Hungry and heading north on Route 202 from Jaffrey to Peterborough? Turn right onto Colls Farm Road, and at the top of the hill sits a welcoming porch, a side door and the painted logo of the former wild mane of owner Keith Wesley surrounding his smiling face.
You have arrived at the Optimist Café, established April 15, 2022. Seated with a homemade pastry and coffee, it will probably feel like a homecoming. For Keith Wesley, it is too, who has spent most of his adult life away from his birthplace of Hillsborough, New Hampshire.
The Optimist Café is open four days a week, Friday through Monday, for breakfast, lunch and coffee. On summer nights, it also opens for a burger night every other Wednesday.
The limited hours are intentional to make the business as sustainable as possible for Wesley and his staff. Wesley's intentions for opening the café were three-fold.
"For people to be paid well. To make a space where we could be our truest selves and to be able to make mistakes and learn from them," notes Wesley.
And his "people-first" attitude is paying off.
"Even after the 14th hour, I still feel joyful," says Wesley.
Wesley, Chef Brandon Ford, and a team of bakers hand roll, boil and bake more than 100 bagels a day with unique flavors such as Sriracha maple, dilly pickle, cardamom and jalapeno swiss. Topped with local eggs for their popular breakfast sandwiches, the restaurant utilizes over 60 dozen a week. The kitchen also prides itself on its homemade sauces and dips, sweet onion poppy seed dressing, homemade mustard, jellies and jams, and the needs-no-explanation "OMG French Fry Dipping Sauce."
Other pastry and breakfast plates are available, including gluten-free pancakes. Lunch offers a diversity of fresh salads using produce from nearby Nubi River Farm (see story on page 70). In August, this means plates of juicy tomatoes flanked with mozzarella and piles of fresh sweet corn studded with herbs and prosciutto.
Wesley is equally passionate about his coffee, which he sources from A&E Coffee and Tea. He worked with the roasters to create the two unique blends he offers, the Optimist Blend and a decaf blend titled The Reluctant Optimist. Wesley makes many of his coffee syrups in-house, including lavender and pumpkin.
Beyond his 30 years of professional experience, he also trained for a week at the Oregon Barista School. He offers one-on-one espresso training to new staff and works to support a small barista culture in a place where it may feel lonely to be honing the craft.
Wesley loves playing with flavor and draws on new recipes and the archives housed in "massive three-ring binders." He is not afraid to try new things that might not work out, setting an example for his staff. A flavor like blueberry lavender buttermilk soup might land flat at first, and that's OK, but it can also be reimagined as a hit ice cream flavor.
The bi-monthly burger nights offer classic smash burger flavor in many protein choices, including beef, turkey and salmon, accompanied by lots of dipping sauces, live music and good company.
Wesley has been taking care of people's hunger for a long time. His first food business was a spare bedroom turned commercial kitchen after completing his degree in psychology and education. The a la carte lunch business, known as Maxfield's Gourmet Muffin Company, delivered bag lunches to starved students and platters of pastry to hungry staff on coffee breaks. The following year, he moved to Oregon and opened his first cafe, the Good Room, in 1993, the sign of which now hangs in the Optimist Café.
After being in the restaurant business for so long, Wesley adds that The Optimist is perhaps the final cafe he will open.
In November of 2012, Wesley returned to New Hampshire from the West Coast and worked as an executive chef and consultant for Waterhouse Restaurant in Peterborough. While there, he opened the Baker's Station, an adjacent coffee and pastry showcase for to-go orders.
Restaurant work requires working intensely with other people, yet kitchen culture has not been traditionally interested in creating strong collaborations and healthy individuals. Many kitchens are run as top-down survival-of-the-fittest workplaces, but there have always been a few players in the industry who have always known this was a shortsighted business practice. Wesley is one of these people. The people, as much as the food, call him to the work — both the people he feeds and the people alongside him doing the feeding.
When opening up his own establishments or helping others manage theirs, hiring and retaining employees was a vital skill that helped him hone his listening and conflict-resolution skills. These intense interpersonal experiences made Wesley interested in being a therapist, but he was too busy and happy working in the kitchen to make a full career change.
A friend suggested looking into life coaching, and shortly after, he completed a six-month life coaching certificate at Southwest Institute for the Healing Arts. Wesley described the training as "powerful." It encouraged him to continue his practice of gratitude and to draw on his life experiences as potential lessons to himself and others.
Because of the training, Wesley notes, "I am more connected than I thought I was. To be able to help others isn't necessarily some sort of gift. If you've lived, you can utilize those experiences to connect with others."
Before life coaching, Wesley was finding additional ways to connect with people by teaching cooking, both in person and online. He has taught diverse ages and settings, children and adults, from business team-building to guest wine dinners, and has worked with online and local partners, including Cornucopia and the Birch Wood Inn.
Wesley admits he is a bit of a "sugar pusher," but this comes from his desire for people to experience the same joy he does when creating and sharing his treats.
"I just love pastries," admits Wesley.
Sharing his joy of pastry through teaching and sharing naturally meant extending this access to as many people as possible, even people with gluten sensitivities, who hadn't enjoyed the experience for a very long time.
Wesley now offers gluten-free cinnamon rolls, scones, cheesecake, and pop-tarts stuffed with homemade jam at the cafe. Wesley considers the gluten-free pie crust he uses for the pop-tarts an absolute triumph.
"Better than a regular pie crust," he says. "Light and flakey."
Wesley's passions, the intersection of food and people, manifest in the café and his other pursuits, including life coaching, teaching, and regularly connecting with others on his social media channels.
"In my passion, I find my purpose," says Wesley.
For all those looking for a weekend breakfast in Jaffrey, it is to their benefit that Wesley's path is so delicious.
The Optimist Café
16 Colls Farm Road
Jaffrey, NH 03452
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