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Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

Liv, Love, Local: Smoke and Lola’s

One important concept at Smoke and Lola’s is providing a free cup of a rotation of daily soup free soup to any community member regardless of financial status.
One important concept at Smoke and Lola’s is providing a free cup of a rotation of daily soup free soup to any community member regardless of financial status.

Smoke and Lola’s opened in Bristol, Vt. on Dec. 9, 2023 as the newest café in town, serving up breakfast, lunch and free soup five days a week. 

The café is a collaborative effort between co-owner Abbey LaMay-West and chef and co-owner Wayne Johnson, both Lincoln, Vt. residents. Smoke and Lola’s is named after Johnson and LaMay West’s dogs, Smoke and Lola, respectively. 

Jess Denny, a longtime Bristol resident, serves as the café’s general manager, and Johnson’s son Skye works in the kitchen, rounding out the team of four. 

LaMay-West and Johnson met five years ago and had recently started discussing collaborating on a catering concept. The swift opening of the café came at fortuitous timing when the space at 28 North Street in Bristol opened up this fall after popular bakery Jones the Boy Bake Shop pivoted to a fully wholesale operation in October 2023. 

While this is the team’s first venture into a café space, all members have years of experience in the hospitality and restaurant industry. LaMay-West has long been involved in management and recently as the owner at Vermont’s Own Goods & Gifts in downtown Middlebury. Denny has worked in similar managerial roles for decades, including at nearby Bristol restaurant Cubber’s. 

Chef Johnson has worked at various restaurants including Haymaker Bun Company, American Flatbread and even in the current Smoke and Lola café space as a baker when it housed the Almost Home bakery until 2020. 

According to Vermont zoning laws, the 28 North Street building has been designated for takeout due to the lack of public restrooms. In accordance with these zoning laws, Smoke and Lola’s offers a grab-and-go menu of breakfast and lunch bites, along with a selection of pastries and bags of coffee and granola available for retail.

“It’s been wonderful,” Denny said, reflecting on the community response to the café opening. Denny explained that one challenge the team faced was the fact that they opened in mid-December, welcoming in a pre-holiday rush followed by a typically slower winter period. 

“We opened at an interesting time, but we've seen the love and support,” she said. 

As the team has learned more about community demand, they have adjusted the days and hours they are open. Currently, Smoke and Lola’s is open five days a week, from Friday through Tuesday, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The team aims to eventually expand to be open seven days a week in the future.

“We were trying to bridge the closure gap in town,” said Denny. 

Smoke and Lola’s joins a lineage of local-focused concepts in the same space, including Jones the Boy, Bristol Market and Almost Home, where Johnson previously worked as a baker. Beyond his experience in Vermont’s culinary scene, Johnson has spent time cooking in Jamaica and Peru and enjoys experimenting with international cuisines and flavors, which inspire his specials on the Smoke and Lola’s menu. 

Denny described the menu ideation process with Johnson and LaMay-West as starting with a focus on staple items, such as classic sandwiches, bagels and soups. “From staples, we will build,” she said. “[Johnson] just keeps going with all these incredible ideas.” 

Johnson aims for excellence in every dish. “I really think that feeding people involves a lot of trust,” he said. “People don’t have to buy food from a restaurant.” 

Johnson takes pride in creating quality food with a unique twist, letting his creativity come through in rotating specials. 

“I'm trying to create an anticipation so that people want to see what's coming next,” he explained. “Always making it something just a little bit outside the box, and nothing I do is like everybody else's.” 

The vindaloo sandwich and the dense meatloaf — sliced paper-thin by Johnson — are two updated comfort foods on the lunch menu. 

“I want to do things that are familiar so that people don't feel threatened by the idea, but also different than what their initial expectation is,” Johnson said. 

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Denny added that the menu features gluten free and vegetarian options, including spanakopita as well as apple pie oatmeal. 

“The food and coffee is amazing,” according to Sarah Kimmel ’24, who visited Smoke and Lola’s for the first time last week and tried a breakfast sandwich. “[It’s] such an adorable new spot.” 

Another facet of the café’s concept is providing free soup. “The accessibility in small towns in Vermont is really important to me,” said Johnson. 

Denny shared that the free soup initiative was inspired by the work of Wayne’s cousin Pat Peters, a former chef at Middlebury College, who has since passed away. Peters was known to make soup and give it away to community members on her days off from work. 

Regardless of financial status, anyone is welcome to come in and get a free cup of a rotation of daily soup, limited to one per customer. 

“We're hoping to get more awareness of the fact that we're doing it so we get people who are more in need to come in,” Johnson said. 

Community support from companies like Green Mountain Payments, a South Burlington, Vt.– based merchant credit card company, along with individual community donors has helped Smoke and Lola’s fund their soup initiative so far. 

Johnson emphasized the fresh, quality ingredients in each batch of soup. “It's all nourishing food and I try to make the soup as good a quality as if I was trying to sell it for six bucks a cup,” he said. 

Across the menu, Smoke and Lola’s takes a hyper-local approach to ingredient sourcing. Produce and meat are sourced from local farms whenever possible, while the biscuits, naan and sausage are all made in-house. 

The chai and chocolate syrups are homemade using Jones the Boy’s recipe. Every Friday, the café receives a delivery of Jones the Boy pastries to be sold in addition to Johnson’s own baked goods, providing some continuity of products in the space. Jones the Boy owner Ash Allison has assisted in the transition, stepping in to help with tasks such as dialing in the espresso machine. 

All drinks the café serves are made in Vermont — coffee beans come from Uncommon Coffee in Essex Junction and cold drink options include Aqua ViTea, made in Middlebury, Vt. and Waterbury–based Chug Water. Of course, the maple syrup Smoke and Lola’s uses is also from Vermont, made at Lafayette Farm in Lincoln, Vt. 

As longtime Vermont residents, connecting with and supporting the community is an integral part of the café concept. The back area of the café space is already earmarked as a potential setup for a hyper-local market selling products from local makers, which would work to further this goal

“We are trying to do as local as possible. That's one of our biggest models for the space,” Denny said. 

Olivia Mueller

Olivia Mueller '24 (she/her) is a News Editor.

Previously an Arts and Culture editor, Olivia is an International Politics and Economics major with a Spanish minor. Outside of the Campus, she is a spin instructor for YouPower, an avid runner and hiker, and a member of the Middlebury Mischords a cappella group.