A touch of magic in Port Rexton reveals a model for the future
The Two Whales Coffee Shop in Port Rexton is not your ordinary roadside restaurant. Standing in front of Robin Hood Bay, it could be any old home with a view, save the sign that hangs on one side, which hints that it is open, but only mentions coffee.
Pausing to speak with me in between tourist seasons, owner and operator Sue Asquith verbally shrugs off the business’ increasing popularity with a modest “I suppose three years down the line it must have been noticed that we haven’t poisoned anyone.” Of course, there’s more to the business’ success than that. Asquith surely knows this, but in her description, she focuses on processes rather than outcomes. Two Whales is as much about a way of doing business, as it is the flavours of the food, the quality of the coffee, and the prospect of run-of-the-mill notions of success.
Asquith describes the menu as a simple one that features light, vegetarian, healthy fare. Ingredients for soups (like borscht or roasted squash) are sourced locally, along with the greens that comprise the salads, and the berries that are made into Two Whales’ jams. Homemade breads are utilized in their daily paninis, and Two Whales’ own chutneys add extra dollops of flavour into the hearts of their carefully crafted lunches. Beetroot (served on roasted garlic); wild berry; and green tomato chutneys are preserved in house when the ingredients are ripe.
Beetroot (served on roasted garlic); wild berry; and green tomato chutneys are preserved in house…
For those with a penchant for the sweeter things in life, the dessert selection tempts patrons to balance out their meals with such offerings as homemade brownies (dotted with partridgeberries), two layer cakes (carrot, coconut-lime, and chocolate to name a few) which are dusted lightly with powdered sugar or covered in molten-like icing that flows and spills over rounded edges. Locally harvested berries are often harboured in between the fluffy flour stacks. Indicating something of their notoriety within the area, Asquith mentioned that some come just for the baked goods, making drives to stock up on gluten-free products especially.
A former homeopath, Sue is careful in her provision, ensuring that even those with gluten and other dietary sensitivities may enjoy a meal there without a take-home ache or pain. “All of our soups, at least one loaf of bread and about four or five cakes are gluten-free each week,” she says. Soups are also regularly served without dairy ingredients.
When Asquith and her partner David Ellis set up shop, they carried forth their previous work experiences as a homeopath (Asquith) and a Tai Chi instructor (Ellis), as well as their personal interests in finding balance and remaining ecologically mindful within their daily habits.
The menu has been created based on local availabilities, and the coffee shop’s commitment to sourcing food locally, whenever possible, has helped to share economic rewards with others in the region. Beets, carrots, salad greens, strawberries, and herbs are purchased from local farms and nurseries when they are in season. Asquith freezes and preserves some of these items in order to maintain her supply outside of harvest time.
While most ingredients are purchased locally, some are grown and harvested by hand. “I have an entire freezer specifically for berries,” she says. “It’s all hands on deck when the berries are out!” With Sue and two employees busy in the kitchen, harvesting is an activity that David and the couple’s friends help out with. Berries are not only used in cakes; they become the stuff of homemade jams that barely remain on the shelf after the shop opens in spring.
…the coffee shop’s commitment to sourcing food locally, whenever possible, has helped to share economic rewards with others in the region…
Nasturtiums, which Asquith grows in a small greenhouse, are utilized as table decorations, and her mizuna (a spicy green) finds its way into salads. Two Whales has tentative plans to increase its growing potential by constructing a raised bed garden, and a larger greenhouse eventually, but according to Asquith “it’s more important to buy locally than to grow it. It keeps local growers busy, and helps spread business throughout the community.”
The decision to source menu ingredients within the area was made as a result of Asquith and Ellis’ commitments to living mindfully and in balance with the world around them. The couple raises hens and roosters for private egg consumption. They also have a composting arrangement with a local grocery store, which offers them materials for animal feed and allows them to create humus for their gardening activities. Their mindfulness even extends toward their hens. Asquith quipped “We might have to start keeping the roosters outside of the shop as pets. There are only so many of them the hens can handle.”
Products that cannot be sourced locally are purchased with consideration given to the packaging they are kept in. For instance, efforts are made to purchase goods that produce the least amount of waste, or are packaged in recyclable materials. Coffees are fairly traded. Food waste is composted on site.
“One of my favourite things is when I’m standing in the kitchen and can hear people in the café talking like people do in coffee shops. Whether it’s about local politics and political gossip, or how many whales were spotted that day. It’s about good food not taking away from the café experience,” Asquith says.
Much of Two Whales’ clientele is made up of tourists to the region during summer months, but there was an increase in customers who reside in the area during the 2011 season. Just as sourcing food locally is important to Asquith and Ellis, so too is serving local clientele. “We envisioned it as a meeting space,” Asquith told me. While the first two years were a bit slow in this regard, she was happy to notice that in its third year, the shop started to become a popular stop for day trippers from Clarenville and Bonavista, as well as a small group of young mothers who reside in separate communities around Trinity Bay.
Under the guidance of Sue’s daughter Clare, Two Whales showcases local artists and those whose work is inspired by Newfoundland and Labrador. They host a changing contemporary art exhibition every month, which is launched with a meet and greet the artist night. Last year, Two Whales also hosted five concerts. Bruce Peninsula, Acres and Acres, Morgan Davis, The Avenues, and the Kindness Killers all lent their stylings to the front room in 2011.
“We had fantastic reception. The musicians really enjoyed it because it’s such a small venue. People were seated and listening intently. We’ll be doing more of that again next year.”
Holding its place before the bay, Two Whales stands ready to act as a reservoir from which one might enjoy a fresh and tasty meal, gather one’s thoughts while watching the sea or read the news while sipping a good cup of coffee.
How did such a setting come about? Initially, Sue and her daughter Clare visited the island in pursuit of a whale-watching tour. Like many others who have come from away, upon their arrival they found more than they bargained for. Five years after their first visit, they came to stay. “We experienced the quiet, peacefulness and acceptance of local people. Their open heartedness and generosity,” Asquith says. The journey to life in Newfoundland involved many returns, and was borne with the help of friends and neighbours that they met during early vacations.
“We experienced the quiet, peacefulness and acceptance of local people. Their open heartedness and generosity…” – Sue Asquith, owner-operator of Two Whales Coffee Shop
The year after their first visit, they returned with Sue’s partner David in tow. The two purchased property around Trinity Bay, arranged a house swap with friends in Trinity East, and took a month-long excursion from their home in England in order to test the romance of their initial visit against the experience of a more extensive stay. “We realized it was one thing to like a place as a tourist, and another to be involved in the community,” Asquith said.
Now, Sue and David live in the Trinity Bay area year round.
“Moving was a gradual process,” she reflected. “Soon after settling in, the idea to open a restaurant came to mind.” When I asked her if she was nervous about starting a business, she told me “No, it always felt right. It just unfolded.”
Not unlike the mix from one of her almost famous cakes, perhaps.
When Two Whales opens again in April, it will not only be at the ready for another year of good coffee, food, art, and music; it will also be ready to act as a fresh business model for the province. Healthy, delicious, and conscientious meals can benefit you, the local economy and the earth all in one stop. Bonus points if you ride your bike there and back. Gold star if you carpool. Check it out, you won’t be sorry.