A modest endeavor that hits close to home

Recorder Staff
Last modified: Friday, February 05, 2016
*Archive Article*
ORANGE — Anissa Sargent’s business is in something of a unique position, straddling a hallway in an old tapioca factory.

Sargent owns the Smilin’ Dog Cafe, an eatery on the second floor of the Orange Innovation Center with low prices, hot food and a built-in clientele in the other offices and businesses sharing the former factory building.

Sargent will have been in business for three years in March, selling things like shrimp tacos, pulled pork sandwiches, vegetable casseroles, stuffed peppers and curry at fast food prices and near fast food speed, and the regulars appreciate it.

At 1 p.m. on a Monday, the slow hour, Alec MacLeod and Deb Habib are seated in a corner at one of the handful of two-person tables. Both rent offices in the complex and are regular customers.

MacLeod has finished his turkey pot pie and is most of the way through the accompanying soup, corn chowder in a cream broth sans flour. Habib has just sat down, also with a pot pie but having opted for the salad on the side. MacLeod is enthusiastic about the chowder and the fresh lima beans in the turkey pie.

“I love the food. It’s always creative and it’s always fresh tasting. She uses extremely good ingredients, she uses things she grows herself, which is absolutely stunning to me,” said MacLeod, who is also a home cook. “Incredibly creative, and the cost? I mean you get this great meal for $5.95.”

The prices are surprising. There are three items on the menu and each is $5.95. Today’s options are turkey pot pie, meat with lima beans, red potatoes, carrots and peas in a homemade gravy; stuffed mushrooms with imitation crabmeat, cheddar cheese, broth, onions and a cracker stuffing; or a cold-cut Italian grinder, all served with soup, salad or chips. The menu changes every two days or when a dish sells out.

Sargent said she likes to have a hot meal, a vegetarian option, and something like a sandwich or wrap for those who don’t want a hot lunch. She posts all her menus on Facebook, and often takes requests from regulars.

“It’s home cooking. I kind of follow recipes but it’s dependent on what’s available, what I have, what’s on sale, because I can’t charge $5.95 and be buying prime rib. I coupon, I shop sales, I kind of structure the menu around good prices, and pass them along,” she said. Low rent is another factor; she said the owner of the building keeps her rent low out of a desire to keep food on premises as an amenity for his renters.

It works for Habib, who is renting an office to write for the winter and said she likes being able to grab lunch at the counter and bring it back to her office to eat by the window. “It’s perfect. I don’t have to think about bringing my lunch, I can just know that there’s going to be delicious food, or I can bring a little bit and get a soup,” Habib said.

Sargent cooks some of the food the night before and some in the morning, using combinations of interesting ideas from different recipes. Her kitchen was once the test kitchen for the tapioca factory, and she has a single stove and a sink where she scrubs the dishes during the slow spells. The food is usually ready by 11 a.m. and she closes up at 2:30 p.m.

Her patrons are mostly from within the building, including seven or eight who come every day. While she said she would like a little more business, she’s already busy with the numbers she has at the noon lunch rush.

Sargent, of Templeton, said she fell into her first business endeavor when the previous proprietor of the OIC cafe left. She has worked as a waitress, run a Denny’s kitchen and worked for the former establishment for a time, but learned to cook from her mother.

She also gardens, and friends and relatives with gardens give her their surplus produce for the café. The lima beans in Monday and Tuesday’s turkey pot pie came from a friend, and the previous week’s cabbage roll lasagna featured the last of the summer’s green cabbage. Her cooking also reflects an idealistic streak from high school she hasn’t completely quashed, with an emphasis on vegetables, little red meat, and little salt or butter. She goes through butter at a snail’s pace, preferring to fry in olive oil. The aroma of onions and garlic cooking in olive oil make the café difficult to miss in the building. From the street, however, it’s hard not to miss. There’s a sandwich board listing Tuesday through Friday hours that haven’t caught up to her new schedule — Monday through Friday — and she isn’t terribly keen on self-promotion. This is partly out of fear that a larger lunch rush would be too much to handle and partly by nature. She insists her food is just home cooking and not every dish comes out perfectly. While she worries that customers may be keeping criticisms to themselves because she’s such a small business, the plates always come back clean.

The Smilin’ Dog Cafe is open for lunch Monday through Friday on the second floor of the Orange Innovation Center at 131 W. Main St., just up the stairs from the main entrance. The building, just west of the town center on Route 2A, is easily spotted by the water tower and the sandwich board with the smiling dog face. The cafe name and logo are a tribute to a deceased pet, and you might see a real smiling dog too. The building is not expressly dog-friendly, but a tenant’s exceptionally large and happy golden retriever can occasionally be seen.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com