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‘Near fine dining’ joins fine books


By Lauren Eissler

For the Gazette

XENIA — Like a blank page in a book, the open space inside Blue Jacket Books spoke to Cassandra Lee.

And it said “Cafe.”

So Lee and co-owner Lawrence Hammar started making that happen. And almost three years and $44,000 later, Lee served the first meal in Table of Contents Cafe Dec. 31, 2015. They opened for real at the beginning of 2016.

If you’re looking for a place to grab a bite to eat and browse for a book or two, the cafe on South Detroit Street fills that niche with its “fine books and near fine dining.”

The husband and wife team of Hammar and Lee has owned the bookstore since 2011, even as it’s changed locations a couple times — once because of a flood that ruined about 20,000 books. But when they moved to its current location, they took a look at the space and realized it could be more than a bookstore.

“Slowly but surely since March 2013, we’ve been subleasing various rooms around the building other businesses or other organizations,” Hammar said.

These groups include the Noble Circle Project, a group of women thriving beyond a cancer diagnosis; Yellow Dog Pet supplies; and Our Family Soap.

In order to afford adding the cafe, Lee said she played the contractor, slowly hiring various people to work on different aspects of the cafe and kitchen. And that was a real learning experience for her.

Lee runs the cafe, while Hammar runs the bookstore. Lee said she starts work around 6:30 a.m., working on the menu and food for the day. She’s the server all but two days they’re open, does all the shopping, and pretty much does every facet of the restaurant business.

Lee’s always been in and out of food service, and working in the Table of Contents Cafe’s kitchen is what she loves doing and is where her heart lies. All the food is made from scratch, Lee said, except for the tortillas, though she has learned how to make pitas.

“Because of the way we set it up, I get too cook what I want,” she said.

The menu changes up daily, so she’s never bored, Lee said. There’s always creativity.

And part of that comes from how they shop. They get food through several CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and make the menu based on what they get, Hammar said. When they get eggplant, they make baba ghanoush. And when there’s basil, they’ll make a pesto pasta salad.

“They try to time what they make to what’s available locally,” he said.

And all the food she makes is very nutritious, Lee said. They use very little fats, and when they do, the fats are high-quality and organic. They use a large array of fresh vegetables. If they use meat, it’s organic.

Lee said her head chef, James Luckett, has a culinary talent.

“He knows his spices and herbs and the very fine nuances of flavor and color and presentation,” Lee said. “It’s all of those things.”

The billboard on U.S. 42 says Table of Contents Cafe has “near fine dining,” and Lee says that’s true.

“If you took the kinds of things we’re doing and put them in a really nice restaurant, it would fly,” she said.

Lee said she loves the baking she gets to do for the cafe. She didn’t bake for 15 years because she didn’t want to eat all of it, but now she gets to bake and taste, with someone else eating it. And she uses family recipes.

Her chocolate cake recipe is her mother’s, and she serves it with whipping cream. Her chocolate chip cookies recipe came from her brother-in-law. And the strawberry shortcake? That’s courtesy of her little sister.

And she also uses ingredients that hearken back to their roots. Both Lee and Hammar grew up in Oregon and would visit Tillamook. Even though they didn’t meet until they were 48, they share those childhood experiences, Lee said. So when they found Tillamook cheddar cheese locally, they knew they had to use it.

Hammar said that the challenge with the cafe is making sure you have everything you need, while also not cooking too much.

“You can’t just be making one pot of soup, then start all over again,” Hammar said. “You have to be thinking of six or seven — or 106 or 107 — different things at the same time. She and (Luckett) are getting really really good at that.”

Even with these challenges, he said most everybody has said nothing but great things.

“Everybody loves the food,” Hammar said. “Everybody loves the fact that most of it’s organic, locally sourced.”

Francis Repperger from Kettering was visiting the bookstore and cafe for the first time with some friends from out of town. After having lunch, Repperger said that she’d definitely be coming back. One of her out-of-town friends, Jeanne Reed, said they wish they could come back, but they’re taking enough books with them that they don’t have to come back in a hurry.

