For Sue Ellen Mink-Roberts, family memories can be found in nearly every corner of Deer Foot Farm Market, the cafe, market and working farm she and her family own in Appleton.
The property — 82 acres of sweeping farmland in the picturesque hills of inland Knox County, just off Route 131 — has been in the Mink family for five generations, since 1897. It’s only been a cafe and market, however, since 2013.
Mink-Roberts, 67, can picture her grandmother, who was born on the farm in 1899, playing in the meadows. She can imagine the cows her father would herd down the road and into the fields, back when Deer Foot operated as a dairy farm, until the family switched to hay in 1967. In the cafe and market, housed in one of two barns on the property, she can see paw prints tracked across the floor, after a cat made a mad dash for the door before the poured concrete dried.
“It’s in my bones, this property. It’s our heritage,” said Mink-Roberts. “Over 100 years. That’s a long time. We’ve been an iconic presence in this valley for all these generations. We have a real, emotional connection to this land.”
Though Mink-Roberts is the friendly face taking orders at the cafe, and the keeper of family history and local lore, it’s her husband, Gary, doing the baking. Her daughter, Carrie Roberts, 37, drives the culinary and business angle of Deer Foot Farm, as chef and co-owner.
A graduate of the culinary program at Southern Maine Community College, Carrie Roberts spent years cooking in Portland and in Southern California, including at Stone Brewing Company’s acclaimed on-site bistro and brewpub outside of San Diego.
“I’ve worked in restaurants since I was 16. I’ve worked in Japanese restaurants. I worked in a banquet hall. I worked in a health food store,” said Carrie Roberts. “I’ve done a little bit of everything.”
When Mink-Roberts’s father passed away in 2010, the property passed to her, after her siblings declined to take it. She considered selling it, but in her heart she knew that she couldn’t bear to part with the farm that generations of her family had lived and worked on. She just knew she and her husband had to expand upon their longtime haying operation, to keep it viable.
“We’re not farmers, really. [My husband and I] lived in South Portland,” said Mink-Roberts. “The way I see it is, you have to diversify if you’re going to survive. You have to do more than one thing, or else it’s just not feasible.”
After Carrie Roberts moved back to Maine from California in 2011, the family hatched a plan to turn the old dairy barn into a market, to sell local foods, showcasing the many farmers and growers within a 25-mile radius of the farm, as well as some organic products and beer and wine. The market opened in July 2013.
“We felt we could be a storefront for this region,” said Carrie Roberts. “We really wanted it to be all local. We wanted to build community in the town of Appleton. That’s our mission statement. We wanted to be a gathering place.”
In 2014, they built a kitchen, and that fall, began serving soup and bread and baked goods a few days a week. A year later, in Nov. 2015, on a bit of a whim, they decided to start serving breakfast on the weekends, expecting hunters to show up.
“No hunters showed up, but everybody else did,” said Mink-Roberts. “That’s been our bread and butter ever since.”
The weekend breakfast is now so popular that there can be long waits for tables without a reservation. The most popular breakfast item — and Carrie Roberts’ most-prized recipe — is the Red Flannel Hash, with house made corned beef, cabbage, carrots, onions and potatoes, and beets, to give it a vivid red color. Other Deer Foot specialties include biscuits with sausage gravy made with Dog Patch Farm pork, a breakfast salad made with their own field greens, goat cheese, grilled tomatoes and asparagus, bacon and an over-easy egg, and a shirred egg — two eggs and assorted vegetables and herbs, baked in cream and cheddar cheese.
For lunch, which Deer Foot started serving just last year, the Red Flannel Hash makes another appearance in a hearty hash melt, served on toasted bread topped with cheese, Morse’s pickles and an egg. Curried tuna salad can be had as a regular sandwich or as a tuna melt, and Mink-Roberts’s homemade meatloaf melt is another customer favorite.
The menu lists the 15 different farms and purveyors that supply Deer Foot with produce, meat, dairy and bread; Deer Foot grows its own greens and tomatoes, and raises chickens for eggs. In many cases, customers can also buy many of those items in the market.
In addition to the food, Carrie Roberts also started growing flowers on the farm two years ago. Deer Foot offers a 10-week flower share, in varying sizes. The first thing you see upon pulling into the Deer Foot parking lot, in fact, are rows and rows of flowers, in a riot of colors. In recent years the farm has also started hosting weddings and other functions. And after all these decades, the farm still sells hay.
Between Deer Foot and visitable farms like nearby Appleton Creamery and Maine Water Buffalo Company, Appleton has become a bit of an agricultural destination.
“That’s really what we wanted all along,” said Mink-Roberts. “We know what a great place this is. We want other people to know it too.”
Deer Foot Farm is open for breakfast starting at 7:30 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It is open for lunch 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays-Mondays, and 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays-Fridays. It is closed on Tuesdays. For more information, visit deerfootfarmmarket.com. To make a breakfast reservation, call 785-3200.