Café Mamajuana and Poppy Café: A cooperative approach to the new world of dining03/10/2021 01:04PM ● By Pam Hunt
Photos courtesy of the cafes
In the late fall of 2020, a new cooperatively owned restaurant space opened at 88 Oak Street in the Old North End. In any other year, this news wouldn’t have been particularly surprising—restaurants open in Vermont all the time. But when Café Mamajuana and Poppy Café opened their door for business in November, Vermont—as well as the rest of the world—was nine months into living with a pandemic, with the old ways of eating out completely transformed.
Abby Portman, co-owner of Poppy Café, cites the innovative business model they used to purchase the building as a driver of their successful emergence onto Burlington’s dining scene. “The community support we have received from the start has been incredible,” she says. “Not only is the building owned by 75 members of the community, the shared nature of the space has been a strong and important support network.”
Because of the restrictions imposed to limit the spread of the pandemic, indoor dining was off the table. “We didn’t plan for such a take-out-centric menu,” says Maria Lara-Bregatta, owner and chef at Café Mamajuana. “We adapted so that the food carries out easily.” Abby concurs. She and her co-owner sister Emily reworked their initial menu plans to focus on sandwiches: “The perfect to-go food,” she explains. “In many ways, we were lucky,” Abby continues. “We did not have to quickly react and change our business model; we were able to preemptively alter our plan to fit the current restrictions.”
Maria at Café Mamajuana grew up in the restaurant business—“three generations, including myself,” she says. She learned about not only the hard work and dedication it takes to run a restaurant but also the pleasure such work can bring. “It was all hands on deck—I have very fond memories of those times,” she says. After seeing the lack of options for Latin American cuisine in the Queen City while attending UVM, she decided to start offering the foods from her childhood through pop-up dinners and homemade salsas sold at local shops before teaming up with the Portmans to open Café Mamajuana and Poppy Café.
The Portmans also had experience in the food industry, both in restaurants and in food production. Their dream of opening a place together finally found its moment. “We had always talked about it casually,” says Abby, “but a few years ago, we decided that this was the moment to take the leap.”
Both Café Mamajuana and Poppy Café offered pop-up sales throughout the summer, which helped to build interest and awareness of the two restaurants. The tantalizing social media posts of overstuffed sandwiches and roasted pork definitely got Burlington diners’ attention.
The two restaurants share the space: Poppy Café serves the breakfast and lunch crowd, whereas Café Mamajuana offers dinner. The Oak Street Cooperative was designed to allow for this common space and may welcome additional food producers in the future. “We do have a large freezer we hope to rent out to new businesses who require more refrigeration, storage, and a means of collaboration,” Maria says.
What’s to Eat?
Both restaurants change up their offerings on a regular basis. “I tend to switch the menu up when I think Burlington is ready to try a new Dominican staple and I can find the ingredients to execute it,” says Maria. Many of the typical Dominican dishes, such as mofongo (a mashup of fried plantains, garlic, and chicharrón [pork cracklings]) and fried red snapper, require special orders from her distributors. She also serves up fusion dishes, such as the Dominican/Quebecois tostones poutine with perníl (slow-cooked pork), as well as the ever-popular golden-crisp empanadas.
“A rotating menu keeps things fun and interesting to us,” Abby says. The sisters change out one or two menu items each week. They get ideas from experimenting with new flavors and cuisines and strive to buy ingredients from local producers whenever possible. “A lot of our sandwiches are reinventions of dishes from our childhood, meals we’ve had traveling, new takes on old favorites,” Abby says. They combine unexpected fixings—such as the harissa eggplant, hummus, cabbage, pickles, and preserved lemon of the Bubbe sandwich—into culinary takeaway delights. “We like to push people’s preconceived notions of what a sandwich can be,” Abby adds.
Café Mamajuana’s liquor license was granted in January, and Maria has been offering takeaway wine, beer, and cider to accompany her meals. She has also experimented with some Dominican flavors—the Guayaba Sour, a creamy Ponche de Chinola, and the Mezcal Coco Loco. And she’s making a batch of the restaurant’s namesake drink: Mamajuana—a mix of rum, red wine, and honey that’s cured in a bottle with various herbs and bark.
As the weather eventually warms and outdoor dining returns to Vermont for the summer, visitors to 88 Oak Street will be able to enjoy their meals outside in a small seating area. “I long for the days we can kick back and enjoy a drink on premises,” says Maria.