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Co-op Cafe

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“People always ask me ‘what do you suggest?’ Well, if they knew of some of the weird concoctions I was eating, especially ’cause I’m like, eight months pregnant — they wouldn’t ask me any more questions!” Heidi Stein laughs, the sound carrying through the tiny space of the Riverwest Co-op Cafe. She’s the kitchen manager here, and the genial spirit of our discussion — currently concerned with nervous non-vegetarians wondering what to order — pervades things here. It’s Monday evening, not the busiest time for the Cafe, but she nevertheless greets a range of regulars, friends, and co-workers throughout the hour or so that we talk. The latter includes Pinky, the chef on duty, who has used the day’s excess batter to make himself the mother of all pancakes for dinner. Such improvisation is a hallmark of the Cafe. When asked about inventing new recipes, she explained “Well, we’re really cooperating with Shelly [manager of the Riverwest Co-op]… just trying to use up excess produce. Maybe you’re like ‘there’s a lot of sweet potatoes and apples.’ So you get to make some apple/sweet potato soup…people just go from things they remember taste good together.” That unconventional, try-it-and-see-how-it-works approach fits Heidi’s background. A native of New London, Wisconsin, she attended college in Minnesota and worked in Madison before finishing up at UWM — where she studied linguistics and Spanish. “When I was in college, I always got cooking jobs. I never went to culinary school or anything, but I’ve always cooked at home. I’ve been a vegetarian for a really long time, and I was a vegan for a long time. When I moved to Milwaukee, I worked at Outpost, and I got to learn a lot of stuff there. And I mastered it [laughs]. I decided to apply for a kitchen manager job, so then when I saw that they were hiring here, I thought I’d jump in.” Having done so, the next step was to figure out what kind of restaurant the Cafe would be. The vegetarian cuisine was a matter of personal preference, but also a practical choice — a small room and a small budget made dealing with meat impractical. O.K. then, vegetarian it is. But how do you teach the other cooks the recipes? Do you sit them down and say, “this is how it’s done?” “That’s probably a good plan! [laughs] We don’t really work from very many recipes. Like, the banana bread is pretty popular, and that’s got a set recipe. Then of course some of the sandwiches, but we’re not really that serious or strict.” Even those items that do have a recipe contribute to what’s become the highly personal nature of the Cafe. “It’s so funny because sometimes I look at people and say, ‘No, we don’t have any banana bread,’ because I know exactly what they’re gonna order.” Several members of the small staff began as volunteers in the Co-op next door. (“I’m so glad that I have really good co-workers!” Heidi excleaimed.) As the Cafe started up, she began to notice something interesting happening. “Well the cool thing about [being next door to] the Co-op is. . .let’s say there’s some people over here, and then some people over here, two groups of customers, totally unrelated to each other. Then someone starts a conversation in the Cafe, and it spreads through the whole Co-op, and pretty soon everyone starts talking. That is hilarious, let me tell you, when that happens. It happens very often in the afternoon. It’s a very warm atmosphere. It’s an entertaining atmosphere.” The Co-op Cafe is a new place, and it’s hard to say what the future will bring. But the word is out, through Outpost’s newsletter, onmilwaukee.com, and plain old word-of-mouth. The food’s great, even for non-vegetarians (take it from this one), and the atmosphere? “It’s a really nice place to work,” says Heidi. “And our customers seem to enjoy themselves.”
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