Appalachian Trail Cafe

Discussion in 'Restaurant Reviews' started by Ken Anderson, Oct 5, 2023.

  1. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    The AT Cafe has long been an iconic cafe in Millinocket, Maine. Located on Penobscot Avenue, our downtown street, it was the place where locals and tourists went for breakfast, lunch, or supper. Across the street from the town office, town employees would eat there during their lunch hour, and there would be a pretty good chance of catching almost anyone local there at some point during the day.

    When church let out on Sunday afternoon, groups from local churches would gather at the AT Cafe. The Fin & Feather Club, a local hunting and fishing club, had its own designer table there, complete with a bulletin board. If you wanted to speak someone on the town council, you'd be likely to find at least one or two of them a the AT Cafe. Local tradespeople would practically do business there. In fact, if I were in the mood to socialize, rather than thinking of someone to call or visit, I'd go for coffee at the AT Cafe, and it was rare that I wouldn't find someone there who I knew well enough to share a table with.

    Since Millinocket is at the end of the Appalachian Trail, and just down the street from the AT Lodge, a hiker's hostel once owned by the same people who owned the AT Cafe, this was where thru-hikers would hang out, and this is where their family members would eat while waiting for a thru-hiker to complete the trail. In the winter, snowmobilers would eat at the AT Cafe.

    The AT Cafe is fairly small but it always had a crowd. The menu and the prices were good, the AT waitresses were known and liked by everyone on town, and they mostly kept the same crew for years.

    The AT Cafe changed ownership a few times without making significant changes to the business or the business model. Then, about ten years ago, someone bought the AT Cafe who didn't think he needed to cater to locals. He removed the Fin & Feather table. He supported an environmental agenda that more than half the town strongly opposed, and, when he was confronted by this, he made a public statement that he didn't need their business.

    He didn't get it, and he soon learned that AT hikers are only here for a couple of months during the late summer, and they are usually picked up by relatives and leave, so any one hiker might only eat at the AT Cafe a couple of times. For the most part, snowmobilers weren't in favor of this guy's environmental agendas either, so he had a bit of a problem.

    Without the business of locals, he had to cut his hours, and that began a spiral that the business has never recovered from. When people don't know when and if a restaurant is going to be open, they are more likely to find another restaurant than try accommodate a limited schedule.

    Without much in the way of local business, he closed the restaurant during the winter, and summer businesses have an even larger problem, in that the restaurant is no longer even on anyone's mind when they're thinking of going out to eat.

    The environmental nut sold the business to another family who, I think, most people liked well enough. The new owner had grown up in Millinocket, but had moved shortly after high school and gained experience in running a restaurant in some other state. Given the opportunity to move back home and run the iconic AT Cafe, it seemed like it would be a good fit. He did change the menu quite a bit, turning it into something of a quasi-Mexican restaurant, but I think he might have been able to pull that off.

    But then COVID came along, and our governor ordered the restaurants to close. They tried to do business through a window pickup service, but I doubt they did a lot of business that way. Most people aren't going to drive to a restaurant to pick something up from a window, and then bring it home to eat. Rather, they'll just cook at home.

    Even after restaurants were allowed to reopen, the new owners were so afraid of COVID that they refused to reopen for inside service. Given the option of other restaurants being open, they lost the small amount of window service business they had managed to keep.

    The AT Cafe closed for several months, then reopened about a year ago under new ownership. The owner used to be the chief cook at a resort north of town, and is well liked. Although the menu is far more limited than that which the AT Cafe had during its heyday, the food is good and the prices are fairly reasonable.

    However, the hours are very limited, and I think they change often. Plus, they are closed on days that don't make any sense. I would guess that of the last ten times that I have tried to eat at the AT Cafe, I found them open only once. Penobscot Avenue is our only one-way street, and it's not a street that I generally use so I have to go out of my way to see if they're open, so it's more than a little discouraging to find that they are not. It's close enough that I used to walk there often, but it's doubly discouraging when I walk there only to find them closed.

    Even more irritating is that they quit taking orders even before their posted closure hour, which is what I found today. I managed to get there during their opening hours but they quit taking orders a half hour before closure. This is something that I always hate about some restaurants. While most of them will serve anyone who comes in during their posted open hours, others want to be able to close their doors and go home at closure time, so they quit taking orders a half-hour or so before closure. Whenever I encounter that, I am very unlikely to ever try them again. So, unless my wife insists one day, I won't be eating at the AT Cafe again unless I hear that they're under new ownership again.

