Housed inside the farm stand at Bread and Butter Farms in Burlington, Vermont, Blank Page Café is not your average specialty coffee shop. For founder Mike Proia, the ethos of Blank Page Café is in the details—the thoughtful preparation of coffee and food, the wholesome ingredients, the sustainable business model, and the emphasis on building a healthy community. I was so inspired when I learned about what Mike was doing with Blank Page Café through his mindful approach to food and coffee that I jumped at the opportunity to collaborate and share some of his story.
This post is a true community effort—Mike contributed his Dark Chocolate Sweet Potato Brownie Recipe, Brio Coffeeworks kindly sent along some of their coffee, and I got busy in the kitchen attempting to recreate a little bit of the Blank Page Café magic in my home. Today, I am thrilled to feature an interview with Proia where we dig into the philosophy behind his café, and have a chance to experience his passion through this unbelievably delicious and healthy recipe for grain-free Sweet Potato Brownies—I hope you enjoy!
tLBCC: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what compelled you to open Blank Page Café?
Mike Proia: Throughout my adolescence and much of my twenties, I subscribed to the commonly held notion that happiness was a byproduct of financial success. This belief led me to earn a degree in finance, which in turn landed me a seat at the trading desk of a successful global insurance company. By all conventional measures of society, I was a huge success story—a first generation college graduate from a blue-collar family who, by 25, was earning more than his parents ever had. Yet for all this, I felt a growing, gnawing uneasiness. It was as though I climbed halfway up the proverbial ladder of success and suddenly found that holding on was more painful than the view was worth. Suddenly I had no idea what I was climbing towards. Ironically, the longer I hung on, the more I felt like I was falling. It was when I could no longer ignore this feeling that I decided to trade one lifestyle for another.
In 2013 I moved to Vermont to pursue farming as a student in the University of Vermont Farmer Training program. It was during this 6-month intensive course when the idea for Blank Page Café first came to me. As I began to learn more about growing food and exchanging ideas with people deeply embedded in the movement to change our food system, I realized that Burlington, Vermont needed more places where these ideas and conversations could intersect. This realization coupled with the growing third wave coffee movement in Vermont made it clear to me that creating a unique space for people to connect with each other and the point of origin of their food was where I wanted to concentrate my efforts.
tLBCC: What’s behind the name Blank Page Café?
Mike Proia: In the winter of 2013-2014 I spent 5 months as an apprentice in the Farm and Garden at the Esalen Institute, an alternative humanistic educational retreat center in Big Sur California. It was here where I turned inward and examined my personal relationship with agriculture. It was also here where a friend, fellow farmer, and mentor provided me with my first tangible inspiration for Blank Page Café. During my last day at the institute my mentor wrote me a note on the blank inside torn out cover page of a novel written by Vermonter Ben Hewitt called ‘A Town That Food Saved’. Accompanying the inspirational words in that note was a $200 check—my official first investor! I used the money to upgrade my home coffee brewing equipment and my own personal testing lab was born! As the business plan evolved and eventually took form, I realized the name ‘Blank Page’ meant even more to me. It has now become a name representing a guiding life ethos, one that embodies an approach to life characterized by embracing the possibility within uncertainty and crafting a narrative that is adventurous and unpredictable. My goal with Blank Page Café is to create a place where the experiences that folks have there become a small but meaningful part of the story of their day.
tLBCC: Blank Page Café is housed inside the farmstand of Bread and Butter farm. What is being farmed on Bread and Butter Farm? Are there any synergies happening between your café and the farm?
Mike Proia: Bread and Butter Farm is an integrated farm enterprise situated just outside of Burlington, Vermont in Shelburne. The farm focuses on regenerative agricultural practices. Bread and Butter raises 100% grass-fed beef cows, pastured pork, organic vegetable,s and our newest venture-heritage breed pastured turkeys! In addition, the farm offers a year-round CSA share (community supported agriculture share) is home to varied educational programs, holistic healing offerings, and seasonal events. The farm is perhaps best known for its weekly summer event called Burger Night, which happens every Friday night from May through August. It’s an event where families and friends can come to the farm to enjoy live music, and farm-fresh food in a traditional cookout-like setting. The synergies that I’ve realized with the farm have been amazing and are continuing to grow and evolve. Whether I’m sourcing spinach and berries for my weekly farm-to-cup smoothie that I offer at Burger Night, or am including some of the vegetables grown at the farm into a grain-free treat, the opportunities for collaboration with the farm are abundant.
