Alice's Village Café
Alice’s Village Café is the hub of Carp in every sense of the word. It’s a cozy, bustling spot where teams of uber-fit urban cyclists dine amongst elderly farmers and villagers stroll in regularly to satisfy their cravings with the bounty of nearby farms.
The café has such a steady flow of customers, it’s hard to believe its concept was ever met with skepticism. It was obvious to villagers that this building, a fresh space adjacent to the historic Carp fairgrounds, should house something rejuvenating. Carp is a community that has been waiting to see its boom in new housing reflected in its business scene. Amongst proposals for Italian eateries and other more formal dining restaurants, Crystal and Dustin Therrien, owners of The Cheshire Cat Pub, swayed people their way by presenting an idea that, they felt, would bring the community closer together.
“When we saw the opportunity in 2011, we thought: Carp really needs something. We envisioned a little hub: a casual, informal spot, with the feel of downtown in a small-town community,” explains Therrien, “a totally mellow meeting spot.”
It is mellow: the sun-filled windows, barn board counters, church pews lining the outer walls and a long harvest table shared by strangers in the centre of the room give it a welcoming vibe. There are fuzzy red blankets on the leather chairs just begging you to sip your coffee a bit more slowly.
The Therrien couple, and their two children, Arlo Lily and Deacon Danger, knew what they were getting into. As owners of the wellknown Cheshire Cat Pub, on Carp road, the restaurant scene has been an intricate part of this family’s daily life for the past 10 years. In fact, The Cat's success is a large part of what pushed them into taking on a second creative outlet. "It might sound crazy, but it was almost getting too easy. We were ready for a new challenge," says Therrien.
And there were some challenges. Therrien described a few of these: from those who were “happy with gas station coffee” to decisions such as not carrying Coke products, and the price of their breakfast (which lingers around $10 — a fairly typical urban price-point).
“It’s tricky because you don’t know how to explain pricing to your customers and what that means when you support farmers in your community… Customers want value, but they have to understand the product.”
So, some parts of the little country village had to warm up to the idea of this casual dining spot, with gourmet, takehome freezer meals and a beer fridge to peruse while in line to order your food from the chalkboard menu… Many others were totally ready. Over the past few years, the landscape of Carp has changed and grassy fields have been steadily replaced with large, upscale homes. With this, comes a population totally comfortable paying a bit more for a cup of ethically sourced, locally roasted, organic coffee.
The coffee, from Equator Coffee Roasters in Almonte and Gaia Java in Stittsville is just one example of Alice’s many local connections. The two taps and the beer fridge are loaded with popular local products: Beau’s, Kichissipi, and Ashton Brewing Company. Being adjacent to the historic fairgrounds, they have the added advantage of wandering across the road every Saturday, May through October, to the Carp Farmer's Market to pick up fresh fruits and vegetables. This has made it easy to forge relationships with the local producers. Most of their produce comes from Rainbow Heritage Gardens in Renfrew and Acorn Creek Garden Farm in Carp itself. The pork is from the free-range heritage breed pigs from Pork of Yore and the juicy burgers are made of beef from Fitzroy Beef Farmers Cooperative.
The food is all made fresh in house, right down to the spicy ketchup and sweet jams. The most popular menu items are “The Madhatter” burger with its“secret sauce,” and their famous "big nasty" cinnamon bun. No, "big nasty" is not an adjective, it's actually the name on the menu for their amazing, gooey, totally drool-worthy, melt-in- your-mouth, cinnamon bun.
In search of a signature dish, it took 16 tries to perfect the "Big Nasty" and countless stabs at a memorable name. Therrien laughs as she recalls her staff mulling over this one and finally realizing it worked best to just call it what it is: big and nasty. She maintains that one of the most entertaining aspects of her job is watching people order this item at the cash.
"I just love how some people can't bring themselves to say it out loud and then you get these little old ladies who come in and confidently say, "I'll have the big nasty!" That's probably the best part of my day, right there."
With a philanthropic desire to see Carp thrive, the Therrien’s have been involved in countless efforts to support their neighbours. They host an annual Carp road clean-up where volunteers collect trash after the spring melt from The Cat through to the cafe. As a thank you, they make burgers for all the participants. They support local artists, hanging their work on the café's walls and sponsoring events such as the annual Red Trillium Studio Tour. They also support a variety of sporting events, from minor hockey and golf to cycling events.
Last September, Alice’s teamed up with Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) to establish the first annual MEC Ottawa Century Ride. The massive 100-kilometre loop that stretches from Kanata, Kinburn, Pakenham, Mississippi Mills, all the way to Ashton, ends with a rewarding stop at Alice’s for a hearty burger and Beau’s beer. Proceeds from this event go to the Friends of Huntley Highlands, who seek to preserve the natural landscape that surrounds Carp.
The cyclists are such a big part of the business that bicycles have become a part of the restaurant’s décor and the wooden floors are permanently imprinted with dots from their cleats. The spot is so well known amongst cycling groups that bicycles often outnumber cars in the parking lot.
Locals claim that a huge part of what has made Alice’s such a cherished place in the village, is the inspiriting attitude the Therrien family pours into the community around them.
Therrien concludes, “It’s great knowing that what you’re doing is contributing to bettering your community. It’s not cookie cutter. We can push boundaries about what is normal and try new things here.”
Well, there’s nothing nasty about that.
Jacqueline Lawlor remembers watching the fireflies at night in the once-empty fields of Carp.