BY SARAH ELKINS
The Local Café & Grocer is the longtime dream of owner Clay Elkins. It’s worth noting, though, Clay isn’t a dreamer; he’s a planner. And, he doesn’t mind when his plans take years—lots of years—to materialize. This venture is case in point.
He laughs, “Oh, yeah. I’ve had this idea, or some variation of it, for a long time. I’ve morphed and honed the concept over the years and have been shopping properties for almost as many years.”
Most know Clay as the director of food and beverage at the Greenbrier Sporting Club, a private resort community affiliated with the renowned Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs. He has spent the past thirteen years at the Club leading a team of approximately 85 and maintaining the exacting standards of the dining experience offered at its two restaurants, pool-side cafe, and other related services. It’s a more-than-40-hour gig, to say the least. And, here’s the jaw-dropper; Clay is still directing the F&B team at the Greenbrier Sporting Club with The Local up and running. His hair seems to be thinning a bit faster these days, but slowing down isn’t in his DNA.
Clay’s venture in food and beverage began after he completed his degree in information technology at Appalachian State University. He promptly skipped town to cook at a resort in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. From there he went on to cook at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. It didn’t take too much longer for him to realize he would never survive cubicle life, so he enrolled in the culinary program at Johnson and Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina. After a couple of years in corporate catering and a second stint in the Grand Tetons, Clay headed to The Greenbrier Sporting Club. Along the way he garnered a Level II Sommelier certification with the Wine Spirits Education Trust. That pretty much brings us up to present day.
Back at The Local, customers have come in early to order a slice of executive chef Todd Wagner’s scratch-made Quiche du Jour. The eggs are from just down the road, and Glen Morgan, the farmer who sells them, has just walked up the steps from The Local’s first-floor storage area where he’s just delivered many dozens more. The eggs are for sale direct to customers in a cooler nearby, too, for those who want to make their own quiche at home. Glen is apologizing that his cartons aren’t more attractive. The eggs are sold in recycled cartons of various brands commonly found on grocery store shelves. He’s slapped a sticker with his farm information over the various other logos.
Clay says, “Don’t worry about it. We don’t care about that.”
All of this is part of his vision. He believes people should know the person growing and raising their food. He loves that his egg guy has wandered in to check supply. He loves that this farmer cares how his product looks on the shelf. But he doesn’t love the idea of generating more trash, so he’s happy with Glen’s recycled cartons.
When customers come in for groceries, their produce might be carried out in a bag with a logo from Harmony Ridge Gallery or a Santa Claus giftbag. Here, the carryout bags are recycled, too. In fact, customers are encouraged to bring in the shopping bags cluttering their closets. They’ll be used again at The Local, and hopefully brought back in for another go-round. There are also mesh produce bags and logoed canvas shopping bags for sale for those who desire a little more style.
“We’re trying to be as environmentally friendly as possible,” Clay says. “If that means reusing an egg carton, we’re gonna reuse a flippin’ egg carton. I told someone the other day, ‘I don’t care if you’re using an asparagus rubber band on broccoli. I care that the product is real and good.’”
But, back to Todd Wagner, the guy behind that quiche and the rest of the menu. Todd graduated from The Greenbrier’s famed culinary apprenticeship program after graduating from Penn State with a degree in restaurant management. He has lent his skill to a number of restaurants throughout the Valley. The Local Café and Grocer wouldn’t be possible without his daily attention to the details.
Todd has designed, and continues to tweak, a menu that uses what’s in season and available from producers across the region. Just the other day a garden club came in for lunch and to hold their monthly meeting. The group was served a cheese-laden potato soup with bacon, garden salad with Bibb lettuce, fresh veggies and blueberries, and pie made by a baker no more than a mile away.
The menu doesn’t try to show off. The items are simple, and the ingredient list is short. But the experience is delicious. As one of the executive chefs at The Greenbrier once said during an interview, “Simple is much more difficult to do well. You can’t hide mistakes.” That is precisely where Todd shines.
Other breakfast favorites include biscuit French toast and the quinoa breakfast bowl with greens, Caramont chevre, and salsa verde. You can add Swift Level Fine Meats’ chorizo for an all-day slow burn. The lunch menu offers entrees like a roasted local sirloin with horseradish chive spread on rosemary focaccia and Joyce Farms chicken pesto panini.
The Local is increasing the amount and variety of fresh produce it carries every day. Sometimes it’s just a matter of a grower walking in the door. Clay has also been spending the past year or more finding the best regional producers of all sorts. Hernshaw Farms is one example. This is a West Virginia-based gourmet mushroom farm with the motto “Mine Land to Farm Land.” Part of their mission, besides growing high quality, restaurant-grade mushrooms, is to “contribute to the Great Appalachian Revival.” That movement is part of why Clay knew the timing was right for The Local Café and Grocer.
“People are getting serious about this sort of thing; how the land is being used, what they put in their bodies, who they outsource their health and wellbeing to,” Clay says.
Turnrow Appalachian Farm Collective has also been an essential early partner for The Local. Turnrow works with family-owned, independent farmers to help them get their products to a larger market. The Local is proud to serve as that larger market for its community. Turnrow and The Local overlap in their shared understanding that a sustainable food system needs to go beyond a one-day-per-week farmers market. Accessibility is key. That is why The Local is open seven days a week, twelve hours a day.
Not every product for sale at The Local has been sourced within a short mile radius. That model isn’t viable for business, but Clay is conscientious about where a product is made and the ethos of the company producing it. He aims to keep the products on the shelves as regional as possible, but if there’s a brand making something delicious and doing it with integrity, he’s open to carrying it. For example, Ariston Olive Oils and Balsamic Vinegars are imported from Greece, a far cry from local, but their values are in alignment with The Local’s. You’ll find a refill station in the back corner at The Local where you can fill your own reusable vessels with oil and vinegar. Clay says an empty wine bottle works well, and he’s more than willing to help you empty one while you’re in the shop.
Some other popular products include No Bull Veggie Burgers out of Charlottesville, VA; and Homestead Creamery Ice Cream from Wirtz, VA. J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works, a seven-generation family business located in the Kanawha Valley and Moonstruck Maple Syrup out of Brooks, WV are two of the products Clay is proud to carry.
Clay’s keep-it-real philosophy doesn’t end at the products he carries. He loves that he can point to the shelves, tabletops and hand-crafted counters and tell you who made them and where the wood was sourced. Eddie Fletcher made the live edge tabletops from a spalted maple that stood on the lawn of the Braxton County Court House. Mark Bowe, of the DIY Network’s Barnwood Builders fame, donated the antique barn siding for the shelves. Craftsman Charlie Anderson built the counters and shelves. Schleiff Construction, a family-owned construction company that has been integral in the development of Montwell Commons, built the structure The Local calls home.
Like the farmers and brewers who wander in and out of The Local daily, it’s something special to Clay that he knows the people who have literally built his dream up around him. This is integral to a guy who has never lost a friend in his life and seems to make a new one every day.
Speaking of brewers, The Local isn’t just food. This place wouldn’t be Clay’s without some good wine for sale, craft beer on tap, and a few select liquors to mix. The ability to walk in and have an afternoon drink is part of the vision for making The Local a community hub. If you can catch him late enough in the day, he might just join you for one on the deck that overlooks the walking trail and disc golf course below.
Soon Family Meals will be available for pickup so people can take a wholesome dinner home on those busy weekday nights. As much as Clay loves his beautiful new tabletops, he still believes most meals should be eaten at home with family. He wants to help make that easier. That’s also part of the vision behind The Local Café and Grocer.