Fall is in the air in Washington wine country. Nights are chilly, mornings crisp and the grapes are growing juicy on the vines. In a few days the work of harvest will begin and what better way to prepare for a day (and maybe some drinking) in the vineyard than with a hearty, lovingly crafted breakfast? Fresh-faced kids, Kory and Rachel Nagler will do just that at one of Walla Walla's most popular breakfast spots, The Maple Counter Cafe. The diverse menu features homemade specialities from butter basted eggs to the train whistle-inspiring, and belt-loosening, Apple pancake. Play a game and weigh yourself before you go, then weigh yourself after. You're guaranteed to gain multiple pounds of goodness.
Let's talk about pancakes. How'd you learn to make such fine pancakes?
Kory: The answer is short and easy. My parents own a restaurant in Sequim called the Oak Table Cafe and I grew up there. It opened in 1981 and I was born in 1983 so I was literally raised in a restaurant. I used to play in the batter bowl -- it was this HUGE bowl -- and there are baby pictures of me all cute and naked in the batter bowl. Not when there was batter in it of course. But I learned to make pancakes from several people growing up, from different cooks in the restaurant to my dad, and the most difficult part of pancakes is the recipes -- and I was lucky enough to have those handy.You're both originally from the Olympic Peninsula -- what was it that attracted you to Eastern Washington?
Rachel: We had known for a long time that we wanted to open a restaurant but we couldn't go back to the Olympic Peninsula because Kory's parents had their restaurant there and his Aunt owns a couple of restaurants in Port Angeles. We knew we didn't want to stay in Seattle because it was just a little too big for what we were looking for in the long term. My parents had friends who would come to Walla Walla and they recommended it to us so we came out and just fell in love with it immediately. We were still probably like 10 miles outside of town and I could just feel how much I already loved it. The downtown was so cute and everyone was so nice. So we came back a few times to make sure it was the right place and every time we came back we loved it more and more. Our parents were sad to see us leave that side but ultimately are really happy for us.
How did you two meet?
Kory: We met in Sequim. She says that we met at a bar there. I unfortunately don't remember that very well, not because I was blackout drunk or anything but because it was the night before I was going away on a trip to Thailand with my little brother and there were a bunch of people around and our meeting was more in passing -- which regrettably doesn't really stick out. She always teases me about it. But she was waiting tables at a restaurant that a friend of mine worked at so I would come in and she was like the gorgeous waitress, and we got to know each other more that way. She makes fun of me because I don't really remember meeting her for the first time but then I can get after her because when I first asked for her number and she shut me down.
Rachel: Well...I didn't really say no! I was in a hurry to leave and I was like, "If you want my number just ask our friend for it," then he asked me again the next time I saw him and of course, I said yes.
Kory: I wanted to go to school for music and rachel was an art lover and wanted to go to art school in Seattle so we decided to move there at the same time; right when we sort of met and fell in love. Even though it was very early, it was kind of blowing our minds. We only knew each other for like a couple of months. So we were like, "let's just move in together and get a place in Seattle," and that's when we realized that we both loved our art but maybe that wasn't what we wanted to be doing for a living. That's when it occurred to us that the idea of a restaurant would be really neat. Rachel had worked in restaurants like Serafina and Cafe Lago and is really talented at customer service. She's really organized and just a really good business person -- actually I would be nowhere without her business sense. And I love cooking and have a knack for construction and design and stuff so...here we are.
Kory: We've been super fortunate.
Rachel: Well, opening in November was great because normally Winter is the slow time and we were able to get through the slow time just because we were new. Then Spring came and it is so great in Walla Walla -- there is just so much going on!
Kory: It's a crazy town! There are a lot more people here and coming to visit here than we realized. We knew on paper what it was and figured we because we come from towns similar to Walla Walla in size we'd be prepared. But Walla Walla is very different with all the festivals and tourists and its vibrant downtown. More people come into town here than they would in Sequim or Port Angeles.
We love what we're doing here. We love the community here. We expected to love what we were doing but it's been SO EASY to get up in the morning and really love what we're doing. And I think that's the big underlying thing: I love cooking and I love cooking with the people who are here for the people who come in here. Rachel and I love all the people we've met in town. And when we do get to go out and eat we love that all the restaurants in town are so good.
Rachel: Yeah, that's another reason why we love Walla Walla, is there are so many good restaurants here. That's one of the things that sold us on Walla Walla in the first place. To leave the city for a small town, when food is such a central part of our lives, was kind of scary but we're so lucky here in Walla Walla to have so many wonderful chefs doing so many wonderful things.
Kory: Yeah, pretty much that's it. We just love it.
Kory: Well, the architectural stuff was sort of a decision based on how pretty the building is. I really wanted the ceiling to stand out -- I didn't want to be throwing walls up everywhere so you couldn't see the beams or the skylight, so the architecture really determined a lot of the design itself. The leaded glass was homemade by my dad so we wanted to incorporate that as best we could. He did the windows in the front.
