My-T-Fine Bakery/Caf is like a visit to Grandma's kitchen
The logo has received no truth-in-advertising complaints: a grinning kid broadcasting “My-T-Fine Bakery/Caf.” OK, the look of the emblem is straight from the 1940s, but then so's the menu - “basic, accessible comfort food,” explains proprietor Gretchen Bustin. “Grandma food.”
Not today's loft-dwelling grandma, loath to sully her new granite countertops, but the kind of grandmother like mine, who lived out her years at 33rd Street & Hennepin Avenue South, raising vegetables in her back yard, gathering apples from the trees beside the swing set and serving homemade everything for sprawling family suppers on the vast screened porch.
That's exactly what Bustin had in mind when she decided to go into business in tandem with a partner and two more women on board as employees - all ex-pats from the quirky, beloved (but now shuttered) Loring Caf, where Bustin had waited tables, making “good, easy money” for 13 years. She scoured the city; eyes open for a storefront just begging to become a neighborhood caf.
A friend steered her to a failing deli at 43rd & Bryant in East Harriet, and it was love at first sight. (Never mind that she lives in St. Paul. No, scratch that: She sleeps in her St. Paul home but lives in the caf, where her workday begins at 2 a.m.)
Good news, bad news
The place sported a huge kitchen: That's the good news. The bad news came in the form of archaic equipment that needed replacing and a bathroom to be added where none had existed - all of which required scrutinizing by the city's code inspectors, and all of which ate up “a huge chunk of change,” she allows - a chunk amassed by refinancing her home mortgage.
And then there's the front of the house. By opening day in July, 2005, they'd refinished the wood floor, now a gleaning blonde; painted the walls a vibrant acid green; and picked up tables at Pier One and chairs from a former steakhouse. A swish settee in avocado plush sits ready for anyone prone to swooning, bound by end tables and lamps in arresting cranberry hues. Huge, bare windows capture the noonday sun as well as the passing parade of neighbors, who form My-T-Fine's strong core of clientele - grade schoolers and their parents from Barton, right across the street, to seniors from the nearby Walker Residence, as well as, on my most recent visit, three beagles straining at their walker's leash, avid for the dog biscuits Bustin stockpiles for her canine customers.
“It'll be interesting to see in a year,” a friend predicted at the outset, and an evolution has indeed taken place. Bustin now serves as sole owner after her three colleagues have moved on. This sociable, easygoing woman has always been good at the front of the house, chatting up customers while serving their needs. Today, she's become cook and baker, too, “cooking what I'd cook at home,” she says, producing everything from scones that melt in your mouth rather than bounce off the hockey rink (as she slyly notes about some she's tasted around these parts), coffeecakes, crisps, cobblers, fruit pies - today, fresh peach and apple - and those ber-rich brownies that have earned the name “killer” because that's what just might become of a customer if anyone tried to steal his or her snack.
Bustin roasts turkey for her club sandwiches, as well as beef to be slathered with cranberry-orange mayo and pork tenderloin joined by cukes and Cheddar as other integral parts of her hefty sandwich lineup. She simmers the soups and tosses her specialty salad, composed of organic baby field greens, manchego cheese, radishes, roasted asparagus and spiced pecans in balsamic vinaigrette. On weekends, she flips buttermilk pancakes and turns out some mighty mean huevos rancheros (as well as freshly squeezed OJ: talk about labor-intensive). She sources all her own products, including a uniquely rich coffee bean from a Massachusetts roaster and sodas in old-fashioned bottles.
On Mondays, her “day off” when the caf is closed, she preps food for the week, then turns, none too eagerly, to the accounting (“or lack thereof”).
“Food takes precedence,” she insists with a smile as warm as the cookies she pulls from the oven.
She does have help. “I signed on my whole family, voluntary or involuntary,”
she jokes, “and they all love it. My daughter works here, my mom, my fianc, my son” - as well as assorted friends and customers from the neighborhood who offer their time.
Those neighbors wouldn't have it any other way (well, except for maybe an expanded menu - but that's on the drawing board). Walk in and you instantly sense that it's a home away from home - “Cheers” without the beer. “It's a very close, loyal neighborhood,” Bustin attests. “They come back over and over. Sure, there's competition,” she allows, including neighboring Rustica and the Grand Caf, “but we all have our own niches.”
So she has firm plans to stick around.
“I'll refine our mission but retain our strong emphasis on baked good - maybe expand the catering and take on more employees so I can get out of the back and be sociable, the way it was when we first opened.”
What she's garnered along the way is a new respect for caf owners. “Now I truly appreciate what it takes to be in the driver's seat. No longer is it up to somebody else; Now, I answer to myself. My advice for someone starting out is, go with somebody who's informed, has been down that road. Step back, look at a space and what it actually could be. And remember that it'll be with you constantly. Even when I go home, it's present - but I do enjoy it. And I have to say, my family loves it, too.” Not to mention anyone in the zip code who cannot do without those habit-forming brownies.