EAT – Cafe 209
By Griffin Nelson | Photo by John Antaki
I walk in the door to a hearty welcome and what would certainly be a huge hug if it weren’t for COVID-19 restrictions. I’ve never felt so at home despite 6 feet of separation. And I get the impression that that’s what Cassandra and Glen Brinson are going for. “We’re just a regular ol’ mom-and-pop restaurant, downtown, that serves really good food,” Cassandra tells me. But she’s not giving herself enough credit. I grew up in the South. I’ve eaten a lot of fried chicken. So, when I tell you that this is some of the best fried chicken I have ever had, I mean it. Home cooking is their specialty, with menu staples like the 209 Burger, wings and daily specials like meatloaf and ribs. Sides include options like macaroni and cheese, fried okra, cabbage and candied yams. It reminds me so much of going to my grandmother’s house or lunches on Sunday afternoons.
Cafe 209 has managed to adapt to all sorts of changes over its past 20 years in business. Though it has always been downtown, it has moved locations a couple of times, with the current location at the corner of Broad Street and Monument Street being its longest. The Brinsons’ most recent challenge, of course, has been running a business during a pandemic. They had to close for a couple of months like the rest of the country, but as soon as they were given the go ahead. they were prepared with a plan for to-go orders and curbside pickup that allowed them to continue to serve the community. Catering has also been a big part of their business, and as events have had to postpone, Cafe 209 has remained flexible and is still able to provide for customers by catering for hospital staff or providing a food truck at specific locations where essential personnel continue to work hard.
Especially at a time like this ,when there is so much uncertainty, comfort food can be just that – a comfort. “I want to make food that will make people remember,” Cassandra says. We all could use a dose of good home cooking and reminders of easy days with good food and good company. One of their regulars, Mel Story, happens to walk by the cafe while I’m there, and I find out that he’s been coming here since the day it opened. He may not be able to sit down inside like he’s accustomed to, but he picks up some banana pudding and proceeds to tell me about how much he loves Cafe 209 and the people there (and the pork chop!), and they say the same thing about him. It’s like a family, and I have no doubt that the love they have for their customers is instilled into every single thing on their menu. If you need to remember the good times over some good home cooking – and I think everyone needs that right about now – I highly recommend you join the Cafe 209 family. Its menu can be found online at www.cafe209aug.com and on Facebook and Instagram @cafe209aug. Call-in orders are easy for takeout at the moment, and as the world continues to open little by little, they continue to serve their customers in the best way they know how – with good food and a lot of love.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. That’s how the saying goes, right? Well, I say, if life gives you lemons, give those lemons to Cassandra and let her make you lemonade because, boy, if that isn’t one of the most refreshing drinks I’ve had in a long time! It is the perfect summertime drink, with just the right balance of sour and sweet. All of Cafe 209’s lemonade is hand squeezed! Cassandra says she’s tried all sorts of fancy machines and gadgets, but she’s found that the good, old-fashioned hand-press is the most reliable. Right now you can order a glass of lemonade with your to-go order or even order a gallon or more if you don’t want to run out (and trust me, you don’t want to run out). If you’re feeling fancy, have her make you an Arnold Palmer – an Augusta classic!
Augusta Locally Grown
When Augusta Locally Grown created its online farmers market platform 12 years ago, it could have never known what a difference it would make in the spring of 2020. Suddenly grocery stores were running out of produce and meat amd in-person markets were canceled so as not to infringe on necessary social distancing measures, all at the beginning of harvest season, which could be detrimental to small farms and co-ops that rely on person-to-person contact and interactions and farm visits to make their living. For Augusta Locally Grown, the chaos was compounded by a change in leadership as Rebecca van Loenen took over as executive director. Though more than qualified for the job with a background in nonprofit work, grantwriting and sustainable gardening, it usually takes time to build rapport with a board and partnerships with farmers and artisans. But all of a sudden things were changing, and van Loenen, a new mom in a new job, had the reins in her hand and had to make some quick decisions. It is clear that she quickly gained the respect of those she works with because, with van Loenen at its helm, Augusta Locally Grown has not only handled this transition period with grace, but has managed to flourish during this time!
As a focused team, the online farmers market has managed to grow exponentially, add another pickup location to its list, create a committee to vet new farm applications, and deal with any unexpected hiccups that inevitably come up, all while making sure to follow CDC guidelines and provide a fantastic customer experience.
For those who have never used Augusta Locally Grown, here’s how it works: The “market” is online and opens every Friday at noon and closes on Sunday at 8 p.m. During that time, you can add any item available to your “cart” and check out, the same way you would with anything else purchased online, indicating one of three pickup locations during that time or paying a little bit extra for delivery. Pickups are in Evans, downtown Augusta and now Grovetown, and the customer picks up orders during the location’s alloted time on Tuesday. The market has lots of fresh produce, meat, eggs and more from farms such as Anderson’s Fresh Produce, but it also has tons of out-of-the box options including dog food by Brown Dawg Bites, soap by Trevathan Goat, gluten-free and vegan bread options by Papa Mountain, lavender from White Hills Lavender Farm, meal kits by Creative Cuisine by Chef Megan, and on and on.
Van Loenen points out that when the supply chain started breaking down during the pandemic due to excessive buying by customers, layoffs by big companies, and the difficulty of transporting everyday items such as meat or produce nationally, Augusta Locally Grown was able to continue on as it always has – supporting the local economy and allowing an easy way for people to buy from farmers and artisans in the area. When it was scary to go into grocery stores and in-person markets were canceled, Augusta Locally Grown was able to provide an option for those who needed to do their grocery shopping online and minimize person-to-person contact. The result is that in the last three months, this community-driven organization has managed to quintuple its sales – and those sales that directly support your local farmers and artisans. Augusta Locally Grown had so much success under van Loenen’s guidance that other communities througout the state and across the country are looking to us, here in Augusta, and asking how they can start their own online farmers markets. During a time when so many things seem unreliable, it’s encouraging to see Augusta Locally Grown leading the way and setting an example of community and sustainability.
Appears in the July 2020 issue of Augusta Magazine.