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“Once upon a time in Dayton, a little girl liked to eat at the Weinhard Café with her parents. Two ladies named Mae and Tiffany owned it. They inspired this little girl to go to culinary school. There she found both a career and a passion. That little girl grew up and now owns the Weinhard Café. She loves every minute of it and hopes you do too.”
This is the message that greets customers as they walk into the Weinhard Café. Then they get to taste that passion in chef and owner Mandi Weindt’s amazing food.
My first time there was brunch. I had the most delicate stuffed French toast made from fresh-baked bread, with a homemade sausage patty on the side. My husband got a house cured & hickory smoked turkey with roasted garlic aioli, and Walla Walla sweet onion bacon jam on baked rosemary focaccia. We wanted to bottle that sweet bacony jam to take home and slather on everything!
Mandi says her goal is “simple food done well,” which she has certainly accomplished. A quick browse of TripAdvisor or Yelp and the reviews are all the same, and ask any local. They are quite proud of the top quality restaurant their little town has produced.
I sat down with Mandi in the café’s dining room one late afternoon, before the dinner guests arrived. As soon as you walk into the small café, the brick walls and soft paintings of over-sized ripe fruit and vegetables create a warm atmosphere. Little vases of fresh flowers are centered on maroon table clothes on each of the dozen or so tables. Mandi’s mouth-watering desserts sit in a display case near the back, reminding you to save room.
I wanted her to take me back to the experience of that little girl in this café all those years ago.
“I grew up eating in the restaurant, coming in and trying new things,” Mandi says, seated at the dining table in front of me in her red chef coat, folded plaid napkins between us.
“There was a dish in particular I always enjoyed –Thai curry scallops over jasmine rice, with a coconut curry broth. It was something to me that was just like, wow, this is really refined, it’s simple, but the flavors are all there –spicy, sweet, salty. It had a very broad depth of flavor.” They still feature this dish on the menu from time to time.
“[The Weinhard] is really what inspired me to go to culinary school. I was a senior in high school and just didn’t have a path chosen. I thought ‘Hey cooking sounds like fun.’” So she attended Inland Northwest Culinary Academy in Spokane, keeping the little café in her mind.
She returned to the area, moving to Walla Walla, where she worked briefly at the then-new Walla Walla Bread Company, and later at The Marc Restaurant in the upscale historic Marcus Whitman Hotel, where she started as a line cook and was eventually promoted to Pastry Chef. It was there she gained the confidence needed to consider taking on a restaurant of her own.
Her and her husband later bought a house in Dayton, 30 miles away. “The commute was just killing me, on top of the 60 to 80 hour a week,” she said.
So she looked for something more local. She was hired at the Weinhard first as a floater, doing everything from serving to line cook, to baker, then after six months there she filled in as manager.
“It’s all about timing. It’s funny, the owner two years earlier asked if I wanted to be head chef, but at the time I didn’t have the confidence in myself to feel like I was the right fit.”
But now the timing was perfect, and she bought the café in March of 2014.
“Even in culinary school, [the Weinhard] gave me a business model, and this really was what I pictured –a little café, small menu, locally-crafted food. So to be able to own the place that gave me the inspiration overall, it’s really surreal.”
Rising to the Challenge
Mandi has always been hands-on and her assortment of childhood career aspirations (artist, architect, cake decorator, interior designer) leaned toward the creative. Now she enjoys getting to use her creativity in every aspect of the business, not just in the kitchen, in details like how the dining room is laid out, or what color paper to put the menus on.
She discovered in culinary school that baking bread is what she really likes to do. When I ask her what she likes about it, she pauses for a moment to think, then is off and running with her response:
“The dedication that you have to have to it. It’s very specific, the science of it. You can’t just throw something in a pot and hope it’s going to turn out. With bread every single step has to be right on in order for that finished loaf to be right on,” she says, her hands carving into the air for emphasis.
“Every day is a challenge. There’s a lot of factors working against you in baking,” she says.
“Especially bread baking, because it’s very temperature and time oriented. So when it’s really hot and humid out it’s going to change your bread dough from when it’s dry. There are several times that I have had batches of bread that go straight to the garbage can because they cannot be used. I could make that same recipe three dozen times before I’m happy with it. And that’s what I like about it. Each time you do it, you change something minor and you can see what the cause and effect is going to be.”
This is true of the restaurant business as a whole. Mandi talks about needing to know how much staff to hire during peak tourist season, and how to balance sourcing local ingredients with affordable dishes.
“Don’t get me wrong, it is a lot of hard work. You have to be passionate about what you do in order to survive and continue doing it,” she says. I can tell by the spark in her voice, even when she describes the financial details, that she enjoys it all.
I ask what her least favorite thing to cook is. She says cooking the same thing over and over again.
“You can only make the same thing so many times before you go insane. So we’ll bring things back. Like tamales. After making them for a year straight we said ‘OK, we gotta do something different.’”
Although there are a few items on the menu that her customers won’t let her take off, like their bacon Gorgonzola quiche that’s been on it for a decade. She likes to keep a seasonal rotating menu, and feature something from the past to honor what’s been done before. She’ll also use customer recipes.
Mandi is a strong supporter of her community, sourcing from local farms as often as she can.
She notes that having grown up in this small town, the community is a big support for her as well. “They’ll say ‘We’ve known Mandi since she was a little girl, we want her to succeed.’”
Another contribution to her success is the good business sense and hard work ethic she learned from her parents, one she hopes she is passing on to her young daughter.
As our interview wraps up, Mandi smiles and waves at the evening’s first customers. A cork pops in the background. Jennifer, who manages the front of the restaurant, and still remembers Mandi coming in as a little girl, pours wine for the next table.
Before Mandi heads back into the kitchen to help with food orders, she has one more thing to add:
“I always like to emphasize the team behind me. None of this could be possible without them, from my prep cook to my lead line cook, to my servers, to my dishwasher, everybody provides a little piece of this whole experience.”
I recall her description of baking bread: “You can start with three or four ingredients –flour, salt, yeast, water, and have something so much more than what you start with.”