Debbie Bartok grew up in South Asheville, but it took a trip to London to make her realize that her birthplace was changing dramatically.
“About eight years ago, I was on a plane reading the in-flight magazine,” remembers Bartok, who was then living in Charlotte. “It said, ‘Asheville is the new Paris of the South,’ and I started laughing. I mean, growing up, we only went downtown to go to Tops for Shoes. That’s pretty much all there was.”
Yet when Bartok got back, she decided to give downtown another shot on her next trip to Asheville. “I don’t know what to say besides I couldn’t believe it. It gave me a hankering to come back home.”
In September, Bartok and daughter Marion Buhrmaster bought the Clingman Café in the River Arts District. But despite being recent arrivals, they’re anything but new to either cafés or Asheville.
Growing up in Charlotte, Buhrmaster made frequent trips here to visit her grandparents, who owned the iconic Hot Shot Café in Biltmore Village. After training as a pastry chef at Johnson & Wales University, she and her mother and sister opened the Sunflour Baking Co. in Charlotte.
“Sunflour was the first bakery/café I’d owned, but I’ve been a bread baker forever,” says Bartok. “We started it when Marion was just 22, right out of pastry school.”
With a first business, notes Bartok, there’s a big learning curve that exposes the flaws in your business model. “We had so many different items at Sunflour, all of them made from scratch. It was a lot of freaking work!”
Still, says Buhrmaster, opening a new restaurant gives you time to learn. “You could take time to catch up and learn on slow days. Here at Clingman, we started in leaf season, so we really had to rely on the staff,” she says. “They were the ones who had to tell us the little ins and outs, and all that stuff about your customers and your regulars.”
If you haven’t been to Clingman since the new owners took over, you’ll notice a big change as soon as you walk in: a large, custom-built pastry case displaying house-made baked goods.
“We both have a real passion for providing food for people with alternative diets, so we’ve been making a lot of new baked goods, trying to give people options,” says Bartok. “The response has been overwhelming, to gluten-free in particular.”
“One example is the Cling Bar, a play on our name and the Cliff Bar,” adds Buhrmaster. “It’s made with hemp seeds, chia seeds, amaranth, millet, peanut butter, oats, rye, barley, teff, raisins and chocolate chips.”
The duo also started making muffins, which had previously been bought from an outside supplier. These days, the case is packed with creative muffin offerings such as brown butter carrot and currant, ham and cheese, the Elvis (peanut butter and banana), Nutella swirl, pumpkin apple and vanilla cranberry.
A delicate balance
Bartok and Buhrmaster’s passion for healthy food and seasonal ingredients didn’t begin with the baked goods at Clingman. At Sunflour, the two initially refused to serve anything out of season. Customers, however, didn’t understand why the tomato slice suddenly disappeared from the sandwiches when the seasons changed.
And though local and seasonal are concepts thoroughly ingrained in Asheville’s food scene, they haven’t necessarily been a big part of Clingman’s menu. Despite now having a farmers market a mere block away, many menu items haven’t changed in years.
“We tried in Charlotte, but eventually we had to give up on some of the battles we were fighting,” Bartok explains. “We’re excited that, here in Asheville, people get it,” she adds, but it’s still a delicate balance: If you want to keep your customers happy, you can’t just make changes because you want to as owners.
And Clingman has one of the most unusual customer bases in Asheville. “You’ve got the morning locals, who grab a coffee and a bagel sandwich or something else to take with them,” says Bartok. “By afternoon, it’s a different crowd: That’s when we get more tourists stopping in for salads and sandwiches. Later in the afternoon it changes again, and we get people stopping in for coffee and a sweet snack. … And in between all that, we get a lot of groups meeting up.”
“For example, you might not expect it, but we get a ton of road bikers,” says Buhrmaster.
For the time being, the new owners plan to add menu items without cutting any. “The menu will be too large for a while, but it has to be that way,” Bartok maintains. “We need to give people more choices and then see what falls through the cracks.”
Meanwhile, the café’s long-standing practice of displaying locally made paintings and pots on its walls will soon expand as well. Buhrmaster’s brother-in-law is a carpenter, and she says they’re designing a new gridded shelf system so they can show off — and sell — more ceramics created by RAD artists. “We had to do a lot of work in the kitchen first, but we’re excited to turn our attention to that soon.”
The Clingman Café (clingmancafeasheville.com) is at 242 Clingman Ave. in the River Arts District.