There are a few things you’ll almost always find at the center of a small Maine town. A post office. A market of some sort. A gas station. A couple of churches. A bank or two. Perhaps a pharmacy and a hardware store. And sometimes, but not always, a little cafe.
In the Knox County town of Union, all those things are there, alongside the Badger Cafe & Pub, a cozy, welcoming eatery and bar run for the past 10 years by husband-and-wife business partners Christy and Michael Greer.
Despite having a population of just 2,259 people at last count, Union, like most small towns, needs that central gathering place, where all are welcome to share a meal or a pint and some conversation.
“Where else would you go if you lived in Union or Appleton and you just wanted a burger and a beer? You’d go to Rockland or Augusta,” Christy Greer said. “Our locals keep us going. Summertime is the peak, for sure, but we get to be open basically year-round, and we have regulars that we see all the time. I know people by their first names. It’s a nice, community kind of feeling.”
Christy Greer is originally from Brunswick. Michael Greer grew up in Machiasport. They first met somewhere in the middle. Camden, to be exact, where Michael was cooking in a restaurant and Christy was working at a local retail outlet, after many years doing lots of different jobs. The couple fell in love over food.
“I asked him to marry me because he cooks and I don’t,” Christy Greer said. “I’m glad he said yes. … I think our dynamic works really well. I’m the bad cop. He’s the good cop. I like to bake, he likes to cook. I’m front of house, he’s in the kitchen. … It also helps that we take a big vacation every winter, and every other year we go on separate vacations. It just works.”
About 15 years ago, the Greers decided they were done with working for other people — they wanted to be their own bosses. They began looking around the midcoast for properties that would suit them.
“We either wanted to open a general store or we wanted to open a restaurant,” Christy Greer said. “Something to do with food. … We put a bid in on the Tenants Harbor General Store, but then Linda Bean came in and snapped it up. We can’t compete with her.”
After more months of searching, the couple happened upon the building in Union. For 16 years, it was home to Hannibal’s Cafe on the Common, another hometown eatery. But by the end of 2006, the owner of the previous establishment had decided to close up shop. As soon as the couple laid eyes on the building, they were sold. During the summer of 2007, the Badger Cafe opened for business, named for Christy Greer’s maiden name, Badger.
“Badgers are cute. But they’re also tough. The honey badger video that was popular on YouTube gave us a boost, too. And if we get people from Wisconsin in, they love badgers,” she said, referring to the mascot of the University of Wisconsin Madison.
The food at the Badger Cafe is, for the most part, fairly straightforward — breakfast favorites in the mornings, pub food classics in the evening — but it’s also often rather ambitious and done with a palate that clearly appreciates many different types of cuisine.
Michael Greer said their top-selling dishes are Michael’s Mac and Cheese (his signature recipe), the Buttermilk Fried Chicken (served with more mac and cheese, coleslaw and a biscuit), and their Crispy Spring Rolls (an outrageously delicious specialty filled with creamy coleslaw and deep fried). All pub food classics done to perfection.
But many more unexpected, culinarily diverse dishes also make the menu, like house-made falafel served either in a sandwich or on a salad or a Thai-style beef salad. For weekend brunch, things such as omelettes and French toast share menu space with dishes such as Mo’ Pho, a steaming bowl of Vietnamese-style soup topped with a fried egg; the Fire Hash Plate, a take on breakfast hash made with sweet potatoes and house-made chorizo sausage instead of regular potatoes and corned beef; or a Badger Cafe take on huevos rancheros, served on homemade corn tortillas.
“We’ve said in the past that it’s simple with a twist. We do everything we can in house, and we try to get stuff locally,” Michael Greer said. “We try to have fun with it. Our specials are the things where we get to get a little more experimental. … We’ve been using movies and music as inspiration. We’ll pick song titles from a band or things from a particular movie or director and use that to make up dishes.”
Recent picks have included the films of Quentin Tarantino, Disney movies and the songs of Prince, Queen and Patsy Cline. Last Halloween, they even drew from 1980s horror movies for inspiration featuring baked puff pastry shaped to look like Jason’s mask in “Friday the 13th.”
Another unexpected element to the offerings at the Badger Cafe is the fact that, since Day One, Michael and Christy Greer wanted to offer craft beer at the bar. In 2007, Maine’s craft beer scene was still in its infancy, but the Badger Cafe was already invested in showcasing Maine, national and international breweries. Ten years on, they are still rotating their taps every day, with some cask-conditioned ales available when possible and 58 different varieties in the cooler.
“I used to work at the Market Basket in Rockport, and the last two years I was there I did the beer buying for them, so I had already really gotten into beer and had connections,” Michael Greer said. “That was one of our main goals from the beginning. We were definitely early adopters of the craft beer thing. I’d like to think we were a little bit ahead of the curve.”
“We knew early on we didn’t want Bud or Coors or anything like that. You can get that anywhere. … And our customers have responded really well to it,” Christy Greer said. “We do have Pabst Blue Ribbon, though. We did make a concession for that.”
The Greers have poured their lives into fostering that sense of community in their little pub and eatery — and after a decade, they feel no less excited about it than when they first started.
“Almost every day, I’m like, ‘Wow, how lucky am I?’ I get to do this,” Christy Greer said. “And in a place like Union. It’s great.”