Keeping a long-running Berwick restaurant alive and rocking

If you look up the definition of what a community hub is supposed to be, it might just say “The Union Street.” Rooted in family, history and the rich agricultural fabric that fuels our province, this long-running, respected restaurant is deeply committed to everything local. For two girls who were born and raised in the Valley, this is pretty much a dream come true. They’re working hard to positively affect the community they grew up in, and it shows.

The Union St. Café first opened its doors on Union Street in Berwick in 2000 and was originally run by sisters Jenny and Meagan Osburn along with their mother Anna and their aunt Kate. It didn’t take long for them to outgrow their space and move to the current building on Commercial Street, which had its own history as a restaurant and pub over the course of 70 years. The Osburns’ café had garnered a great reputation for both food and live music by the time they were ready to hand it over to its latest owners, Lauren Franey and Virginia Fynes.

In 2015, the Osburn sisters began to feel like it was time to step away and refocus on their young families and other pursuits, like the popular The Union Street Café Cookbook. So, why not sell it to two young women ready to embark on their own culinary journey? When The Union Street re-opened in March 2016, it marked 16 years that it had been owned and operated by women, and not just that, but by closely linked networks of friends and family.

This isn’t your typical interview. The three of us actually sit down and break bread together. Over the course of a few hours, the natural ebb and flow of this lovely space reveal itself. The two of them are dressed to the nines in matching outfits. They insist that the first 10 times this happened it was pure coincidence, and now when shopping, they just purchase the second outfit. The table is dressed for fall with gourds and a bright bouquet of sunflowers. If anything, it is I who is underdressed.

We’re seated at a long harvest table hand-built by Virginia with the late-morning sun streaming into the dining room. A most photo-worthy and delicious charcuterie and cheese board is on deck with cheeses, meats, vegetables, olives, breads, crackers, berries and other accoutrements. I’ve been impressed by their work at a few events, but this is most definitely a showpiece for their catering arm, especially at 10:30 am.

Lauren Franey, the oldest in a family of all girls, grew up right in Berwick and later moved to Alberta to attend university where she studied marketing and business. With three young children, she knew she wanted to move back to the Valley to be near her family. She always worked as a waitress, including through her university years. Once home, Lauren worked at the café for five years before she and Virginia purchased it.

Virginia hails from the neighbouring community of Morristown, where she now raises her two young children only one kilometre away from where she was born on a hog farm run by her mother. The youngest of 10 strong, she first discovered her love of food in grade six when she started helping out at her mother and best friend, Margie from Meadowbrook Farm’s catering company. Her university track was eclectic, moving from animal science to interior design. Five years before The Union Street, she had a robust catering business with no formal training.

Growing up in a small, tight-knit community, and even attending the same high school, it’s surprising the two didn’t strike up a friendship sooner given their shared interests. I honestly feel like I’m in the company of two sisters. They met at the nursery school their children attended and often found themselves working together at the helm of fundraising initiatives. When the opportunity came up, they joined forces officially and have naturally fallen into the roles that have suited them all along — Lauren on front of house and Virginia managing the kitchen. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride, but they both admit to arriving at work smiling most of the time.

First up for lunch, we sample Lauren’s favourite dish from the time she was a regular — Ginger Peanut Noodles with marinated tofu from Acadiana Soy and rice noodles. The dish is chock full of fresh Valley vegetables such as zucchinis, peppers and broccoli, and it’s all in a flavourful thick and creamy peanut satay sauce.

The town is not exactly known for its international flair, so the menu does cater to the classics — wings, ribs, fish and chips, the clubhouse sandwich and the classic burger with hand-cut fries aren’t going anywhere any time soon. But at the same time, Virginia says, when you drive by 10 farm stands on the way to work, it’s hard not to be continually inspired. A new dish usually starts with a local ingredient and builds from there, and these days it often gets a world cuisine spin on it. There are chimichurri wings, for instance, a Vietnamese pork burger, tandoori butter chicken, Korean salmon and more.

They inherited a music venue, but they’ve taken it to new heights due to Lauren’s love of music. As a child, she has memories of attending yard sales with her father where he would make her guard piles of vinyl while he cut the deals. An avid collector with over 40,000 records, he carefully curates the shelves near the front cash containing mostly duplicates and second pressings. Her parents attend all concerts.

