What’s Cookin’: Hardware Café

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Multi-talented duo enjoy serving up specialized meals in a setting as eclectic as their menu

by ANITA STIEFEL | photography by STEVEN STIEFEL

In an era of mega-chaIn shoppIng and drIve-thru dining, it’s refreshing to find a thriving mom-and-pop general store. Nestled among the trees atop beautiful Lookout mountain in Mentone, Ala., you can find just that – a hardware store, grocery market, art gallery and café, all under one family-owned tin roof off highway 117.

The bell hanging from the front door of Little river hardware jingles with regularity, as a steady stream of local residents and the occasional tourist trickle in and out to get nuts and bolts, a can of paint or an ice-cold ginger ale. Stan Lawton knows most of his customers by name since he’s been working at the store for 22 years, the past five or so as its owner.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]There’s a growing buzz in this small, laid-back community about the new eatery inside Lawson’s store, aptly named the Hardware Café.

“We had the empty space, so I put in a kitchen about a year ago,” he explains. “We could use it for ourselves, but I always had in mind that if the opportunity arose, we could use it as another revenue venue.”

It wasn’t long until opportunity came knocking, in the form of a young man named Thad Stevenson, who put the kitchen to good use, serving up deli-style sandwiches. “There wasn’t really a place to work, so I had to invent one,” Stevenson recalls.

In January, he partnered with fellow foodie Jess Goggans, locally known as “the singing chef,” and together the two developed an eclectic menu of flavorful entrees, soups, salads and sandwiches.

“I like the alchemy aspect of cooking,” Stevenson says. “I like taking ingredients and putting them together to create new flavors. our menu is seasonal, so flexibility is a must.”

“We have two organic gardens nearby that supply us with the food we serve,” Goggans explains. “What’s on the menu depends on what the farmers bring in.”

Adding to the uniqueness of the Hardware Café’s menu is that alongside the list of gourmet burgers and sandwiches, there sits an equally impressive variety of items for vegan and vegetarian diners. The restaurant not only makes carnivore customers happy, it also caters to those on special diets, offering gluten-free breads and wraps, organic vegetables, hydroponic lettuces and alternative ingredients such as non-dairy mayo and cheese.

“We want to provide options, to accommodate everyone and not make them feel like they’re being a burden for asking for something made of different ingredients or cooked a different way,” Goggans says. “a lot of parents are watching what their kids are eating because of allergies, and a lot of people are on health-related diets. Instead of just giving them something boring, like a bowl of lettuce or a side of steamed veggies, we want to be able to fix their vegetables in a way they’ve maybe never had them before.

“The menu is like a list of ingredients, and the dishes on there are like suggestions of what we know is good. We welcome the opportunity to fix something special, and we can do that because everything is made from scratch.”

Highlighting the vegan menu are eggplant and pressed pepper paninis, as well as homemade hummus and falafel sliders. The sandwich list includes a smoked turkey reuben, pressed pulled pork and the messy Jessy, a bleu cheese and bacon burger smothered in a special sauce and topped with a blackened fried egg. The locals’ favorite is the tomato pie, an artfully constructed mélange made from fresh tomatoes marinated in balsamic vinegar and herbs for three days.

“Anytime you’re doing something small-time, it’s got a little more love in it,” Goggans says. “Cooking from scratch is like cooking for your family.”

Expect to be treated like family when you go to the Hardware Café, because like the city of Mentone itself, it is intentionally small-time, with only three tables inside and a few more out on the big, covered front porch. expansion plans include utilizing the space in back of the store for extra seating and a music venue to showcase local talent.

Goggans and Stevenson both play guitar, although they don’t normally serenade customers while they eat. Goggans performs regularly at Mainstreet Deli and Ol’ Tymers in Fort Payne, Ala., as well as at Back Forty Beer Co. and Black Stone Pub & Eatery in Gadsden, Ala., the Mentone Springs Hotel in Mentone, Ala., and the Fox Mountain Camp and Artist Retreat in Cherry Log, Ga.

Lawton says adding the café has modestly boosted his business. “It’s definitely a traffic builder, which is good for us, but also good for the community,” he says. “For example, somebody might come in for a sandwich and walk past a piece of locally made pottery or a painting by a local artist that catches their eye. That doesn’t just help me, that helps the whole community.”

Located at 5190 Hwy. 117 in Mentone, the Hardware Café is open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Sunday, 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Take-out and catering are available. For more information, visit littleriverhardware.com or call 256-634-4757.[/s2If]