A Restaurant for the Apocalypse and Beyond

No, the headline above is not an example of yellow journalism, feckless sensationalism or James-Frey-like fabrication. Grand Rapids residents Ryan Cappelletti, Roxanne ("Roc") Aguilar and John Bauer really are opening a restaurant that's readying itself for a drastically different society, by self-imposing stringent standards for sustainability's -- and sanity's -- sake.
And it will even have its own root cellar.
Filling the empty space at 6 Jefferson Avenue, which formerly contained Discussions Coffeehouse, the trio's new restaurant will be called Bartertown Diner and Roc's Cakes. Bartertown will be entirely worker/owner run and have a menu featuring exclusively vegetarian and vegan fare for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Bartertown will also serve up raw fare, beyond just boring old salads.
"Raw cheesecake is great way to introduce people to raw foods," says Bauer. "The point of eating raw foods is, when you eat raw, you retain more of the enzymes and nutrients. Cooking destroys some of the life-force in food."
And if Bartertown seems to have multiple-personality disorder, that's because the place is run by multiple personalities, as Aguilar, Cappelletti and Bauer will be in charge of the breakfast, lunch and dinner shifts, respectively. But, Cappelletti assures us, that's just part of what will keep Bartertown exciting.
The trio culled the name, Bartertown, from the Mad Max trilogy starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner. The films take place in a post-apocalyptic setting in which gasoline is so scarce, people are willing to kill for it and ragtag hordes band together because "civilization" as we know it has returned to the ruthless, dog-eat-dog state of nature. In the midst of this chaos, Bartertown is a beacon of light.
"Bartertown is about a town that dares to do things differently," explains Bauer, who previously worked on the cooking staff at a Breckinridge, CO, ski resort before moving back to Grand Rapids. "In the movie, Bartertown's motto is, 'working towards a better tomorrow.' In our diner, the motto is, 'cooking towards one.' We're trying to improve both food and the community."
The improvements start right in the kitchen. Though these restaurateurs are young -- Cappelletti and Aguilar are in their lowers 30s and Bauer's only 25 -- the trio is wise to the ways of the food service industry, and also weary of them. When it comes to baking, Aguilar's an autodidact who hasn't stopped baking since she started at the age of nine. For the last eight years, she's been selling "Roc's cakes" -- her specialty vegan cupcakes -- out of her home. Her long-term relationship with ovens has taught her the grueling hours necessary to perfect her craft. Meanwhile, Cappelletti and Bauer have both served as menu-developers and cooks. Together, they teamed up to develop the vegan-friendly menu at Brick Road Pizza Co. on Wealthy Street. Cappelletti also developed the menu for Stella's Lounge and The Viceroy, where he's been working as a cook.
Nonetheless, passionate as they are about food, the three have a modicum of disdain for current restaurant industry practices.
"Prep cooks are the new auto assembly line workers," says Cappelletti. "And the restaurant business today is the new slave trade." Cappelletti, fervently, goes on to explain the low pay and long hours repeating mundane tasks, the chain of command, the complete alienation from the product you create and the patrons you serve.
Sounds like a page straight out of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, right?
Cappelletti wouldn't begrudge the association. In fact, he hopes to adorn the walls of their diner with Chinese communist propaganda, something that uses vegetables as political symbols. (Bartertown's current logo is a pumped fist clenched around some stalks of asparagus.)
"I might even wear a socialist flag like a cape while I cook," he says. "But our thinking is, you have to work to live, but you shouldn't have to sacrifice a fun and exciting life to make a sustainable wage."
In order to earn a sustainable wage while still having fun, the trio are shaping Bartertown Diner into a restaurant that's one-part Ma-and-Pa place, one-part sustainability workshop, one-part soup kitchen, one-part community wellness center and one-part Marxo-Socialist cafe.
So that the worker/owners don't get overstressed, and so that quality remains high, the seating will be limited to 22 people. No wall will separate the kitchen from the dining area. The people cooking your food will be the people serving your food. In this way, Bartertown should have the same aura as the bar in the '90s sitcom Cheers, "the place where everybody knows your name."
The food brought to you will be super-fresh, hyper-local and only in season. "The way it was meant to be," stresses Cappelletti. "Tomatoes don't grow in Michigan in January, so why does everybody have them?" To emphasize their commitment to freshness, Bartertown won't even have a freezer.
"The nice thing about our smaller size is, we can work with smaller growers who have more unique produce," says Bauer. "We can supply our whole menu that way."
Cappelletti promises the menu will change often, at least every month. Part of the change has to do with the whims of Bartertown's worker/owners, and part of the change has to do with the limitations of the seasons.
"One day we might feel like Indian food," says Cappelletti. "And the next we might feel like celebrating pizza. However, in the winter, it will mostly be root vegetables."
In the mornings, Aguilar, or "Roc," will be selling her vegan cupcakes alongside smoothies, raw fruit juices and coffee courtesy of Madcap Coffeehouse. In partial disclosure, Roc says she'll offer green tea cupcakes, Dulce de Leche cupcakes, gluten-free cupcakes in chocolate and vanilla varieties and her signature cake, the "Smurfette," a blue raspberry spinoff of the classic Red Velvet cupcake. Roc wants her cakes costing no more than $1.25.
For lunch and dinner, Cappelletti and Bauer will be whipping up pizzas, sandwiches and more in the $7 to $12 range.
"Nothing should cost more than $12," says Cappelletti. "And you'll be able to get a complete, nutritious meal for $5."
The Bartertown chefs promise to post their recipes online so that you can partake of them at home. "We want to teach that this vegan locavore diet is possible," says Bauer. "And it's not a luxury diet. It's not just for yuppies. It's a choice and a perspective."
In addition to rotating their menu and posting recipes online, the Bartertown restaurateurs plan to spice things up and connect to the community by having cooking classes, a volunteer work program and a guest chef program. The kitchens will be available to anyone in the community who wants to lead cooking classes. Up to two volunteers per day can work in the kitchen for a free meal. And every month, a guest chef will be invited to shake up the menu a little bit.
And are they open to bartering, as the name implies?
"If the trade is fair," they all say.
Currently Bartertown t-shirts are available. Pay $25 for a t-shirt and get $15 in Bartertown bucks to use when the diner opens.

A former Grand Rapidian, Mitchell Terpstra currently teaches in South Korea.


Ryan Cappelletti (2)

John Bauer

Exterior and Interior of Bartertown

John Bauer (left) and Ryan Cappelletti

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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