Booking bands is not about the bottom line for them; the money goes directly to the musicians. It’s been more about filling the restaurant with the community and having a good time. There are lots of community halls, but no real competing music venues nearby. They’ve had some great artists come through, including Matt Mays, The Stanfields, Rose Cousins, Matt Minglewood, David Myles and Hillsburn. Their sound guy, Andy, has worked here longer than anyone else, and also doubles as an excellent bartender (he just redid the cocktail menu).

Harkening back to the classic gastropub fare, we split the Dragon’s Breath Burger. It has an all-beef patty from Meadowbrook Meat Market, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, caramelized onions and a divine mayo made with That Dutchman’s Dragon’s Breath Blue cheese on a fresh-baked bun. Beside it is a roasted beet salad with greens, Ran-Cher Acres goat’s cheese, rosemary-candied almonds and a balsamic vinaigrette. The food here is hyperlocal, fresh and delicious.

For a town of this size (population 2,509, in fact), you can understand how a place like this could become a focal point for the community. The girls are adamant that the Valley isn’t all baby boomers and retirees; it’s full of young families and budding entrepreneurs. They, of course, are a case in point. It takes just two minutes to drive from one end of town to the other, and surprisingly there are seven other restaurants, but no one is doing quite what they’re doing.

Every person who walks in the door is on a first-name basis with Virginia and Lauren, and each one stops by for a catch-up mid-interview. No one bats an eye. The best moment award goes to Lauren’s mother, who drops by with a special delivery of hand-picked wildflowers from Lauren’s daughter. Second place goes to the server who arrives tableside with a cup of water to put them in. Virginia’s parents, who have been divorced since she was in grade four, arrive for lunch together with grandchildren in tow.

Their friendship has also flourished within this whole mix. Their children hang out together, they support and watch each other’s backs, they travel and cater offsite together, and they both love to sing and dance. I can just picture an evening of music here with the two of them hosting the room; must be a pile of fun.

Virginia has shuffled six years of crafts, design and large brands through her blog, Fynes Designs. She’s worked with companies like Staples and Canadian Tire and has built up an impressive network that includes over 360,000 Pinterest and 16,000 Instagram followers. Her latest project, which included a large photo spread and video segments, was for Leon’s “Part of the Family” campaign wherein the company hired influencers to stage their own homes.

When Virginia and Lauren started their official renovation on The Union Street, it was mostly about decluttering, opening up the space and being inventive with décor on a shoestring budget, which is clearly not an issue for someone like Virginia. She even managed to teach Lauren how to use an air nailer, and together they tackled the space.

It’s a large restaurant at 130 seats with an additional 70 on the patio in summer. In the main dining room, it’s white-washed wainscoting and pleasing tones of charcoal grey and yellow. There are light hardwood floors throughout the space, wooden tabletops, leather banquette booths and fun pops of colour like the coral pink front cash. And then the finishing touches: vintage cameras and rolling pins adorn the walls, an array of mixed, fun light fixtures, and even a bicycle found in a friend’s garage that was cleaned up and whose wheels now help spell out “FOOD” above the harvest table.

Lauren Franey and Virginia Fynes

Dessert arrives — a plank of testing-size seasonal pies, and one of them smiles up at me. This happy face lightly scored into the pie’s crust is one of Virginia’s mother’s signature moves; methinks the world might be a better place if more of our food gave us this look a little more often. As I cut into the pastry, fresh-baked Valley apples topple onto the platter…I take a small slice of this, the peach, the blueberry and the sublime coconut cream. We all do. And then Virginia stacks them on top of each other to take around the corner to her kids, who I suspect are anxiously awaiting their arrival, but not before we all stop eating to take a photo of said cutely stacked pies. I’m not typically a desserts fiend, but damn, I could eat these pies. Virginia’s mother is the official baker making all of the focaccia, tea biscuits and desserts on a daily basis.

After spending some time here, I’m convinced a restaurant can be for and about a community. They’re young, ambitious and clearly not afraid of the workload. And when you don’t have the solution, “sometimes you have to walk the sidewalk to find the answer,” says Lauren. I couldn’t agree more.