More Better Kitchens

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Mark Gresge and Rachel Willis
Mark Gresge and Rachel Willis

Two modest houses in downtown Crozet now have businesses in them. Cakes by Rachel and L’étoile Catering have set up base operations on Jarmans Gap Road opposite Crozet United Methodist Church.

Rachel Willis moved her specialty cake bakery from her home on top of Beaver Creek Mountain and Mark Gresge, whose residence is also in Crozet, has moved his kitchen operation here, too, a year after closing his restaurant by that name on West Main Street in Charlottesville that had opened in 2003. And both are offering honor boxes—one for soups and the other for cupcakes–from their porches. Look for their roadside sandwich signs on the days when the honor boxes are out.

“I’m so excited about this,” said Willis, referring to her honor box on the first day she put it out. It’s a large plastic cooler with a cash box next to it. Inside are ready packages of scrumptious cupcakes, in pairs or fours. That day it was vanilla with strawberry icing. The box sold out by the afternoon.

Gresge and Willis display sandwich boards with the varieties of soup and cupcakes that are available each Wednesday and make announcements on their Facebook pages as well. Gresge will note on Facebook if a soup is vegetarian. Willis offers a gluten-free cupcake some weeks. Coolers are refilled in the afternoon so there is still a chance to get some after work.
Gresge and Willis display sandwich boards with the varieties of soup and cupcakes that are available each Wednesday and make announcements on their Facebook pages as well. Gresge will note on Facebook if a soup is vegetarian. Willis offers a gluten-free cupcake some weeks. Coolers are refilled in the afternoon so there is still a chance to get some after work.

“I do them for weddings. They’re beautifully simple. It’s a nice sweet and it’s special. The whole idea about the [honor] box is that you don’t have to come in and talk to me. People are busy. But I’m not ready for retail yet—if I ever will be.”

Willis has been operating out of her house since 2007, when her son Isaac was born. Now he gets off the school bus at the shop.

“I always had my eye out,” she said about the move. “I outgrew my house. I miss it—but we don’t need to be surrounded by buttercream all the time. And it was hard getting cakes down the mountain.

“It was very fortuitous. Vicky Gresge put a bug in my ear. I put a Christmas card in the resident’s mailbox and the owner, a wonderful woman, asked me what I wanted to do there. I brought her a cake and. . . .” She paused to let fate fill in the rest. “I’m very grateful to her. We bought it in the end. It needed to be re-plumbed and re-wired.”

“I can’t believe how lucky I am I ended up in Crozet. I really dig being part of the community.

“My focus is on all-natural ingredients and I used locally raised eggs. I buy my ingredients at the Great Valu. They’re very competitive. From me, you get real one-on-one design that’s custom for you. You get service.”

In the next couple of months, she said, she will start offering signature cakes that can be ordered at any time. There will be six different flavors and each cake will be available in three sizes—small to large—plus there will be a seasonal cake on offer. “I like cakes with fruit in them—fresh, like peaches and strawberries. They cut the sweetness of the cake so it’s not so intense.

“It will be super simple. You’ll just have to come pick it up.

“I need to make it easier for me. I’m a one-woman show right now. I have to go slow. I don’t want to lose the love that I put into each cake.”

Willis has been cooking professionally for 28 years (some of it at the Clifton Inn in Charlottesville) and concentrating on cakes for the last nine years. “It happened by accident,” she said. “My son was born. We bought the farm [where they raise sheep]. A friend of mine needed a wedding cake. With word-of-mouth—it’s been a dead run ever since. I know I can give people exactly what they want. It’s really cool.”

“We kept the name [of the restaurant],” said Gresge. “We catered out of there until the day we shifted to Crozet.” The house had been the residence of the same family for 40 years. “All the stars aligned. We were looking for a catering kitchen and it was word-of-mouth. We called and they said, ‘Yeah, we’re interested.’ It meets all our needs. It’s right in town. It’s such a win-win. And then being here. I love Crozet anyway but having a business here is a cherry on top.”

The house went through a complete renovation, including the installation of a walk-in box. “It works great, logically. The kitchen flows well for getting product in and out.

“Most our customers are word-of-mouth. We do a lot with the University and we do weddings and cocktail parties in private homes, for groups large and small. We do tastings. The modern bride and groom want to see it and taste it first. We get to meet people and hopefully it’s a match. For a bride it’s probably the biggest party they’ll throw. But I take a drop-off lunch for 10 just as seriously.

“Plus, I just love it. Food is the circle of life. We bring food to families with new babies and funerals. I’m involved in all these life experiences and celebrations. What brought it home was a couple of years ago a guy came by the restaurant. He had come to U.Va. for cancer treatment and had come to the restaurant often. He was cancer-free that day and he wanted to celebrate. I told our crew, ‘It’s bigger than us and our food. What they chose us for is bigger than us.’ There’s meaning to this that’s more than people are hungry. I try to honor that and exceed expectations.

“There’s lots of [catering] competition and people can go somewhere else, but we enjoy it. With us being in Crozet now we just focus on catering. I like French country cooking. We say it’s ‘fine Virginia’. I once researched what Virginians eat so we went with Virginia products. We found Polyface [Farm] way back when. I’m on the shoulders of others. I’m interested in flavor.”

The soup that day was black bean. The week before had been clam chowder and next up was champagne with brie. A quart goes for $10. “The restaurant was known for soup,” Gresge said. “We had a soup and half-sandwich special at lunch. I missed making soup so I had the idea to do an honor box. It started on social media. Even without the sign [out front] people were asking for it. So now we have the sign and that means the honor box is out. It’s grab and go.

“I’ve always liked the sense of community and neighborhood here. I can’t define it, but it’s great to be part of that and I love it that Rachel is doing it too. I had to make another pot today so I wouldn’t run out. I don’t want to disappoint anybody. I love it when I see people pull up. The money part of it is low on the totem pole. I love to hear the stories of why they came for soup.”

1 COMMENT

  1. Will you cater my daughter wedding on June 18, 2016, about 25 people. Please advise of food options and cost if are able to do so. Location of wedding is somewhere at bottom of mountain area near ski slope.

    Thanks/csb===804-674-5640

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