Outside of the direct farm sourcing, the potential for human synergy is what excites me most on a daily basis. One of our collective goals is to get our customers and community to engage with all aspects of the farm. Regularly, I have customers who come to the café, and in addition to ordering a butter coffee, they pick up their CSA share, do their weekly shopping in our farm store, and visit the animals! It’s a total experience that I see resonating with people.
I’ve been working closely with Corie, the owner of Bread and Butter Farm, and the other growers here to align the farms’ longer-term production strategy with my goals of offering an expanded menu at the café. My eventual aim is to serve a light breakfast and light lunch at Blank Page Café. Being able to offer a broader, more food-focused menu will allow me to source food directly from the farm, thus shortening the farm-to-table supply chain to only a few feet! At the forefront of the actions we take on the farm is the realization that it takes time and intention for food to be grown in an ecologically sustainable way. I’m working on structuring my business growth strategy in a similar fashion and the collaboration opportunities here are what are making this approach possible.
Dark Chocolate Sweet Potato Brownies BY Blank Page Café
* Grain Free, Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Nut Free *
makes 9 brownies
- 1.5 cups Organic Sweet Potato
- 3 Whole Eggs—whites and yolks, whisked.
- 2 Egg Whites
- 1/4 cup Coconut Oil, melted
- 1/3 cup Raw Honey
- 1/4 tsp Vanilla Extract
- 3 Tbsp + 1 tsp Coconut Flour
- 3 Tbsp Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
- 1/4 + 1/16 tsp Baking Powder
- 1/4 tsp Cinnamon
- Pinch of Salt
- 1/2 cup 63%+ Dark Chocolate Chips
- Wrap approx. 2 med/large sweet potatoes in tin foil and roast in your oven on 375º for 1.5 to 2 hrs. Let cool. Peel the skins and food process the flesh until smooth. Measure 1.5 cups of the food processed sweet potato and set aside.
- Turn oven down to 350º.
- Mix wet ingredients together in a bowl and add to the sweet potato—3 whole eggs, coconut oil, honey, vanilla.
- Mix dry ingredients together in a separate bowl—coconut flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, cinnamon, salt and chocolate chips.
- Pour the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and mix until well combined.
- In a standing electric mixer, beat 2 egg whites to BEYOND STIFF!
- Gently fold the beaten-stiff egg whites into the batter
- Pour the batter into a parchment paper lined 8 x 8 inch baking dish
- Bake on 350º for 30-35 min
- Let rest approx. 1hr. Chill in refrigerator overnight or for a few hours before removing from the pan and cutting
- ****As an added touch, I drizzle some coconut oil and melted chocolate over the top of the brownies (healthy magic shell) before chilling in the fridge!!***
tLBCC: Your coffee service is non-traditional, can you tell us about it?
Mike Proia: I think the most non-traditional characteristic of my café is that I don’t have an espresso machine. In the last several years, I’ve eschewed most commonly held notions about the ways things ought to be done, so when I started Blank Page Café, I figured why stop there! If I had a blank check right now, I would absolutely outfit my shop with an espresso machine, but for now, I focus on brewing the highest quality, small batch drip coffee with an emphasis on what I call, ‘Performance Coffees’. For me, drinking coffee is equal parts about enjoying its complexities from a taste and cultural perspective and leveraging its potency as an energy inducing, life giving, medicinal plant! We’re fortunate enough to have access to amazing 100% grass-fed butter here in VT, which is a key ingredient in my performance coffees. 100% local grass-fed butter is nutrient dense and packed with vitamins and minerals that our bodies love. It imparts a rich, creamy texture without compromising and diluting the flavor of the coffee. As one local farmer put it, grass-fed butter is the food of the gods! By adding it to hot coffee (in addition to MCT oil), we’re enhancing the already powerful inherent benefits of coffee by combining it with high quality, efficient burning healthy fats thus resulting in a more slow release caffeine effect. My mocha butter for example is hot drip coffee blended with 100% grass-fed local butter, organic coconut derived MCT oil, grass-fed collagen peptides, homemade chocolate sauce, raw cacao, gelatinized maca and a dash of maple syrup. It truly is a super drink!
tLBCC: You feature coffee roasted by Brio Coffeeworks at Blank Page Café. What is it like working with Brio Coffeeworks and how does their serving their coffee fit into Blank Page Café’s ethos?
