He was looking to transform his successful coffee shop into a full-service restaurant with thoughtful local cuisine. She was a champion of local food, the executive director of Connecticut's largest farmers market. But Andrew Gütt and Winter Caplanson had never met, until she and a group of friends dined at his Cafemantic in Willimantic last year.
After sampling Cafemantic's new small-plates menu, which Caplanson called exceptional, she began spreading the word about the restaurant through social media. As one of the founders of the Coventry Regional Farmers Market, Caplanson is deeply rooted in the Connecticut food community – so news traveled fast.
The endorsement immediately brought curious diners to Cafemantic. "You know the 'Oprah' effect?" Gütt said. "…She has that power. We started handing out [guest] cards at the end of the meal, asking people how they found out about us, and they'd say 'Winter'."
Caplanson connected with Gütt and executive chef Jonathan Hudak after her visit, encouraging them to work with the market. They signed on for the RSA (restaurant-supported agriculture) program, where restaurants buy a weekly share of the market's best seasonal offerings to use in their dishes.
"I was so impressed by not only the quality of the food, but the sincerity, the authenticity and the honoring of the farmer," Caplanson said of the restaurant's first season with the RSA. "I really couldn't be prouder of those guys."
Gütt, a native of Marlborough, opened Cafemantic on Main Street in Willimantic in 2009, starting the business as a daytime coffee shop. He described the early years as a gradual evolution toward its latest incarnation, an eclectic gathering spot with a farm-inspired menu. In the summer of 2012, he reconnected with the chef that would lead the charge, Jonathan Hudak, whom he had met years prior when they both worked at a restaurant in Colchester.
Hudak was the chef de cuisine at Grants in West Hartford, and reached out to Gütt, saying he was looking for a new opportunity. The two met weekly to plan out the transition. "I knew the end result, but didn't know any of the pieces with which to assemble it," Gütt said. "We knew that the vision was small plates. Part of that was our [kitchen] capacity, the small space, and part of it was desire of the culture I wanted to build."
Cafemantic's menu is fluid, changing seasonally based on availability of ingredients. It retains its original format as a café, opening early to serve breakfast sandwiches, frittatas, pastries, coffee and espresso drinks, then swaps over to lunch mid-day with salads, sandwiches and small plates, priced at $7 to $12.
Dinner features the most experimentation, with frequent additions highlighting the best farm products available at the moment. Past dishes include honey-roasted local root vegetables with orange zest, scarlett eggplant a la plancha, local heirloom tomatoes with Cato Corner cheese, hand-rolled russet potato gnocchi with forest mushroom, housemade kimchi, crispy-skin leg of duck confit and a cold weather favorite of red wine-braised short ribs with horseradish gremolata.
Other small plates are more permanent menu fixtures, with rotating preparations. Jamaican jerk chicken with warm potato salad is a crowd favorite, said Gütt, along with beef and pork meatballs, griddled chicken wings and a prosciutto and pear grilled cheese sandwich. The labor-intensive house onion soup, with crouton and Comte cheese, is another best-seller.
Small plates are priced at $5 to $12, with occasional large-plate specials priced under $30. "Everything is designed to share; we'll recommend two or three small plates per person," Gütt said.
Cafemantic's staff works closely with the Coventry market, but also with additional farmers, to obtain what they need for seasonal cooking. "The emphasis on sourcing local, eating seasonal…it's not a gimmick, it's real, that's how we should eat," Gütt said. "Local's very sexy right now, but you should be eating that way no matter what."
To complete the transition to a full-service eatery, Gütt relied on his tightly knit café staff, working closely with them to teach them about food and wine. With the dinner service addition, Cafemantic now offers a selection of craft beers and interesting wines to complement its fare.
"It's a classroom within a restaurant," he said. "We learned together…I've seen so many staff come here as children and leave as adults."
At the end of 2013, Cafemantic hosted a special game dinner, complemented by wines from the Rhône region, and celebrated its first New Year's Eve with a decadent prix-fixe menu featuring foie gras, duck breast and halibut.
Cafemantic's location in Willimantic – an area that's seen its share of struggle – is a source of pride for Gütt, who moved there in 2006 as a student at Eastern Connecticut State University. On the restaurant's Facebook page, a photo marking its fourth anniversary in November 2013 is captioned "To take part in Willimantic's renaissance is our greatest achievement."
"I've lost count of the new businesses that have opened since our existence," said Gütt, who credits the town's authorities as being friendly and supportive to new business endeavors.
"[Will we see] more places like this? It would be nice; it's welcome. We're so far away from the saturation point. I'm optimistically hopeful."
CAFEMANTIC is at 948 Main St. in Willimantic. Winter hours are Monday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Tuesday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Information: 860-423-4243, cafemantic.com.