Brooks community members pull together to save Ralph’s Cafe

Mike Switzer, a co-owner at Ralph's Cafe, worked behind the counter this week. The community is rallying behind the restaurant, whose owners recently learned that they faced a $35,000 - $40,000 bill to install a new septic system
Abigail Curtis | BDN
Mike Switzer, a co-owner at Ralph's Cafe, worked behind the counter this week. The community is rallying behind the restaurant, whose owners recently learned that they faced a $35,000 - $40,000 bill to install a new septic system Buy Photo
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Posted Sept. 28, 2013, at 2:24 p.m.

BROOKS, Maine — The small town of Brooks might not have a lot of flashy attractions, but it does boast a darn good sandwich and slice of pie at locally loved eatery Ralph ‘s Cafe .

Recently, though, the restaurant’s future was jeopardized when its owners discovered the leach field behind it is breaking up. They were shocked to hear the estimate to install a new septic system ran between $35,000 and $40,000, a sum of money that seemed impossible to find.

“Oh my God — I guess we’ll have to close,” co-owner Mike Switzer recalls thinking.

But he reckoned without the people of Brooks. In a little over a week of online and in-person fundraising, friends of the cafe have contributed $8,000 to the leachfield fund. They even held a “septic supper” last weekend at the Brooks Congregational Church, after church choir members decided that Ralph’s wouldn’t go down quietly. A crowd of more than 150 people jammed the supper last Saturday evening, according to Linda Lord of Brooks, who said that they had raised $6,800 for the cause.

“Isn’t that incredible?” she asked Thursday. “I am so proud to be from Brooks. It really is a caring community. There was just tremendous support. Nobody wants to see that place close.”

There are several reasons why, she and others said. In nine years of operation, Frank Champa, his mother, Susan Champa, and Switzer, his partner, have built a loyal following. The trio uprooted from New York City to Brooks to open the restaurant, in part because Sept. 11 happened, and also because owning a little restaurant had long been a dream of Frank Champa’s father, Ralph, who had died unexpectedly.

They offer a place for locals and others to gather, eclectic comfort food that has received rave reviews from near and far — it currently has a five-star rating on the urbanspoon.com website — and a reputation as a business that gives back to the community.

“We all eat there, and we all love them,” Lord said. “It’s a community center — and more importantly, there isn’t a thing that’s gone on in Brooks that I can think of that the restaurant and that family don’t support. They’ve donated gift certificates to every organization in town.”

And in a time that has seen some of the community’s larger businesses close — including a hardware store and a grocery store in the last few years — Lord said that people in town had both sympathy and energy when they learned of the septic bill facing Ralph’s.

“It’s a hit for a tiny business to take on. We just all felt sick for them,” she said. “We just don’t want to lose any more businesses in town. We need them. We don’t want to lose these people.”

An additional effort to raise money online has generated $1,545 in just eight days.

Switzer and Frank Champa said that the outpouring of support has left them hopeful — and almost speechless.

“I think we will be able to stay open,” Switzer said.

And Champa wrote in a Facebook message after the successful septic supper that he has lived in many places in his life, but that in the last decade, Brooks has truly become home.

“The people of Brooks have been an amazing community I can never imagine living without,” he told the supporters of the cafe. “I can’t tell you how much all of your support tonight means to us, and I can never put into words my gratitude.”

To support Frank’s Cafe online, please visit the webpage www.gofundme.com/4eklfs.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/09/28/news/midcoast/brooks-community-members-pull-together-to-save-ralphs-cafe/ printed on July 29, 2014