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Red Onion Café Draws a Crowd at New Charlotte Home

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The Red Onion Sandwich with an Aqua ViTea Kombucha at Red Onion Café in Charlotte - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • The Red Onion Sandwich with an Aqua ViTea Kombucha at Red Onion Café in Charlotte

When Mickey West moved her iconic Red Onion Café from Church Street in Burlington to the former site of a wildflower farm in Charlotte, she wasn't sure how it would go. The differences between the two locations are drastic: urban versus rural; pedestrian traffic versus fast-moving car traffic.

But after 18 months at the new location — the Charlotte Crossings building on Route 7 near Ferry Road — the café is as busy as ever. The menu is the same, and the customers are just as happy.

A common denominator is the Red Onion Sandwich ($12). It's a classic, a greatest hit, the "Born to Run" of sandwiches: thick, dense, homemade honey-oat bread; turkey; bacon; apples; smoked cheese; and, of course, red onions. Toasted. It's still the most popular item on West's menu.

The Red Onion Café was an institution on the Church Street Marketplace for more than 30 years. Over time, West built a devoted following of college students, downtown workers and tourists.

Moving south was difficult, she said, but she had no choice. The rent was already creating a financial challenge when the coronavirus pandemic hit. In addition, West said, issues with the homeless population in the downtown area became too difficult to handle.

"I liked most of these guys. They were nice to me. I was nice to them," West said. Nice didn't make up for other problems, though. "It was becoming a little too violent there for me as a 70-year-old woman," she explained. "I wasn't geared up to handle that anymore."

When she opened in Charlotte, some of the silver linings were immediately apparent. It's five minutes from her house; she feels safe heading into work in the morning; and her star employee and son, Mac West-Poss, still works by her side.

Mac West-Poss making bread at Red Onion Café - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Mac West-Poss making bread at Red Onion Café

From the start, West said, things got wild fast. "The first six to seven months just about broke our back," she recalled. "I was like, Oh, my God, I can't do this. I can't keep up with this. We'd go home at night and bake bread."

But locals were excited to have the Red Onion nearby. On a recent dreary, drizzly Saturday, there was a line out the door at 1:30 p.m. The café was supposed to close at 2. West said that she's sometimes still going at 3, if a crowd shows up. The smell of baking bread signals to people in line that the wait will be worth it.

Charlotte resident Dorothy van Gerbig stopped by to get lunch and pick up some extras: tomato orzo soup, beet salad, focaccia, green salad and a chocolate mousse cake decorated with Easter egg candies. She's thrilled that the café moved from Burlington and eats there almost every weekend.

"It's such a blessing for us," van Gerbig said. "I like to come see what she's got in the hopper." The soups, she added, are amazing.

West makes the soups and salads herself — and usually without a recipe or writing one down for future use. This isn't always a wise idea, she admitted, because if something is particularly popular, she can never quite remember what she did to make it so good.

A turkey bow tie soup ($5 per cup; $6.50 per bowl) on the menu had a Mexican flair, its cumin aroma rich and inviting. It was packed with turkey, pasta, corn, black beans and a just-spicy-enough broth.

At the new location, it took a while for people to catch on to the soups, which had been really popular in Burlington, West said. And she's learned that local tastes trend more toward the sugary and meaty.

"They really go for the sweets," she explained, "and vegetarian things don't move necessarily as much out here. The salads will, but I'll do a vegetarian special and it won't move as well."

The sweets sell for a reason. In addition to breakfast treats, such as strawberry-banana muffins and raspberry cream cheese croissants, the café sells cookies ($3.50) — and they're ginormous. The peanut butter cookie has just the right amount of crisp and salt; the chocolate chip cookie is proportionately perfect with buttery dough and chocolate sweetness; and the Aloha cookie flawlessly balances coconut, chocolate chips, cinnamon and pecans.

Most of the baked goods are made in-house, but West outsources cakes and other pastries to Charlotte pastry chef Alana Oren, who trained in England. On this particular Saturday, Oren had delivered some Easter-themed items, including the chocolate mousse layer cake, coconut cupcakes and pretty pastel bunny-shaped sugar cookies. Her "beautiful little cakes" sold out quickly, West said.

Though she doesn't use her own oven for cakes, West is passionate about baking the sandwich bread. Along with create-your-own options, she offers a consistent list of specialties alongside the regular Red Onion Sandwich.

Even the most devoted carnivore should take a crack at the Spinach Melt Sandwich ($12). There are several bread options to choose from (West recommended the honey-oat, for good reason), and it's toasted with spinach, mushrooms, red onions, Cabot cheddar cheese and garlic mayo.

Like most of the sandwiches, this one is so big that half could be saved for dinner. But it's hard not to take a bite out of that second half, because it's just so good.

Charlotte resident Ginny Paton chatted with van Gerbig while they waited for their sandwiches. They had met previously at the Charlotte café and talked about van Gerbig's Leonberger dogs. (That's another thing West said she misses about downtown Burlington: the on-foot customers who bring in their dogs.)

Paton always gets the Red Onion Sandwich when she comes in, she said. Because of COVID-19, and being thoughtful with money in her retirement, she doesn't get out much but heads to the Red Onion when she does. "This is a treat," Paton said.

Baked goods at Red Onion Café - DARIA BISHOP
  • Daria Bishop
  • Baked goods at Red Onion Café

Though the café's relocation was easier than West had anticipated, there have been some challenges. Mike Dunbar, owner of the Charlotte Crossings building, has battled with the town over parking, seating and other zoning issues. There's no seating inside the Red Onion, but Charlotte Crossings has several tables out front that patrons can use.

West said the café's vibe isn't quite right yet, but it's not easy to replicate a decades-long interior mood in only 18 months. The café is warm and inviting, even though plexiglass divides customers from staff. Masks are still required in the café and will be until the pandemic is really over.

"If one of us gets COVID, we have to close, because we don't have any bodies," West said. Vermont's employee shortage, particularly in the service industry, has affected the Red Onion significantly. It's difficult to find and retain good people to work full time making sandwiches and baking, she said. West has one regular employee other than her son.

West-Poss is her loyal right hand, but he probably won't want to take over the business when she retires, West said — though she doesn't see that happening anytime soon. He does the rolling and kneading when she can't — her knuckles are arthritic and swollen after many years of pushing dough. But she'll keep going for as long as she can. "You just suck it up," West said.

That perseverance has pushed her through many hard times over the years, but she sticks with it for one reason: "I love to cook," West said. "That's my passion. And I like to play with bread."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Tried and True"