Rachel: Kory's dad is also sort of an amateur woodworker so wood has always been prominent in their lives so we knew we wanted to have a lot of wood in here.
Kory: Yes, my dad, my little brother and I did all the wood trim on the walls and around the windows -- we just wanted to have nice natural stained wood to match the ceiling. I think what you're getting at is the antique feel though, and that really goes back to my parents' restaurant, The Oak Table. My dad remodeled this old house into a restaurant and it's decorated with antiques -- much of it based on recommendations from a friend of theirs named Millard. So that all kind of got passed on to me. When I opened my restaurant I was like, "I must have leaded glass! I must have antiques!"
Rachel: Kory's mom had been giving us antiques for birthday and Christmas presents for years. And every time we'd go on a trip we'd always stop at the local antique shop and try and pick out one thing that would eventually be for the restaurant -- even though we knew it was years away.
Rachel: Well...OK, the reason I first started selling them is because Kory's sister sells them at her restaurant and she was like, "you wouldn't believe how well these sell!" All the little kids just love them so I got an account at furryanimalkingdom.com and we just go through and pick out cute ones we like. There are so many different ones though.
Kory: The thing that's odd about them is I like them too, but all the ones I pick out don't sell. What's not cute about raccoons and goats?
Rachel: He likes the weird ones. The ones that sell the most are the little sleeping kitties in baskets. They are a little creepy but some of them really are so cute -- like the little animal rings; people either love them or hate them. It's really funny to watch people's reactions to them.
Kory: They're kind of taking over our foyer though. I hope people realize we're not all about furry animals -- we also have good food.
Rachel: At least I haven't gone so far as to get the little kitty ones that actually breathe and purr!
Kory, you're also a musician right?
Kory: Yeah, I grew up listening to the Beatles, so really I enjoy melody a lot. I started playing guitar and piano when I was about nine and then started writing songs. My music's just mainly singer/songwriter I guess you would call it but with a heavy emphasis on melody and interesting chord progressions.
Rachel: I think it's pretty eclectic. He does a lot of rock and is really influenced by old country singers like Willie Nelson.
Kory: I was also a child of the '90s so a lot of the grunge like Oasis and of course, Nirvana's MTV Unplugged performance was amazing. Now I'm listening to stuff like Ryan Adams and Wilco -- it's like a country thing but not country. It's what country can be if it were a little more rock. I love it all equal though.
And Rachel, your talent outside of the business arena is art?
Rachel: Well my mom had always put me through art classes as a kid and I enjoyed them but I didn't really start making my own art until I was in college. I was probably about 20 and really got into art through photography. Then I wanted to do more than just frame my photos so I started putting them on canvas with acrylics -- that's mostly my medium, sort of mixed media in that way. I was lucky enough to study abroad a few times when I was going to school at UW and for like the final project at the end of each study abroad term we were supposed to write a paper but I always convinced my professors to let me do something visual. I would take photos throughout my time there and then incorporate things I picked up and put it all together into a type of book -- so photos, paintings, articles, textiles, whatever I had picked up along the way.
When I was done with school I just kept doing it for fun. Now I don't really have a lot of extra time. We have this extra room in our house that we keep saying is going to be the art studio but really is just full of all the stuff we haven't had time to unpack yet. One day.
Other than unpacking, is there anything big on the horizon for you -- or perhaps for your eaters?
Kory: Well, my brother is getting married soon so I am going to a bachelor party in New Orleans. That will be the longest I've been away since we opened the restaurant. I'm really nervous about it but my guys are getting good enough now that I can actually be away. I'm excited because there is so much good food down there...
Rachel: ...Kory's been doing a ton of research and will be online at night looking up restaurants. He has this whole itinerary of all the places he wants to go.
Kory: Yeah, I am sure I'll come back with a bunch of ideas for New Orleans-style specials. We're excited about the Fall coming in too. Summer has been so cool for us with all the amazing produce. We actually introduced a fresh sheet, which we really weren't planning on doing so soon -- we wanted to really buckle down and focus on operations first, but it was impossible with all the local farmers because they kept coming in with all this great produce and we really wanted to work it into our menu. So with the Fall coming and the realization that we can really introduce specials into our menu so we're thinking about doing some specials like pumpkin pancakes, gingerbread pancakes, things like that.
Rachel: Cranberry white chocolate pancakes!
Kory: Yeah, maybe chocolate peppermint French toast? Anyway, just fun things like that.
Rachel: A lot of our crew has been here since the very beginning, especially the guys in the kitchen, so they're really coming into their own. We're finally at that point where we can kind of step away for one day here or there. We just went to Lake Chelan for a couple of days to visit Kory's family -- we were gone for two days and it was a super big deal.
Kory: It was crazy. It was a super big deal. We felt like we were doing something wrong like skipping school or something.