Two women with a heart for local step it up a notch
Special to The Union
Sandwiched between crumbling brick buildings in the old Gold Rush town of North San Juan sits a favorite gathering place among locals called The Ridge Café.
It’s a place that serves up locally roasted organic espresso drinks and a full line of sandwiches, salads and fresh baked pastries to a community like no other.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 269 people reside in North San Juan, even though the sign still reads 125.
“This is like Santa Cruz in the 1960s,” comment some visiting out-of-towners who stop to check out the small town located on Highway 49 between Nevada City and Camptonville.
When they step through the door at The Ridge Cafe, all walks of life are welcome.
Bikers, hippies, bank tellers, artisans, mothers with children in tow, farmers and tradespeople on their way to a job stop in to catch a bite to eat and chat with their neighbors.
“It’s like this island between two forks of the Yuba that’s created its own microclimate,” said owner Sarah Lang, who likes to describe the community as “diverse” with a “colorful reputation.”
Lang, 34, and her business partner Christina Reese, 35, took over the business in mid-September from founding owner Belle Star.
“We’re ready to step it up a notch in a real down-to-earth way,” said Reese as she fixed up a cup of tea.
They took down the French maid sign, dropped the “Stop” in the name and with a team of community volunteers painted the café building a “golden sunshine” yellow. They describe the atmosphere of their establishment as “wholesome.”
Both women have a passion for local food. With roots tied to Sacramento, Reese spent the last 12 years as a farmer growing food. Peppered throughout that time was a generous sprinkling of coffee house and bakery experience.
Reese first met up with Star when she sold cucumbers, salad greens and flowers to the café. When her farm job didn’t work out, Star hired her on. Reese worked at the café a full year and jumped at the chance when Star’s business became available.
“She set up this amazing venture here. It seemed like such a great opportunity. I just couldn’t pass it up,” she said.
She knew just the friend she wanted to partner with.
Lang grew up on a dairy farm in Minnesota. For the past five years, she focused on her jewelry-making business, but in her 20s she owned a coffee shop in Key West where she baked pies and sold them wholesale to local restaurants.
“I make a darn good key lime pie,” she said.
She grows more food than she can eat on her 7-acre homestead in Pike – an 18-mile drive to work she calls, “coming to town.”
Friends for several years, the women share a mutual respect for each other.
“I knew that Sarah had a whole bunch of fire and passion and her values really lined up with mine,” said Reese.
They’ve kept Star’s popular original menu intact and are adding new things all the time. There’s a new Belgian waffle maker with the choice of adding bacon inside or yogurt and fruit on the side. There’s quick and easy grab-and-go items for working folk.
“I’m really into blueberry turnovers and savory pasties,” said Reese.
Even some of the diehard regulars who frequented the now closed town fixture, Toki’s Fountain, have found their way to the “hippy café.”
“We know 90 percent of the faces on a first-name basis,” said Reese.
A popular item is the Jalapeño Cheddar Melt on toasted bread with cream cheese, chicken or tempeh, tomato, onion, jalapeño and cilantro. Made-from-scratch biscuits and gravy has become a favorite — with Niman Ranch sausage or the vegetarian variety made with mushrooms.
Both women are supporters of the Farm to Table movement and say they outsource local goods such as: farm fresh produce, Sierra Mountain Coffee Roasters coffee and bagels from Flour Garden. They are looking for more farmers to “come out of the thickets” to sell them local vegetables and fruit.
“This is epic food-growing territory,” Reese said.
This summer, they are looking to expand their hours to include dinners and events such as art receptions and an open mic night.
With real estate for sale signs on the rise in the area, including the opportunity to buy the town bar, The Brass Rail, Reese and Lang see now as a pivotal time for a new direction in North San Juan.
Among the town’s businesses, the café provides substantial jobs, employing more than 10 people.
“On the ridge, we’re a pretty major employer,” Lang said.
In line with their mission to “pump up North San Juan in a healthy way,” they’ve added a retail shelf in the café with books from local authors such as Alicia Funk’s “Living Wild” and “The River” by Hank Meals. Coffee cups with the café logo are also for sale.
On the walls, a different artist shows work each month. In the back room, musical instruments are set up for those who become inspired to play a song.
“It really nurtures people to come be creative,” said Lang.
Outside, an expansive patio is set up with tables and chairs where a no-smoking policy – both tobacco and marijuana – is in place. Customers volunteer to weed the garden and bring in gravel when the ground gets muddy. One local artist hung his colorful glasswork on the fence.
“I think people really feel at home here,” said Reese.
The Ridge Café is located at 29318 Highway 40 and is open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday–Thursday and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 530-292-3488.
Contact freelance reporter Laura Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-401-4877.
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