    They will be closing for the winter, anyhow. You can't operate a restaurant here if people can't expect it to be open during reasonable hours.
     
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    Last edited: Oct 5, 2023
  2. John Brunner

    John Brunner Senior Staff
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    I hate seeing icons like that get killed off, no matter the reason.

    My favorite Italian restaurant is suffering that fate. It's about a 1/2 hour drive from here. I used to go to Wednesday AA meetings at a church up the street from it, and would have dinner there first. COVID did not kill it, but afterwards they went to really weird hours...lunch from 11AM-2PM, then dinner from 4:00PM-8PM. They used to be open from 11AM-10PM. I eat late and won't show up for a meal within 1/2 hour of anyone's closing time (it seems rude), so I don't even bother trying to time my meal with one of their sweet spots.

    It sucks. Those guys are really good cooks.
     
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  3. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    They get to a point where they think they'll do better if they're only open during their most profitable hours, but these hours end up not being profitable anymore because too many people are discouraged at finding the place closed when they expect it to be open.
     
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  4. Yvonne Smith

    Yvonne Smith Senior Staff
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    Our local IHOP has been doing the same thing. Some days it is open regular hours and some days closes right after lunch, and it is hard to remember which days are which.
    Since I have an iPhone, I just look at it on my maps app and see if it is open that day or not, if we decide to go there, or check on the iPad before we leave home.
    It still is a lot better when a restaurant , or any business, has regular hours and you can depend on when they will or won’t be open for business.
     
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  5. Don Alaska

    Don Alaska Veteran Member
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    The IHOP in Wasilla had a hard time during and after Covid, but through no fault of the proprietor. He used to post a sign "Limited hours due to Biden policies" and such as that. He had a very hard time with staffing and had limited hours due to the fact no one wanted to work. That has changed recently, and the restaurant is now open for long hours. It is the place my wife and I go for breakfast any time we have fasting blood work drawn:).

    In Fairbanks, NOBODY wanted to work when I was last there. Many of the longstanding and iconic restaurants were forced to close due to lack of staffing after Covid. I haven't been there for a while, so I don't know if that has changed.
     
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  6. John Brunner

    John Brunner Senior Staff
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    My local IHOP was always "iffy" since before I moved here in 2010. It makes no sense to me. There are no "family" style restaurants around (just fast food and an Asian restaurant) and it's right off of the interstate. Management was always lax. The server would get your drinks and then go out to have a cigarette and to chat. Then she would come back inside, serve your meal, and go back outside. I've walked out to the parking lot several times to tell them they forgot my salad/butter/whatever. This was universal among all the staff. Again, this is pre-COVID.

    It was closed for a while during COVID, then came back in a shifting "Are they open today?" status. It's not gone back to a 24 hour format, but that was never a profitable shift.

    There is a Waffle House under construction very near it. I'm curious as to how they are gonna do, in terms of general business and in terms of staffing.

    Regarding Ken's informal AT Cafe...there's a small mom & pop pizza/sub place in town I used to go to frequently, and still do occasionally. It has 5-6 tables that seat 4 per (and does an insane amount of carry out.) I've gone in and shared a table with random people I've not met before, both as the table "owner" and as the guy who just walked in and needed a spot to sit and eat. In fact, just yesterday I ran into a woman at Food Lion I've encountered at Joe's Place a few times & chatted. The encounter made me smile at my good fortune at moving here. I still have no idea what her name is.
     
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  7. Ken Anderson

    Ken Anderson Senior Staff
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    I rarely plan restaurant visits, particularly not to a restaurant like the AT Cafe. That's more of a place where you decide to stop in for something to eat, coffee, and to see who might be there, or that you might take a walk to.
     
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  8. Don Alaska

    Don Alaska Veteran Member
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    We do have a few family-owned and run restaurants near us. One is run by a Latino family who moved to the "wilds" to escape LA and claim the best Mexican food in Alaska. Another is run by a family who I think, is from Western PA or Western NY because of their way they talk. I have never asked them where they were from though. Both are centers of the respective communities and are located about 7 miles form each other.
     
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  9. Mary Stetler

    Mary Stetler Veteran Member
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    :(
     
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  10. Mary Stetler

    Mary Stetler Veteran Member
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    Around here, covid was the killer. Fear and being paid to stay home sort of changed everything. Macdonald's was a mess and were required, as a franchise, to renovate. Then they could not get help. Not sure how they stayed open. Prices are up and it looks like they only do drive through. I guess we know what we want at Macdonalds.
     
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