Editor’s Note: The past year has been an historically challenging one for restaurants everywhere, in rural and non-rural places alike. As diners begin returning to the table, the Daily Yonder is spotlighting chefs and restaurateurs who are lifting up rural food traditions and creating vital community spaces across rural America. If you know of a person or place worth featuring, email us or let us know using the form at the bottom of this article.
There are two storefronts at the crossroads that constitutes West Fulton, New York: a post office and Sap Bush Hollow Farm Store & Cafe.
Chef Shannon Hayes opened the cafe in 2016 as an extension of her family farm and kitchen. It has the feel of a home-style diner and features nutrient-dense comfort food. Pie crusts are made from lard and butter. Gravy is made from long-simmered bone broth. The menu is small and features what’s fresh, local, and in-season.
A breakfast salad, made with fresh cucumber, broccoli, dill, and mint from the local vegetable farm, with honey lime crema (left). Sap Bush Hollow Farm Store & Café serves salads with egg breakfasts for a nutrient dense meal. Homemade Sap Bush Hollow croissants (right). (Photos courtesy of Hayes.)
Sap Bush Hollow food is home-cooked from scratch with attention and intention. Every week features a prix fixe special, a full meal for around $25. One week it might be Japanese beef curry over rice, kimchi, and a gingersnap ice cream sandwich for dessert. The next week, split pea soup with ham, wild ramp quiche, and chocolate cake with vanilla frosting. Other offerings include hand crafted croissants and espresso drinks.
In this small hamlet, the cafe serves as a hub for entrepreneurial commerce, community organizing, and emotional support. A neighbor forced into retirement comes to find odd jobs around town. Political protestors stop in to steel their resolve. Widows visit to get hugs and talk about books with their friends. Tourists get recommendations for a great waterfall hike nearby.
In this way Sap Bush Hollow has become the beating heart of the community, providing soulful, as well as physical, nourishment. It is also a clear expression of Hayes’ small-scale entrepreneurship and family-first economic vision.
A Reluctant Chef
Shannon Hayes didn’t set out to be a chef. In fact, she used to joke that there are two careers she would never choose: chef and politician.
Hayes has a deep affection for West Fulton, the town where she has lived for most of her life. As a young adult, she followed the path of many rural sons and daughters and left home for college, later earning her Ph.D. in sustainable agriculture and community development. Job hunting after graduate school, she knew she would never find professional work in her field in West Fulton.
But for Hayes, that didn’t feel right. What she really wanted to do was nourish her existing roots in the scenic area she calls home. So she turned her back on the expected path, and she and her husband, Bob Hooper, took up the family farm business with her parents.
Now three generations of her family lead what Hayes calls a classic rural subsistence lifestyle, where people patch together a livelihood from providing for themselves, bartering with neighbors, and creating small entrepreneurial ventures for the cash they need. “It is the rural tradition to juggle multiple things, to move with the seasons,” she says.
In reality, it means wearing a lot of hats. On Monday, she is a homeschooling mom, and on Tuesday, an author speaking about her new book, Redefining Rich. On Wednesday, she is the hostess at her short-term rental property and on Thursday, she is crunching the numbers as CEO of Sap Bush Hollow. Then, when Saturday rolls around, Hayes is chef at Sap Bush Hollow Farm Store & Cafe.
The restaurant grew out of a need to expand the farm business. As the family considered their options: purchasing more land or starting another entrepreneurial venture, they chose to invest in their community, not just their business, by purchasing a white elephant building that housed the town post office, two apartments, and an old garage.
“I stood in the abandoned garage, with old cars and oil stains, and knew my future,” says Hayes. She immediately envisioned the farm store and cafe, a community gathering place that showcases local farm products. Sap Bush Hollow Farm supplies all of the meat for the cafe and its menu often revolves around meat cuts that are in overabundance. The vegetables are from a neighboring farm.
Family First, Business Second
The website for the store and cafe orients visitors to the unique experience of Sap Bush Hollow, with a warning to expect the unexpected. There is a strong intention to form the business around Hayes’ family, rather than the other way around. The most unusual feature of the cafe is its open hours: Saturdays from 9 AM to 2 PM. That’s it.
This is how Hayes explains it on the website. “In addition to the time we need to produce the food that we sell and serve, we want time to play, travel, homeschool, take naps, knit, lay around giggling, swim, hike, stare at the clouds, and to be there for each other in times of need. All of these things matter as much as our business.”
At a time when many people feel they can’t have a successful business and time for family, the Sap Bush Hollow crew offers a counter-cultural example of accommodating both. “We see our togetherness as our pay and our satisfaction as direct income,” she says. “The business makes our family stronger.”
All three generations of the family have a role in the cafe. Hayes’ oldest daughter, Saoirse, is the head barista and often pulls espresso shots in antique period clothing. Her sister, Ula, likes to roller-skate food to tables as the main server. Husband Bob Hooper is an excellent sous chef and closer, while parents Jim and Adele Hayes have a hand in greeting guests and cleaning up.
The way Hayes sees it, this practice of prioritizing community and family is rippling beyond West Fulton. “Rural places are portrayed as political wastelands, as burdens. But we are holding resources and a culture of learning how to get along. We are seriously special,” she says. “I want people to build deeper connections where they come from, and I do it here through cooking.”
Shannon’s Tips for Perfectly Grilled Grassfed Burgers
Adapted from a blog on her website, The Radical Homemaker.
- Go light on seasonings. The meat is so flavorful, a little salt and pepper is all you need.
- Work quickly and gently. Handling the meat as little as possible keeps it tender and moist.
- Make them big. An 8 oz. burger is less likely to dry out and more likely to feed your body the nutrients it needs.
- Put a small impression on one side of each burger. This keeps the burger from puffing up on the grill.
- Sear 4 minutes per side, then finish indirectly 10 minutes. The meat will reach a safe temperature and deliciously caramelize.
- Lose the bun. Controversial, but these burgers deserve to be honored without sharing their glory with soggy bread.