Connie Stowman, of Delmont in Maurice River Township, ran her own bakery for a while. So her volunteer duties at the nonprofit Bayshore Discovery Project's Oyster Cracker Cafe, in Bivalve, Commercial Township, include making desserts such as the peach cobbler featured last Thursday.
"But she also does a lot of prep work on soups and things," said Executive Director Meghan Wren, who was helping make gazpacho in preparation for both the cafe's lunch hours from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and a special dinner the cafe was hosting for the Port Norris Rotary Club, of which she is a member.
It helps that Stowman, 58, cooked for a large family - she raised five kids who are now young adults. But since the cafe is "pescatarian," meaning it only offers seafood and vegetable dishes, using as much locally grown produce and seafood as possible, she had to adjust to not cooking meat, she said.
The cafe's standard menu includes a signature oyster chowder, and sandwiches such as tuna melt, veggie burgers and portabella mushroom with gorgonzola, fresh spinach, roasted garlic and peppers on a ciabatta roll. There's a seafood lasagna, several salads and a fresh fish of the week, said Wren, 47, of Money Island in Downe Township.
The cafe, which opened in January but had its official ribbon cutting in late June, is an attempt to help build a destination attraction. Wren hopes it will encourage more people to visit, learn to appreciate the natural beauty of the area and return for other events such as Bayshore Discovery's Second Friday By the Bay evenings of food, environmental education and entertainment. The next one will be held 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Aug. 10.
Located in the same large building where the project has a museum, a store and offices, it has a small indoor dining area and a large outdoor deck with seating that overlooks marshes and docks. It's the home base of the project's historic 1928 oyster schooner A.J. Meerwald.
Wren buys as much food for the cafe as she can from local growers and producers. The gourmet grilled cheese is made with a garlic peppercorn cheese made in Mercer County; and the coffee is Fair Trade and Organic, from Kaffe Magnum Opus in Millville. Any profits go towards education programs, which are focused on the environment and history of the Bayshore.
Volunteers cook, clean and wait on tables. For some, it's a chance to do something they've always wanted to do. Waitressing was on Ann Simpson's bucket list, she said. The 65-year-old Millville resident, who is retired from a career in real estate and insurance, just wanted to give waiting tables a try. But she couldn't convince any restaurants to let her do the job briefly, even though she offered to skip the paycheck.
"When I heard they were opening the cafe, I said, 'Oh my goodness. I should ask if they need a waitress," she said. Now she works every Friday. Waitressing turned out to be more difficult than she expected, she said, but it's fun.
"As small as the cafe is, it's hard trying to remember what everyone wants," she said. "You want to have a conversation and be friendly, but not interrupt."
Next on her bucket list is riding a horse on the beach, she said.
Most of the artwork in the dining room was done by graphic animator Steve Moore, husband of the Commercial Township Mayor Donna Moore. Wren asked him to come up with a logo for the restaurant, and he gave her about four choices, in poster form. Then he kept going, Wren said. Now there are about 10 different cafe posters hanging on the wall.
Volunteer Dee Shiell, 62, of Millville, retired from working at Michael's Arts and Crafts, and had managed a KFC restaurant for 16 years, she said. So she was a natural to help with the cafe. She doesn't like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, though, so she tends to set up, wait tables and only pitches in with cooking when necessary.
"I like to keep moving," she said of her various duties, which also include volunteering in the museum, leading nature walks, running kids arts and crafts projects and helping with the project's Second Friday entertainment events. As she worked in the cafe last Thursday, she said it was her seventh straight day of volunteering for Bayshore Discovery in one capacity or another.
"You can do as much as you want, or as little as you want, when you are a volunteer here," Shiell said. "The people are great, and it's a lot of fun."
Contact Michelle Brunetti Post:
Oyster Cracker Cafe
at Bayshore Discovery Project
Located at 2800 High St. in Bivalve, Commercial Township. Open 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Prices range from $3 for a cup of soup to $4 to $6 for sandwiches and $8 for seafood lasagna. Prices for fish of the week are set by market. Call 856-785-2060 or visit bayshorediscovery.org (click "News" for a full menu)
Aug. 10: Second Friday By the Bay, 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Aug. 11: Purple Martin Spectacular, 1 to 6 p.m.
To volunteer for Bayshore Discovery Project: Call 856-785-2060, ext. 108