SOUTHWEST HARBOR, Maine — “Fresh, hot popovers coming out, folks,” shouted Larry Stettner as he walked through a crowd of bleary-eyed vacationers prepping for a day of outdoor adventure.
It was a Sunday morning. Families and couples tore open the egg-y treats, spread on wild blueberry jam and sipped hot coffee. Clustered under umbrella tables and chairs on a sprawling patio, the scene seemed typical for a summer weekend. But this was no run-of-the-mill brunch unfolding.
There are no waitresses. No menus. If you want eggs with your popovers, you’re in the wrong place. Mimosas? Move along. But passion and kindness is served by the heaping at the Common Good Soup Kitchen Community’s summer cafe in Southwest Harbor.
In its sixth summer season, the pay-what-you can restaurant has moved to a prominent location and is sustained through the power of popovers.
For decades, people have trekked to Acadia National Park for unparalleled views of nature followed by popovers. Served on the lawn with tea at the Jordan Pond House, it’s been a Mount Desert Island tradition since 1890.
This summer, some are bypassing the decadent option for an unfolding grassroots ritual: popovers offered seven days per week to support the hungry in the heart of Southwest Harbor.
The fee? Whatever you can spare.
“We are giving you these popovers so we can tell you about our program,” said Stettner, a retiree who co-founded the Southwest Harbor soup kitchen in 2009. “Summer is about raising money, [and] winter is about serving the community. This is a Robin Hood situation. We steal from the summer and give to the winter.”
To help those in need get through the harsh winter months, the 76-year-old started a summer cafe the following year with chef Bill Morrison. Until this summer, it was located next to the Seawall Motel. They hoped to rake in donations from tourists and locals in the high season. But the all-volunteer nonprofit was tough to sustain.
“The first two summers we thought we could run a restaurant, serve breakfast, lunch and some special dinners,” said Stettner. “We worked hard and barely broke even. It was obvious that running a restaurant business was dicey.”
In the fall of 2011, “we were basically broke,” said the Brooklyn native.
The power of popovers
For years Stettner, a retired psychology professor from Michigan’s Wayne State University who moved here in 1998, was making popovers at home. And friends raved.
Though finicky, he mastered the art of the portable Yorkshire puddings that are hollow on one side and dense on the other.
“Most people can make good popovers most of the time. To make them right all the time is very tricky,” he said.
“I bought popover pans, got the recipe. I was making them, and they turned out really good,” said Stettner, in a fast-talking New York clip.
Volunteers at the soup kitchen told him he should consider popovers as a fundraising mechanism, but he waved them off.
“Can’t do it,” he told them. “We need a wall of ovens.”
But times grew desperate.
“I thought we would just fold up, we had no money to do anything. I said, ‘We’ll do one more soup event.’ I felt like I was Don Quixote in ‘The Impossible Dream,’” he said.
On a whim he decided to add popovers.
“It turned out to be wildly popular. We made over $1,000 at that Sunday brunch,” he said.
He was onto something.
“Popovers made enough to get us through the winter. So I said forget it. All we do is popovers and coffee. Give people free Wi-Fi, and that’s all we are going to do,” he said.
The built-in popover market is something Stettner took advantage of to keep the Common Good Soup Kitchen Community going.
“They are unique. It’s not a muffin. It’s not a croissant, it’s not a cookie, it’s not a scone,” said the self-taught popover maker in chief. “We tapped into that. We didn’t have to convince people that popovers are cool.”
Just as the endeavor reached sustainability, another fork in the road came this spring. In April, as the soup kitchen was preparing for its sixth summer season in a former restaurant overlooking the sea, the fates had other plans.
“The old building we were in was an eyesore,” said Stettner. “They informed us in April we had to move.”
The building was demolished in May.
The same day he got a call from Ken Korona, co-owner of Chow Maine Asian Specialties, a Southwest Harbor wholesale food company located in a brick building in the village center. Korona, who owns the 1933 building that once housed a motor company, was moving to a larger commercial kitchen. He offered his old space to Common Good.
“It was miraculous,” said Stettner. “They didn’t know we had to move. … They called me and said, ‘Maybe you’d like it, the space?’”
He did. It came with a commercial kitchen, courtyard, new floors and free Wi-Fi.
“We moved just when we needed to move. If we had to outfit a kitchen we would go broke. This is the only space in town that could’ve worked,” said Stettner.
Though Korona could have easily found tenants willing to pay full price for the key space next to the post office, he offered it to the soup kitchen at a third less. They have a kitchen, courtyard and dining room.
“It’s a great thing. It’s brought a lot more life to this spot and hopefully makes Southwest Harbor more popular,” said Korona.
Judging by the large crowd last weekend, it’s working.
Before Erik Dressler of Delaware and his wife, Sarah, got into their VW Bus to head home, they loaded up on Stettner’s popovers.
“We tried the popovers at Jordan Pond, the ambiance is lovely. It’s a beautiful establishment, but it’s expensive,” said Dressler, who was on his third visit to the cafe. “To be able to give something back and enjoy popovers that are every bit as delicious feels more linked into the community.”
And Stettner, who wears different hats, literally and figuratively and shouts “fresh, wild Maine popovers coming through” all morning, is part of the draw.
“He is priceless,” said Dressler.
By keeping it simple, the Common Good Cafe doubled its donations from 2012 to 2013, and it increased donations by 25 percent last year. Now that it is in a new, central location, the cafe is on track to do even better.
“I am extremely happy,” said Stettner, who calls Paul Newman, who did the same thing with salad dressing, a patron saint. “I don’t even know what I’m doing.”
The Common Good Cafe, 19 Clark Point Road, is open seven days per week from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. until Columbus Day.