Brandon and Whitney Vair had not yet opened The Meriwether Café and Bike Shop when Katy Trail tourists began showing up at their front door.
"A gentleman from Argentina and his girlfriend from France came up and (asked), 'Can we use your patio?'" Brandon Vair said recently.
After welcoming the couple, the Vairs joined their visitors for an evening around the campfire.
"We had traditional yerba mate out of a bombilla, passing it around in a circle," Brandon Vair said. "An Argentinian social custom right here on the patio in Rocheport, Missouri."
In the months after its opening in June in the former Trailside Cafe, the cafe and bike shop at the edge of the Katy Trail has established itself as a “welcome mat” for the Rocheport community.
“People come in past the trail or are parking in the parking lot, and they see us first,” Brandon said. “We play tour guide, trail host and ambassador to Rocheport.”
The dining side of the operation is an all-scratch, locally-sourced kitchen, while the bike shop handles rentals and custom logo apparel, canvas bags and water bottles created by One To One Print Shop.
The focus of the bike shop, however, is on rentals, with roughly 40 sets of wheels in their fleet, as well as simple repairs. Beyond tandem and children's bikes, the fleet includes 25 MeriBikes, comfort cruisers made by the Marin Bike Co. in San Francisco.
The new business venture has given the Vairs an opportunity to start conversations with people passing through.
"We've met a lot of interesting people from all over,” Whitney Vair said.
Made local, from scratch
The Vairs, both Boone County natives, opened the Meriwether Café and Bike Shop early last summer.
The menu offers standard fare like buttermilk pancakes, as well as the more exotic mushroom galette, which features oyster mushrooms grown in Sturgeon.
"Oyster mushrooms from mid-Missouri. Who knew?" Brandon Vair said with a laugh.
Reliance on local suppliers has become an integral part of the cafe's identity, with 70 percent of food dollars spent in Boone County.
"We also have some homestyle favorites that allow us to put our own spin on the classics," he said, citing their meatloaf sandwich as a prime example. The dish is made with homemade milk-and-honey bread, topped with tomato jam and crispy fried leeks.
In August, the Vairs introduced a pastry program. Each Saturday and Sunday, new sweet treats are available for a weekend run.
“We try not to do the same thing twice,” Brandon Vair said, except for fan favorites.
That includes cinnamon rolls every Saturday. "If we didn't have them, people would be mad at us," he said.
A dream fulfilled
After a short stint in Colorado, the Vairs came back to their home state in 2013. The decision to settle in Rocheport two years later was largely due to its proximity to the Katy Trail.
After working in the restaurant industry for over 15 years, the couple decided to put their self-taught skills to work. At the cafe, Whitney Vair serves as the pastry program director, general aesthetic coordinator and social media director.
"She designed the cafe layout," her husband said. "She is a force of nature and one of the most talented bakers I have ever had the honor to work with."
Meanwhile, his focus is on "day-to-day operations." He orders inventory, keeps the books, sources local ingredients and does a bulk of the weekday cooking.
"Doing something like this has been a dream of ours for a long time," his wife said. "When we were presented with the opportunity, there was a wave of emotions."
Early on, the couple grappled with whether the decision was right for them and their young daughter. But after purchasing the property in late January, the experience became a "really great adventure."
They worked for six months to restore the space, which had been the Trailside Cafe and Bike Shop from 1989 until late 2014.
"I do know the Trailside had more emphasis on bike sales and repair, and less (of a) "scratch-cooking" approach," Brandon Vair said.
The building sat empty for quite some time before the Vairs took over in early 2017.
"Everything in here has changed," Whitney Vair said. They opened up the building interior, removing four walls and offering patrons a view into the kitchen.
"We were able to work from a blank slate," she said, equating the process to moving into a new house.
"There's always the feeling of newness and the absence of life,” she said. “Then as you live in that space, more things evolve."
Throughout the process, Rocheport resident Tawnee Benner had a front row seat.
“(I) watched the painful demise of Trailside Cafe over the last years of its life,” Benner said. “When we heard the great news about Brandon and Whitney Vair opening Meriwether’s, we were so happy…a new chance at life has returned to such a wonderful landmark on the trail in our little town.”
Benner, a fan of "beloved pastries" like the brioche cinnamon rolls, called the new cafe a destination for conversation and leisure.
“(It’s) special because it caters to each visitor just as they are — cyclist, tourist or resident of Rocheport,” she said. “I love the atmosphere they created from the older outdated interior that was there (before).”
While the Katy Trail has undoubtedly played an integral part in the Meriwether Café and Bike Shop’s identity, the Vairs insisted it’s the Rocheport spirit that’s made the most impact.
“As far as our client base goes, we do deal a lot with tourists and out-of-towners,” Brandon Vair said. “But I can guarantee every Sunday night, there’s going to be eight or 10 people that are sitting at the same table doing the same thing, coming up and saying, ‘Hey, how’s your kid? What’s going on?’”
Members of their close-knit community have returned day in and day out, they say, but it’s clear the support goes both ways.
"Rocheport is great, there's 220 people and we know them all," Vair said, laughing. "It's just fun to work in your community and provide a service."
His wife nodded as he spoke.
“It’s a really special place,” she said of Rocheport. “I’ve been so thankful to grow our roots even deeper in the community. People that live here want to be here, and they care about (this) town.”
Rebekah Patterson-Hadlow, a staff member at Meriwether's, called the cafe and bike shop a "safe haven" in the community.
"You can come here, get a good quality meal, a hot meal and you can meet great people," she said. "It has definitely created a sense of community."