By Michele J. Kuhn
HIGHLANDS – A visit to the Girls Café is a bit like sitting in your sister’s, mom’s or even your favorite aunt’s kitchen.
Opened in June by sisters Cathy Hartsgrove and Vera Rotsma, regulars and first-time visitors can eat breakfast or lunch and banter with the women – and any number of relatives who stop in to eat or lend a hand when the café is bustling with business.
“The girls” are native Highlanders, members of the Hartsgrove family. Their dad Wallace was a clammer and their mother Lillian was a housewife who cooked for her family of 11 children – Vera is seventh in line, Cathy is 10th. The sisters learned to cook from the mom, “the best cook in the world,” and still use family recipes. The Manhattan-style clam chowder recipe is their father’s.
The women had worked for eight years for their sister Laura Renzo, number 9 out of the 11, who was owner of Laura’s Pancake House further down Bay Avenue. They decided to open their own place after Renzo decided not to reopen after getting slammed by Super Storm Sandy, a year after being devastated by Tropical Storm Irene.
The women had looked for other work but found that tough going. They missed seeing their customers and were repeatedly stopped on the street and asked when they were going to reopen. Eventually, they agreed that opening a small, cozy café was the right direction to take. With the help of “a very good relative” who backed them, they opened Girls Café on June 3 and have been serving breakfast and lunch ever since.
“We just wanted a little, little café, just a few tables,” Hartsgrove said. “It was something we could do, not making a killing but make a living.”
They found their cozy nook behind Driftwood Liquor & Bar one day when Hartsgrove was driving around. She noticed the vacant shop’s open door. She looked in at the former pizzeria and then went to talk to the owner, whom she knew. “It’s a nice-sized place and we knew we would be comfortable,” Hartsgrove said.
Before they opened, the sisters sat down and hashed out guidelines on how to run their family business. “We do have our differences but when we first started out, we said we have to communicate. We have to sit down with each other and discuss what we want and what we don’t want. Everyone has an opinion and then we dissect it.
“We’re all so close and we can talk to each other, say what’s on our minds. It may hurt our feelings for about an hour, but we just … well, it’s family. Our parents brought us up to stay close,” she said.
When one of the sisters needs a few hours off, sister-in-law Carol Hartsgrove comes in to lend a hand and on weekends some of their brothers – the Hartsgrove 11 are seven sisters and four brothers – will handle dishwashing duty.
The sisters know their regular customers and take special care of them at the café which seats 14 at tables and eight at the counter. One customer has a special mug the sisters keep in the freezer for him to ensure his milk stays cold.
“We have a lot of fun with our customers,” Hartsgrove said.
They also take care of new customers who they hope will leave as regulars. They seem to have a gift for remembering names.
“You’re going to have a good time when you come in here. We joke around with everybody and a lot of people tell us they feel like they are at home when they come in,” Hartsgrove said. “They may be new when they come in but when they are ready to leave, they feel like they’ve known us for 100 years. We have so many nice people who come in.”
The restaurant business is a hard one and the sisters were aware of the risk they were taking, particularly in a town devastated by Sandy where only a percentage of residents have been able to return and street after street hold the remains of wrecked homes.
They get emotional when they talk about their hometown and what they and everyone there has gone through in the last few years.
“We’re glad our parents aren’t here to see it,” Rotsma said. “People asked why we opened here … We wanted to bring business back into town.”
“We need to bring businesses back and make Highlands what it used to be. It’s going to be a long time but we needed to do our bit,” Hartsgrove said. “It’s nice to see the town’s people coming back in … This is where we wanted to come back to and do what we did.
“We felt compelled to open,” she said.
Nowadays, they are putting together a phonebook with their customers’ names because they found that after the storm, they worried about their regulars and what had happened to them.
So far, they have done well, though they are a bit concerned about what the winter will bring. “We pray every night. The Lord got us this far and we feel he won’t turn his back on us … with the grace of God, we’ve been keeping afloat,” Hartsgrove said. “This year has been a blessing.”
Girls Café at the rear of 300 Bay Ave. is open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays. They deliver in town and can be reached at 732-291-1108. During the summer they are open an hour earlier to accommodate the town’s fishermen.