The café was the brainchild of Ella Braco ’09, who majored in design, innovation, and society, a program that prepares students to design new products, services, and media while considering the social needs and environmental concerns of the 21st century.
The café had a test run in spring 2006, in Mother’s Wine Emporium in the Rensselaer Union, with support from EcoLogic, one of the Rensselaer Union environmental clubs. Prior to its debut, the Terra Café Club members developed a business plan, and discussed aspects related to the business structure, branding, marketing, and education, and other issues. The student members met on a weekly basis and also staffed the café on Wednesdays. In addition, Braco and Baldwin met each Thursday to discuss the previous day’s activities and meal planning and preparation for the following week.
Today, Terra Café’s newest members are from a range of disciplines that include environmental engineering, management, biology, mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, psychology/premed, and computer science, among others. Current members include: Beth Gondeck, president; Joshua Gonyea, former president; Charles Yueh, vice president; BJ Robinson, staff coordinator; Dylan Blanset, café marketing officer; Jessica Wong; Kristen Fable; Lasana Power; Michelle Sharer; Divya Narala; and Yong Jun.
A far cry from the usual grab-and-go lunch, the weekly meal costs $7 ($5 for vegetarian option). The café continues to dish up their signature meals for more than 70 (and counting) loyal customers who are ushered into a space that captures the essence of a family-style atmosphere, with diners sitting together at various tables covered with colored cloths and floral centerpieces.
Recent menus have featured Thai curry chicken or tofu, braised cabbage, rasam rice, citrus salmon or tempeh with mandarin orange sauce, au gratin potatoes all accompanied by a field green salad. Meals are always accompanied with a choice of fair trade organic coffee, ice tea, or apple cider, and “something delicious for dessert,” that is always made at Rensselaer’s on-campus bake shop.
Baldwin is an avid supporter of buying local and organic products within a 100-mile radius. She notes that local farms need community support to stay in business, and this effort also helps to eliminate the use of fossil fuels, which over time has an impact on the environment.
“There are challenges that we encounter in this process. We can’t consistently offer the same meal, as supply does not equal demand,” Baldwin said. “We have to use a combination of local and organic foods based on the growing seasons and the selection of meats, produce, fruits, and vegetables that are available.”
For example, Baldwin recalled the first day the café opened and all meal products had to come from within 100 miles of the Capital Region. She needed oil to prepare part of the meal, and since oil is a product that does not come from the area, she used heavy cream from Meadowbrook Dairy Farm, churned it into butter, and then clarified it a process that simply melts butter so the water evaporates from it and the milk solids separate from the fat.
Future plans may include expanding the café’s days of operation. For now, heading into the spring season, the shift will focus on more organic foods that may come from local farmers or items shipped from other producers with special meals that feature seasonal fruits and vegetables.