Mike Proia: Nate and Magda the co-owners of Brio Coffeeworks here in Burlington are reshaping the way Vermonters are thinking about and relating to coffee. They have introduced this coffee-loving community to new ways of sourcing, roasting, brewing, and drinking the beverage that is so much a part of the fabric of the food culture of Vermont. They focus as much on education as they do on any other part of their business and work hard to make sure their customers understand the life cycle of a coffee bean. They are transparent, honest, and think about the coffee supply chain holistically. They understand that an important part of the craft coffee movement is the work that needs to be done to get people to think about coffee in new ways—ways that help us honor it as a food that we need to care deeply about from an ecological and human impact perspective. This is an important synergy and a core tenet of my business philosophy.
tLBCC: Aside from coffee, you serve non-traditional and healthful treats like these Sweet Potato Brownies. Why is it important to you to provide your customers with nutrient dense foods?
Mike Proia: For the better part of the last ten years, I’ve had a strong passion for nutrition and wellness based living. We’re inundated with mass produced, sugar, and GMO laden foods at every turn. It’s important for me provide customers with an alternative way of thinking about a treat. Everything I bake is gluten free and oftentimes grain free, too. I incorporate as many local ingredients as I can, use high quality local grass-fed dairy, organic coconut oil, and sweeteners like local maple syrup or honey. My personal philosophy is balance—if we as a society felt better, in the simplest sense of the phrase, we’d have more collective energy to put towards solving some of our biggest challenges. I like to believe that I’m doing my part, no matter how small it is—to make people feel better!
tLBCC: What has your experience been following a Paleo diet?
Mike Proia: My experience following a Paleo diet has been transformative. Discovering the Paleo diet enabled me to examine human health and wellness through an evolutionary biology lens. It forced me to question conventional paradigms, experiment in new ways with food and fitness and it opened my mind to alternative approaches to what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. It’s what led me to become interested in regenerative agriculture and it helped me explore human potentiality. The advances being made in nutrition science excite me and it seems like better information about diet and wellness is becoming available everyday. I like to think that my own diet is an evolving personal journey, one that will undoubtedly grow and change as I do.
tLBCC: Do you follow any guidelines when it comes to drinking coffee?
Mike Proia: Interestingly enough, I don’t drink that much coffee! I’m a pretty caffeine sensitive person so my max is about 1-2 cups per day. I always taste test the new coffees I get from BRIO on various brew methods so on those days my consumption gets bumped up a bit. I usually have my first cup of coffee somewhere around 10 a.m., depending on how busy my day is shaping up. It’s almost always hot and I drink it black. I prefer to make myself a pour-over if I have time. I’ve also been focusing on developing a more consistent cold brew this season so I find myself gravitating towards cold brew on warmer days. I only have a butter coffee once a week, generally on a busy day when I need some super-human energy! The closest comparison to me on butter coffee is the Kool-Aid man because I literally feel like I can go through a wall when I’m well rested and have a butter coffee in the morning!
tLBCC: I followed the mouth watering evolution of your grain free pretzel recipe on Instagram—they looked amazing! Are you working on developing any new recipes right now?
Mike Proia: We’ve slowly started to dip our toes into the world of gluten free/grain free wedding cakes. At this point we’re taking on orders on a very limited, case-by-case basis, but it’s opening up some new opportunities in the alternative-baking world. We’ll be baking our first gluten free wedding cake for a wedding this summer! It’s going to be a gluten free olive oil cake with rosemary infused French buttercream frosting. So far the test runs have been successes so we’re encouraged by the initial results. As the capacity of the café expands, I’d like to start focusing on more savory options as well.
tLBCC: When you are not in the café or busy creating recipes where are we most likely to find you?
Mike Proia: My partner and I are making a concerted effort this year to spend more time outside exploring the Green Mountains with our 2 year old pup, Figgy. I also recently bought a new pair of rollerblades…yes…rollerblades, so I’m committed to bringing back 1995 in full force on the Burlington bike path. I’ve been training in the gym more consistently, swimming and am working on getting involved with some of the larger projects happening at the farm. I’m also getting better at embracing downtime when the opportunity presents.