Some coincidences are as delicious as a ripe tomato. Take, for example, Molly Healey’s new café, Manna Toast —a plant-based, all-day café, which is taking hold in the space of a meat purveyor (M.EAT). These extremes of the diet scale are more alike than one might notice at first glance: Both reflect local food tastes today—small, niche, local and high-end. It’s just that one provided meat; the other, vegetables. When you give up steaks, you get sprouts.
“We’ll be a café with salads and toasts,” says Molly Healey, the owner. “We’ll have really interesting and fun toasts, not your standard avocado toasts. We’re making full meals—large concepts that are on toast and bread, but we’re going to have a lot of different kinds and different toppings to bridge the gap between a full-service and a quick-service restaurant that’s easily accessible.”
She’s excited to bring this new way of thinking about plant-based foods to Westport. “I’ve always eaten things on bread,” she adds. A sweet-potato base is available for those who want to skip the toast.
The new place will also use locally sourced seasonal ingredients as well as selections from a local bread maker and local coffee roaster. For those who want it, the café will also offer a bit of dairy from local farmers as well as sustainable fish. “We’re trying to find someone who has responsibly caught fish.” Molly is very particular about the food providers she works with, and that’s good for her customers. From vegetables, dairy, fish, bread and more, each is carefully chosen, and she asks all of the questions that a food critic would pose (and more). All of that, she says, will be brought “into one package,” like a creatively stacked, satisfying open-faced sandwich.
Manna will have four big salads, ten different toasts, three rotating soups and a couple of sides—like roasted vegetables—as well as yogurt and fruits, local coffee and wine and beer. It will also make its own plant milks.
The small café will rely on work that is done at the large commissary kitchen. “We’re going for a community-based program,” she says. “So, we’re going to be a café, but we’re also going to be an event space and have cooking classes, farmers’ market-style. We want to be educational and bring in people to try interesting stuff and to do catered events.” Learning about food is as important to her as enjoying the taste of it.
Molly learned to cook from her mother. “I’ve always cooked, my whole life.” She grew up locally and attended Greens Farm Academy before moving with her family to Manhattan. She returned in time to graduate from Weston High School. Inevitably, she went to culinary school. “I just love food. It’s my passion,” she says.
With her upbringing, education and knowledge of the food industry, it’s natural to wonder about her favorite dish: “Spaghetti. I just love it. I know, you’d expected something fancy, but my daughter and I just love to sit around and eat pasta together. It’s delicious.”
Molly and her husband, Charlie Gilhuly, started their family three years ago. Speaking of her daughter, she says, “She’s awesome. She’s wowing me every day.” Smiling and lost in a recent memory she shares: “She came into the living room last night with her mini Etch-a-Sketch to take my order. ‘What can I get you, Mommy?’ ‘Would you like some ice cream, Mommy?’” She’s so smart and just the cutest thing ever. We’re just over the moon with her.”
Molly put her business plans aside to stay home and enjoy mommy/daughter time, and then decided that now would be a good time to get going again. She rubs her belly. “Now opening a restaurant and expecting number two and at the same time. It should be interesting,” she says. “But this is something I want to share with my children, to teach them about.”
She has good unofficial support. Charlie is the director of operations for Full House Hospitality, which owns The Cottage and OKO. “So he runs that business,” says Molly. “This is going to be mine.”
Molly also has some official support. “My partners are Stacy Bass and Yvette Waldman,” she says. “I cooked for Stacy and her family for the past five years.” With big plans for the space, it’s a good sign that Molly is launching the business with healthy and supportive partners in place.
A BIT OF SPACE
When Molly found space for her dream café, she knew it would take work. In fact, it was more than expected (like most projects). “We had to gut it. There was a bathroom in the wall right in the middle of the room. We have to take out that wall,” she says. Other changes were needed to give it the right feel; Manna is all about authenticity and simplicity. “We’re going for a California minimal vibe—very bright, fresh and clean—really accessible, not a lot of kitsch or gimmick, just subtle and cozy neutral colors.” It plans to be open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. “Hopefully, we’ll have people who want to do shared plates and a bottle of wine,” she says of another nod to Manna’s welcoming atmosphere. With twenty-eight seats, expect cozy.
One thing is missing. “We’re not going to do meat,” she says. “We’re trying to give options and satiate people, so they do not feel like they’re missing meat.” She recognizes that there are “amazing purveyors” of dairy and meat—“that’s local food.” She will avoid huge farms and any place that uses antibiotics and hormones.
She enjoys talking about what she has learned about food, so part of her vision is to not just serve good, healthy, plant-based food, but also teach others about cooking techniques and to enjoy it together. That means more space. “This first café is very small—it doesn’t have room for a full kitchen.” First café? “We want to open more of them. We’ll build this main kitchen and do all the prep there, then bring everything to the café. Two cooks will then prep and plate everything. That will make all of our food consistent and allow us to expand much quicker, so we don’t have to build kitchens in all of our spaces.”
It also means that Manna will have ample room for gatherings. “We want to outfit it so we can set up big long tables for farm-style dinners, maybe once a month.” It’s also big enough to hold cooking classes. “We want to do all different kinds of classes. My sous chef, Jason, has been cooking in restaurants for years, so that’s the educational part. We’ll show people how to cook healthy food; how to find local, healthy food; how to take advantage of the beautiful farmers’ market here; and how to find abundant vegetables. There will be a big curriculum for that.”
Part of education can also be about unwinding everything we’ve been told over the years: Do this, do that. “There are so many trends and guidelines and diets,” she says with a laugh. “Just eat real food. We’re trying to get back to the basics. Keep it simple.”
The new café plans to be open, with outdoor seating, in June. If the quarantine is still on, then Manna will do delivery. There’s no stopping Molly’s healthy food mission.