumberg said. When their only tenant, a real-estate company, moved out, Neubert built a bar in the space. It opened in 2009 and has since been a hub for political meetings and events.
"We're not afraid to put our attitude in the window," Neubert said of the cafe's left-leaning signs on display. "We're not neutral."
Forte added: "If they don't like it, they don't have to come here, but they keep coming here. A lot."
By 2009, Forte was also running the kitchen. The owners sent her to the Culinary Institute of America to deepen her knowledge of food and wine pairings. She began offering off-site farm-to-table dinners.
"In Duluth, we opened and sort of established our niche, you know? We were kind of a hippie outfit with liberal views. Then we started catering to people's specificity, like gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian. We've built up that sector," Blumberg said.
All of the restaurant's pork, most of its beef and eggs, and half of the chicken is sourced locally, Blumberg said.
"We used to get the whole cow," Neubert recalled. "That's how we got started."
Blumberg reminisced on a vague recipe she found in the early days for Italian pot roast pasta to make use of the meat, with instructions like, "Throw in a glass of wine," she said. One evening, a server yelled at her through the window, "'I cannot tell our customers one more time that we are having this as our special pasta. You have to come up with something else, Carla.' And I was like, 'but I've got this whole cow in the basement!'"
Not unlike others in the food industry across the nation, much of At Sara's Table Chester Creek Cafe's vegetables come from the Imperial Valley in California. However, locally sourced produce from Wrenshall Food Farm or various farmers who show up at their backdoor throughout the summer are used when possible, Forte added.
"Most restaurants put in their U.S. Foods or Sysco order twice a week and that's it. It's easy. They spend like an hour or two," Forte said. "Because we do from farmers, it's always like, this guy's got tomatoes and potatoes. What do you want? How much? This guy's got kale and broccoli. What do you want? How much? So it's a lot of time, effort and organization to work with all these farmers. Some of them are really organized and great, like the Food Farm. Then there are farmers like Peter, our Jamaican farmer who shows up at the back door with a trunk full of dirty vegetables and no prices."
According to Blumberg, the easy route doesn't taste as good. The extra effort and organization is what they must do to adhere to their mission as a farm-to-table restaurant.
Menus are created with a mind to seasonal produce availability, with options to appease different age demographics of customers. In the spring, lighter dishes feature baby greens and asparagus. In summer, chefs also showcase an array of blueberries and unique vegetable varieties produced from the restaurant's Chester Garden that was started by gardener Rita Bergstedt. In the fall, heartier preparations offer root vegetables and winter squash.
"It's also a lower carbon footprint when the food comes from 3 miles away as opposed to far, far away. It's fresher when it gets here. There's some of those little, mini-quality pieces that I hope shine through in the food that you eat. Like the biscuits and gravy; those cherry tomatoes came from a mile away," Forte said.
A remodel to boost the restaurant's efficiency took place just prior to the pandemic. The staff and restaurant pivoted operations to the best of their abilities by requiring masks and employees to be vaccinated. Dining was shifted outdoors, which created new challenges for servers. More complex menu items where nixed to alleviate stress on the kitchen staff. Customers were able to re-enter the building mid-June 2020.
"COVID had just required so much hands-on attention from us that I have been here four to five days a week for the past two to three years," said Blumberg.
The owners reside in St. Paul. Over the past decade, Neubert admits she hasn't been too active in the restaurant aside from its economics. On the other hand, Blumberg has been more involved than she wishes to be.
"We've been wanting to pass it along for some time. What COVID did was to kind of draw me back into it," Blumberg said. "You can say that Barb and I are looking to retire, but of course we're looking to retire. I'm 76; she's 82! That's like saying the sun came up, you know?"
Succession plans are in the early stages of discussion, with intentions to pass along the restaurant to Forte and Peter Ravinsky.
"I feel very blessed and rewarded by this experience," Blumberg said. Neubert nodded in agreement.