Valley Bounty: Resourceful and really delicious: The Upper Bend in Turners Falls serves classics with local seasonal add-ons

Billy McKerchie, owner of The Upper Bend Cafe, makes the soba noodle bowl.

Billy McKerchie, owner of The Upper Bend Cafe, makes the soba noodle bowl. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Billy McKerchie, owner of The Upper Bend Cafe, adds tofu to the soba noodle bowl.

Billy McKerchie, owner of The Upper Bend Cafe, adds tofu to the soba noodle bowl. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Cucumber lemonade from The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls.

Cucumber lemonade from The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Sarah Seitzm, an employee at The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls, makes an order of maple toast.

Sarah Seitzm, an employee at The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls, makes an order of maple toast. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Zoe Darrow enjoys her breakfast at The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls.

Zoe Darrow enjoys her breakfast at The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

“An egg and cheese sandwich ordered in February or August is the same basic sandwich,” The Upper Bend Cafe owner Billy McKerchie says. “But where we have fun with seasonality is switching the add-ons. Like for now, you can add fresh asparagus from Warner Farm in Sunderland.”

“An egg and cheese sandwich ordered in February or August is the same basic sandwich,” The Upper Bend Cafe owner Billy McKerchie says. “But where we have fun with seasonality is switching the add-ons. Like for now, you can add fresh asparagus from Warner Farm in Sunderland.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Billy McKerchie, owner of The Upper Bend Cafe on Avenue A in Turners Falls, which opened in fall 2019.

Billy McKerchie, owner of The Upper Bend Cafe on Avenue A in Turners Falls, which opened in fall 2019. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Zoe Darrow enjoys her breakfast at The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls.

Zoe Darrow enjoys her breakfast at The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Analee Wulfkuhle enjoys her breakfast at The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls.

Analee Wulfkuhle enjoys her breakfast at The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Billy McKerchie, owner of The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls.

Billy McKerchie, owner of The Upper Bend Cafe in Turners Falls. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JACOB NELSON

For the Recorder

Published: 05-24-2024 1:30 PM

The Upper Bend Cafe and Bruncheonette in Turners Falls aims to be reliably amazing. That means serving familiar breakfast and lunch favorites while unleashing their creativity, squeezing every drop of goodness from farm-fresh local food.

“Using as many seasonal and interesting ingredients as we can,” says owner Billy McKerchie, “we’re making things that people will recognize, but they’ll say, ‘I’ve never had it like this before.’”

Their menu is approachable, omnivore and vegan friendly, and showcases a love of scratch cooking. They serve coffee, tea, and soft drinks, plus beer and wine. Most meals start under $10, and their whole food menu is always available, Wednesday through Sunday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The cafe’s interior, full of bright colors and warm wood finishing, is designed to welcome. “People come here for food,” says McKerchie, “but also for the ambiance and the community they find here.”

Hank Silver is the craftsman behind The Upper Bend’s woodwork. “He’s a friend and amazing carpenter from Montague,” McKerchie explains. “He’s actually working on the trusses at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris now, which is crazy.”

McKerchie has become a craftsman himself in the kitchen, but it took a while for him to realize his calling.

“I worked in restaurants since I got out of college,” he says. “At one point I went back to graduate school for food and farm policy, but when I didn’t find a job I liked right away, I went back to working in kitchens. Eventually it became obvious that I liked feeding people, I was good at it, and it was something I could offer the community.”

After this realization set in, McKerchie started planning to open his own restaurant. Eventually, he and co-owner Tamara McKerchie found their location on Avenue A in Turners Falls. After months of hard work, they opened The Upper Bend’s doors in fall 2019. Since then, they’ve endured the early pandemic selling takeout only, expanded into a neighboring storefront, and built a base of loyal customers.

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Two days a week, McKerchie is still wrist-deep in flour, baking biscuits, pastries and bread. He also still works the line sometimes during service. But thanks to a committed and skilled kitchen staff, he devotes more time to business tasks and working on the menu.

The Upper Bend’s menu is divided into four sections: sweet baked goods, savory sandwiches, a salad and veggies section, and a miscellaneous section for food that defies categories. These groups never change, and faithful standbys like an egg sandwich or grilled cheese are always there. Yet each new season brings a fresh look around the edges, thanks to the bounty of local farms.

“An egg and cheese sandwich ordered in February or August is the same basic sandwich,” McKerchie says. “But where we have fun with seasonality is switching the add-ons. Like for now, you can add fresh asparagus from Warner Farm in Sunderland.”

Asparagus pairs well with other add-ons, like oyster mushrooms from Mycoterra Farm in South Deerfield, or breakfast sausage made with local pork raised by Bostrom Farm in Greenfield.

The Upper Bend also uses fresh produce from Kitchen Garden Farm in Sunderland, Old Friends Farm in Amherst, and Bardwell Farm in Hatfield. Pause and Pivot Farm in Williamsburg, which grows hydroponically indoors, supplies greens year-round. Yogurt comes in from Sidehill Farm in Hawley, other dairy from High Lawn Farm in the Berkshires, and flour from Farmer Ground in New York, which sources grain from Northeast farmers.

Sometimes they order directly from these businesses, but most of these items are delivered by Marty’s Local. Marty’s Local is a distribution company that buys from dozens of local food businesses, which then allows places like The Upper Bend to buy all that local food with a single order.

Once ingredients are through the door, kitchen staff get to work cooking, baking, and in some cases fermenting or preserving local food to extend those flavors into the next season.

“Right now, our biscuits come with blackberry jam made last summer with berries from Nourse Farm in Whately,” McKerchie offers. “I’d put our biscuits up against anyone’s. The jam makes them better.”

Because they see local food as a valuable resource, very little goes to waste at The Upper Bend. Veggie scraps become stock. Stale ends become bread pudding. This frugality helps lower costs, since they don’t have to buy extra ingredients. It also inspires a new level of creativity, which is something diners get to enjoy.

McKerchie’s favorite example starts with the whey left over from straining Sidehill Farm yogurt to make it thicker. “We make a great soda with whey and maple syrup,” he says. “We’ve also inoculated it with koji and made soy sauce. But we still had all this whey.”

“Then someone had the idea to steep seaweed in whey to make a dashi soup base,” he continues. “They added soba noodles, tofu, preserved lemon and mint, and that became the chilled soba dish on our menu now. It’s a refreshing dish for summer and it’s selling well, so we’ll keep going with it.”

A similar drive to capitalize on resources and opportunities encouraged McKerchie to open Avenue A Market right next door to the cafe in early May. The corner store sells produce, pantry items, beer, wine and household goods. “A little place for things you need,” he calls it. The market is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

For McKerchie, cooking is an act of joy. Feeding people is an act of care. Ultimately, the work becomes worth it when people show it matters to them.

“What makes this meaningful is when I see the same customers coming back, and that we’re making them happy.” he says. “That’s why I keep doing it.”

Jacob Nelson is communications coordinator for CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture). To learn more about restaurants near you using local food and seasonal produce, visit buylocalfood.org.