Karen Morningstar, a member of the Noble Circle Project, which teaches nutrition and healthy eating. She said Table of Contents Cafe has the most amazing healthy food.

“I have not had anything that wasn’t absolutely delicious,” Morningstar said on her third visit to the cafe. “And it’s always presented in a beautiful way.”

Morningstar described the cafe as very unique and comfortable with wonderful service.

“I love that there’s always fresh flowers,” Morningstar said. “It’s attention to the details.”

And Morningstar said that there’s age-appropriate items so that kids can be a part of the experience, because going to Table of Contents Cafe is an experience.

“There’s something for everybody,” she said.

The bookstore and cafe connect more than just by sharing a space, Hammar said.

There’s some people who come for the books and end up having lunch, he said. And there’s others who have heard great things about the food and come for lunch and end up buying books.

These two streams of people don’t overlap very much, but they do overlap. And he said it feels like they’re starting to overlap more.

“So cafe people are coming back and maybe buying a couple more books,” Hammar said. “And bookstore people are beginning to think about coming for an early lunch we have people coming in and having a business meeting in a special room.”

Hammar said they want the future of the bookstore to be a community hub. They already hold public book readings and signings, with Ohio author Daniel Ray Pollock holding a reading there mid-July. They hold fundraisers for people in need, sports teams, and church groups, among others. They have a great time at First Fridays. And they fund and sponsor progressive causes, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and LGBTQ-related organizations, Hammar said.

“All of those mean the bookstore is here for the long haul,” Hammar said. “At least, that’s what we’re thinking of.”

And as they stay, they do plan on making some changes. They’re working on purging the bookstore of lower-end books and acquiring more rare and antiquarian books, Hammar said. To get these, he’s going further and further afield to different book sales.

And Lee has fun plans for the cafe. She’s planning on taking a wall down so that it’s more obvious where the cafe is. They’ll be dimming the lighting over the tables, while still keeping it bright by the bookshelves. And she said she’ll be working with a friend to add artwork to two pillars in the cafe.

Even with the plans, Hammar doesn’t see them running it indefinitely.

“We are hoping to pull back in maybe about four to five years,” he said. “I’ll probably continue to sell books online but maybe at that point, seed the business to someone else or sell both businesses, continue to live in the area. We’re going to give a good, solid four to five years.”

Some patrons enjoy lunch while talking about their favorite literary piece.
http://aimmedianetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2016/07/web1_cafe_patrons.jpgSome patrons enjoy lunch while talking about their favorite literary piece.

This way to enjoy the fare of the day.
http://aimmedianetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2016/07/web1_cafe_sign_inside.jpgThis way to enjoy the fare of the day.

Co-owner Cassandra Lee is the server all but two days they’re open, does all the shopping, and pretty much does every facet of the restaurant business.
http://aimmedianetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2016/07/web1_cassandra_lee.jpgCo-owner Cassandra Lee is the server all but two days they’re open, does all the shopping, and pretty much does every facet of the restaurant business.

Co-owner Lawrence Hammar opened the cafe earlier this year.
http://aimmedianetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2016/07/web1_lawrence_hammar.jpgCo-owner Lawrence Hammar opened the cafe earlier this year.

Lauren Eissler | Xenia Daily Gazette Table of Contents Cafe inside Blue Jacket Books offers “near fine dining” to go with fine books.
http://aimmedianetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2016/07/web1_exterior_cafe_bookstore.jpgLauren Eissler | Xenia Daily Gazette Table of Contents Cafe inside Blue Jacket Books offers “near fine dining” to go with fine books.

The salad plate is a favorite of many.
http://aimmedianetwork.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/32/2016/07/web1_salad_plate.jpgThe salad plate is a favorite of many.

Lauren Eissler is a freelance writer for Greene County News.