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October 23, 2006

Margaret Fox of Cafe Beaujolais fame shapes culinary tastes from Mendocino

By Jennifer McNulty

Shortly after graduating from UCSC in 1975, Margaret Fox bought a cafe in Mendocino and gave locals a delicious new reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Photo of Margaret Fox

Margaret Fox, who loves the "quiet time of breakfast," has published a new edition of Morning Food

Photo of cookbook

Word of Fox’s muffins, omelettes, and black bean chili quickly spread, and the cafe’s breakfasts were pronounced the best in the state by influential restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, whose review helped put the former fishing village on the culinary map.

Fans gobbled up Fox’s recipes in two cookbooks, Cafe Beaujolais and Morning Food, and today, Fox (B.A. psychology, Cowell) is culinary director of Harvest Market in Fort Bragg, a specialty supermarket where former lumberjacks rub elbows at the olive bar with urban transplants to the rugged, windswept coast. With a new edition of Morning Food: Breakfasts, Brunches & More for Savoring the Best Part of the Day just published by Ten Speed Press, Fox is campaigning to rid mornings of the misery of cold cereal.

Breakfast, according to Fox, is an opportunity to “give people something special in the midst of their regular life. I mean, why can’t people have pancakes on Tuesday morning?”

Fox’s daughter, who is now 9, definitely got the message: She devoured Fox’s cottage cheese pancakes every day for 180 days in a row.

Fox grew up making French toast, baklava, and cakes and cookies from scratch. “I’ve always been a morning person, and I love to putter around in the kitchen,” said Fox. “I love the quiet time of breakfast, and I like taking care of people, feeding people, making people happy.”

Fox took a year off during high school and started baking bread. Before long, she was selling it to friends. “It was my own little cottage industry,” recalled Fox, who recently discovered her handwritten notes from those days, with details about recipes, costs, yield, and responses.

At UCSC, Fox was drawn to developmental psychology, although in hindsight she thinks organizational psychology would’ve been a better foundation for her career. “I never in a million years saw myself in a business setting, which is where I’ve been since I left Santa Cruz,” she said. “But I’ve always been psychologically oriented.”

UCSC was “the perfect place for me,” said Fox, “I was always in slightly over my head, which turns out to be how I’ve lived my entire life. It was really fun and challenging.”

Fox bought Cafe Beaujolais in 1977 and for years “worked more waking hours than the average couple combined.” She sold the business in 2000, worked briefly as a business coach and consultant, and in 2004 joined Harvest Market, which she describes as “the world’s largest pantry.”

Today, Fox’s culinary vision is at the heart of the store’s strategic planning process. A “devout believer” in the “buy local” approach that supports local farmers, Fox also recognizes that consumers want one-stop shopping convenience, so the market offers “great deals on laundry detergent” as well as higher-end items like local wild king salmon, grass-fed beef, and specialty cheeses.

Harvest Market is competing to keep locals shopping in town instead of trekking over the hills to Santa Rosa to spend their dollars at Trader Joe’s and Costco, said Fox.

“I’m not political in an overt sense, but I believe how you live your daily life is an expression of your political beliefs,” said Fox. “It’s really nice to be able to know where your food comes from. There’s nothing like being able to look in the eye of the person who’s been growing your greens or raising your chickens.”

The demand is there, even in a former lumber town that’s home to many displaced loggers and fishermen. “The whole food scene has changed in the last 20 or 30 years. A lot of people like higher-end cheeses and specialty crackers,” she said. “They’re a lot savvier about their health, and when they eat chocolate, they eat the better brands, like Scharffen Berger. I’ve heard of realtors who bring out-of-town buyers to the market, saying ‘You can move here and continue your life as you know it.’”

Earlier this year, Harvest Market expanded into Mendocino with the purchase of Mendosa’s, the landmark family-owned market and hardware store. The venue gives Fox a creative outlet right in the heart of town, and foodies have a new stop on their culinary tour of the North Coast.

With no formal training in marketing, Fox certainly seems to have a knack for knowing what consumers want. “I think I have a gift for it, and I get a huge kick out of it,” she said.

More information about Margaret Fox or her new edition of Morning Food, is available online.

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