A new café in tony Westport, Manna Toast, is doing brisk business with its heavenly sourdough toast sandwiches and original salads. I recently met up with two of the co-owners, Stacy Bass wagmag.com/thru-the-lens-brightly/ and Molly Healey, for an in-person, outside table interview at the café on the wettest day in Westport since records began. Here is an edited version of our conversation:
What’s the back story here? Who does the café belong to?
Molly: “So, I’ve been cooking for years. I met Stacy at a party for her book launch “Gardens at First Light,” with Judy Ostrow, Athome Books, 2015) wagmag.com/gardensatfirstlight/ and I started cooking for her and her family. I was their private chef for about five or six years and then we all went into business together.”
Stacy: “The restaurant is co-owned between Molly, myself and my sister-in-law, Yvette Waldman, and it’s really been quite an adventure to do this during Covid. We signed our leases in February and when we discovered what was coming we obviously had to figure out how to make a business open with something that was so uncharted. We started to do deliveries, family meal kits. Then, when we opened the café in July, it created a nice surge of interest because people had tasted the food and knew what they were going to get.”
But you’re serving inside at the moment?
Molly: “We are. We have socially distanced partitions up and we’ve adapted to the environment we’re now subject to.”
And how is it working out?
Stacy: “This is actually a pretty good turnout for a rainy day. What I would say is that on a beautiful day, all these tables are taken, including these picnic tables, which we would never have had the opportunity to fill other than that they closed off the street.”
Molly: “We’ve been very blessed with the street closing down. We’re very grateful for that. It’s allowed us to make the front a lot bigger than we ever thought it was going to be.”
The street just closed during Covid?
Stacy: “Yes, it’s been closed for a few months and they hope it to keep it [permanently] closed.”
It will be interesting to see what it will be like as the weather gets colder. Everywhere has this amazing European, café-like feel at the moment.
Tell me about your distinct menu and style.
Molly: “I like to cook a certain way, to put it mildly. I’ve always dreamed of opening a restaurant. I wanted to create something with a chef-driven concept.”
Ah, what does that mean, a “chef-driven concept”? I always wonder, Aren’t all restaurants chef driven?
Molly: “Well it’s not fast food, but it’s where people can come for a quick bite, where ingredients matter, where we source the best. But it’s not ‘build your own sandwich,’ like, ‘I’ll take some lettuce here, some tomato there….’”
Stacy: “It’s chef-conceived, like it would be in a fine restaurant — even though we consider this fast casual, upscale fast casual, where people are getting the benefit of Molly’s expertise. In the short time since we’ve been open, people are like, “What’s Molly’s fall take going to be on the French toast?”
Molly: “Do you want to mention the avocado toast?”
Stacy: “We don’t do avocado toast here, mainly because of the food miles it takes to get here. It’s also really popular and you go to a lot of places to get it, so we kind of want to stay away from that and have options that you don’t normally think of when you’re ordering toast.”
Molly: “It’s a totally new concept. Nobody has a toast restaurant so we….”
Stacy: “I think we like to think of it as ‘elevated’ toast…. And what’s been gratifying for Molly, and from a business standpoint as well, is that the customers are gaga. Not, ‘Oh, that was great,’ but ‘I’m obsessed. I’m addicted.’”
Molly: “We have people coming back twice a day.”
What’s the best seller? What flies off the menu?
Molly: “Cauliflower hash is our number-one seller. The burrata (with kale and hoagie peppers) and the humus (with roasted vegetables, cucumber salad and tahini) follow closely behind it. We’re (essentially) plant based but we have some animal products. The milk is from a local dairy in New York and unpasteurized. Our eggs are farm fresh. All the cheeses we use are local and don’t have rennet in them. We have meatless meatballs that we make out of mushrooms, beets and walnuts. We try to give people hearty meals so it doesn’t feel like just another vegan restaurant.”
Stacy: “But if you’re vegan, there’s lots and lots of things you can eat.”
And you seem to have a love affair with sourdough.
Molly: “Sourdough stole my heart. It’s just the best bread ever made. And when you find a special bakery, like Wave Hill in Norwalk, that does it right, then those are the people we want to work with.”
Stacy: “And we also offer all of the toppings. If you don’t eat gluten, or if you don’t like bread, you can get (the toppings) on a sweet potato base or on greens.”
Tell me about the cashew mozz (a menu item).
Molly: “Cashew mozzarella. Our cashew cheeses are homemade. We make them every week.”
And people across the board come and eat here? All ages?
Stacy: “Kids, adults, men, women, the elderly. Like, men who think they are just carnivores. Everybody. And every week is getting better. We have a 20 to 30 percent increase of customers every week.”
Well you’ve certainly been very brave, so onwards and upwards. I wish you all the luck.
Stacy: “I mean, honestly, most people, when they heard we were doing this, were like, are you crazy? But the stars aligned and we weren’t going to let Covid derail it.”
Some final thoughts?
Stacy: “In November, we’re starting our version of Local Love. We’re going to be partnering with different charities each month, starting with Pink Aid, which is a Westport-born organization which does incredible work supporting breast cancer patients, everything from providing meals to covering utility bills to paying their rent to literally picking them up and taking them to their treatment. We’re hoping it will be a nice way of giving back to the community.”
Molly: “We’ve adapted to the world we live in now. We know we can get through a lot and we’re just really, really grateful.”
Stacy: “The world is upside down right now, but perhaps we can hang on to a little bit of joy.”
Manna Café is at 29 Church Lane. For more, visit mannatoast.com.