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Behind the counter

The Good Food Emporium is busier than ever

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Good Food Emporium co-owner Carole LeBlanc. Photo: Paula Bugden

Good Food Emporium co-owner Carole LeBlanc. Photo: Paula Bugden

A cup of java at The Good Food Emporium is a taste of coffee counterculture.

“We don’t have to-go cups,” says one of the waitresses. “If you want, you can take one of our mugs and bring it back next time.” In our culture of convenience, it’s an astonishing approach for a cafe. But it’s specifically that low-key tack that invites people to slow down and waste less that’s earned The Good Food its stripes.

In its new locale on Windsor and Duncan Street, the restaurant is busier than ever, serving up its usual wholesome food and homemade bread to a mixed crowd of musicians, artists, young mothers, retirees and blue-collar workers.

Carpenters Don Scott, 61, and Doug MacLeod, 59, have been meeting at The Good Food for a decade. While they miss the former location on Gottingen Street, they haven’t missed a lunch at the new spot, which sports the same handmade sign.

“I like going to a place where you know everybody,” says Scott. “It’s good wholesome food.” The two say the energy of the young hipsters and the mix of old and young are a big draw. “It’s the way the world should be,” says Scott, who’s from North End Halifax.

After 17 years on Gottingen Street, The Good Food closed its doors in May 2011 following a series of hardships. Co-owner Carole LeBlanc says a combination of undesirable upstairs tenants, a sinking kitchen floor, unmet promises to fix things, and a 30 per cent rent hike forced she and co-owners Stephen Fowler and Eric Gunnells to find a new home. When the former George and Lito’s space came up for rent that summer, landlords Bill and Maria Zelios insisted The Good Food move in. The owners of the attached Bluenose Laundromat turned down other offers, dropped the rent and added propane to the kitchen for The Good Food.

“I said, ‘This would be a really good fit because we have the clientele from the laundromat that would benefit from having a breakfast and lunch place,’” says Maria Zelios, who’s been running the Bluenose Laundromat for 18 years. “A lot of the customers of the Good Food Emporium on Gottingen Street were customers of the laundromat. I knew that they would do well here…in five years, they can buy the laundromat off me when I retire,” Zelios laughs.

But like most moves, things didn’t go smooth.

Propane issues led to a month-long delay in opening. Then the bread oven caught fire, leaving the owners with a $3,500 bill to replace it. The misfortune prompted local drummer Mark Bachynski to organize an “oven-raiser” concert starring local bands. It raised $1,500 for the new oven. “It’s a weird thing to raise money for a for-profit business. I realize that. I got a little bit of flack for that,” says Bachynski, who eats at The Good Food daily. “It’s more than just a restaurant for people to make money; it’s a community hub. It’s a space where every likeminded person meets. A lot of ideas are thrown around there….”

The Good Food is known for its longtime customers, but even the newer ones are just as loyal. Next door at Flaunt Hair Salon, owner Kim Grant drops by the restaurant every day for an avocado sandwich. “I love the whole vibe of the place…it’s kind of a mixed bag of people,” says Grant. “It’s funny because I kind of am a bit of a dual personality that way. There’s the glam side of me, which I get to work in all day and what I do for a living. And then there’s also the side of me that I’m into nature. I’m a vegetarian and I appreciate local, good food. So that’s why I think I can appreciate it so much.”

The menu at The Good Food hasn’t changed much over the years. Grilled sandwiches, fish cakes, burritos, homemade daily soups and baked goods are mainstays on the coloured chalkboard menu. Ghettosocks, an ode to the rapper with the same name from Gottingen Street, was added shortly after the trio took over the café four years ago. Back then, LeBlanc, a single mother of a toddler, was on income assistance. She qualified to be sponsored through a provincial self-employment program that paid her assistance for a year-and-a-half while she poured all her energy into The Good Food.

Inside the restaurant there are mismatched bar tables, retro chairs and pine booths. The walls are shades of brilliant orange and yellow. Styrofoam ceiling tiles are painted like a rainbow checkerboard. Local artists’ photographs and artwork adorn the walls. No disposable coffee cups are in keeping with the café’s minimalist vibe.

“We made that choice to not buy any more as a cost-saving measure, says LeBlanc, who can be spotted serving tables or making sandwiches. “And as coffee appreciators, (we’re) asking people to come and enjoy their coffee or bring their travel mug if they want to take it with them.”

“We could use some reminders to slow down and appreciate things,” she says. “The society that we’ve created is fast and disposable. I think we need to call awareness to that and make some changes. So, this was a way for us as a business to do that.”

LeBlanc admits some people complain about it, but then usually return with travel mugs or sit and drink their coffee. “I sent off a few people with mugs and later discovered they just sat by the door,” she says.

And what about those who do take mugs? More often than not, LeBlanc says, they’re returned.