Local Sprouts Cafe, a business run by Local Sprouts Cooperative, uses local produce and products to cook up stir-fried tofu and jerk chicken, and serves them in an earthy, casual and laid-back atmosphere.

In fact, the atmosphere is so laid back that the first time I arrived for dinner on a night I had arranged to meet a friend, the business had decided to close to the public to hold a staff meeting.

But the details — from the counter ordering and children’s illustration table markers to the cafeteria ambience — are precisely what the three “worker-owners” intended in order to create a different kind of atmosphere than a table service restaurant.

Decisions about the business are put to a vote, with the kitchen staff and servers paid about equally. Tips go to everyone, and are divided up once a week.

Jonah Fertig is one of the worker-owners. He said the number of worker-owners would grow in the next year to include many of the 15 workers at the cafe right now, as they decide to buy in with money and time commitments.

Of course, this all centers on food. Meat eaters and vegetarians — and those who have adopted a full-fledged vegan diet — can all find something here. Meat eaters can eat the BLT with bacon, and vegetarians can get the tempeh bacon with tofu mayonnaise.

The soup specials are $3.50 a cup and $5 a bowl, and are made with good stuff like haddock in a chowder or tomato and carrot curry.

Our table was a section of door covered with worn green paint and topped by a square of glass. A big, curved wall divides the entranceway from the dining area, and holds built-in seating on the other side.

Four photographs — of folks pulling onions, hoeing cabbage, chopping carrots and cooking — hang on one wall, illustrating the work of making a meal.

We ordered at the counter, paid for the order and then faced a line for a tip on the receipt before there had been any service. A quick troll on a counter-service tipping thread on Chowhound reveals no consensus, except that people who become regulars like to reward good service. I guess one answer is to carry cash to distribute at the end of a meal, as the fancy strikes you.

Local Sprouts Cooperative focuses on more than just its cafe. Its work includes gathering surplus food for donations to food pantries and offering a free program in collaboration with Cultivating Communities for youths who learn to cook local food. One recent class canned tomatoes.

Catering is another enterprise; the cooperative was just awarded “Best Bite for the Buck” for its food at the 2010 Common Ground Country Fair.

Right, the food. It is served in brightly colored shallow bowls. Jerk chicken ($12.50), a leg and part of a breast with a dark, aromatic and spicy coating, was tender and juicy, and made a good dinner with its spicy red beans and chewy brown rice.

A side of vegetables mixed lots of different kinds in a hodgepodge that was tasty but haphazard — red and yellow onions, green beans, broccoli, green and yellow peppers with cabbage, spinach and a tougher green, probably kale. I prefer my local produce served with more attention to one or two vegetables, and a knack for the best way to cook them.

Mushroom lasagna ($12.50) was served with a side of mesclun, slices of hard yellow carrots and cherry tomatoes. The lasagna held a mother lode of lion’s mane mushrooms — chewy, fresh and a delight to discover under its al dente pasta. The ricotta and mozzarella inside was presentably creamy.

Arugula and orange beet salad ($5) with almost-raw green beans looked handsome in its shallow blue glass bowl, and was lightly dressed and fresh. So many kitchens like to serve almost-raw green beans that I can only guess many customers really like them, but cooking improves them, to my mind.

Mead ($5) from R. Nicholl Maine Apiary and bottled by Fiddler’s Reach in Bath, was plain and simple, off-dry with an aroma of honey. The cafe also serves a Chilean Malbec and a white wine, along with a few microbrews.

If there are leftovers — as there were for us with the generous serving of jerk chicken — you ask at the counter for a box to pack it up.

Dessert ranges among baked goods set out on another counter. Beet chocolate cake ($3) had a dry texture and a pleasant, light flavor under a thick cap of whipped cream.

Better was a slice of almond cake ($3), which was moist and nutty with something rich, perhaps coconut, inside along with butter.

Press the tops of the thermos carafes to serve yourself a cup of coffee — the decaf was good, rounded and rich.

If half-and-half isn’t visible and you don’t want to use soy milk, ask the staff, because the business has it. 

N.L. English is a Portland freelance writer and the author of “Chow Maine: The Best Restaurants, Cafes, Lobster Shacks and Markets on the Coast.” Visit English’s Web site, www.chowmaineguide.com.


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