Spring Mill Cafe, a Conshohocken BYOB, continues to thrive.
It has often been said that one year in a dog's life is equivalent to seven years in a person's life. It might just as well be said that one year in the life of a restaurant, with its plate full of pitfalls and headaches, is the equivalent of several years in the life of many other businesses. Under this reasoning, Spring Mill Cafe, a BYOB that is currently celebrating its 45-year anniversary, could theoretically be in a nursing home for restaurants.
But it’s not. In fact, it’s thriving. A beret-wearing French chef, Michele Haines, opened Spring Mill Cafe in Conshohocken in 1978 where the quiet, rural River Road meets Barren Hill Road. The bucolic building, which can seat 20 people outdoors and 45 indoors, was once a general store that also served as the town post office when it was constructed in 1831.
Always a fighter for the underdog, the 5-foot-2, pencil-thin Michele Haines has a very calm, low-key exterior and has charmed customers for years with her French accent. But these days, she’s no longer in the kitchen. For the past 30 years, Michele has had Lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease that can negatively affect many different body systems.
"Her son Ezra, who now runs the restaurant, is someone she says “probably does a better job than I did, but I did have fun. My customers laughed with me, danced with me, and even jumped up and down with me. I'm a performer, and I am still a clown, but I just can't do the physical things I used to do.”
Ezra, who would travel to France every year with his foodie parents in his formative years, eventually attended Bard College in upper New York State as an art major. He was working at New Jersey publication in 1999, when his mother’s health began to get in the way of her being able to run the restaurant.
“I knew that if I did not step up to help run Sring Mill Cafe, it would no longer exist,” he said. “Also, I realized I could not sit still in a cubicle for 10 hours a day.
And so it is that Ezra, who began doing chores in the restaurant when he was 12, is now running it age 50. And he’s very aware of how important it is to enjoy what one does in life.
“My mother's mom died last year in France at 100,” he said “She lived a great life. She had espresso every afternoon at the same cafe for 70 years. We had Skype calls every Wednesday with her, during which she would complain when her favorite waiters would die off.”
Ezra is far more traditional than his mother, who would include North African and Asian specials on the menu. His dishes are more traditionally French – pates, stews. “It’s rustic food, for French people who are not wealthy.”
Michele Haines, who learned her passion for French wine and food from her grandfather, was born in 1942 in the Touraine region of France on the border between Nazi occupation and the collaborating Vichy regime. In 1944, when her father was killed in an American bombing, she was found safe in his arms. Though she won scholarships to Radcliffe and Stanford years later, her family prohibited her from attending. When she got a chance to work as a United Nations translator, she capitalized on the opportunity and in 1961 moved to New York City.
In the summer of 1963, she traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., in civil rights marches. She was arrested twice, once because she sat next to a Black friend in a restaurant and refused to move. On one occasion a man attacked her. She defended herself by picking up a nearby wooden stool. It was red by the end of the encounter.
Michele moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where her fluency in French, German and English gained her acceptance into Brown University’s graduate-level Russian program. There she met her husband-to-be of more than 40 years, New Jersey native Arthur Carroll Haines, who was then an undergraduate at Brown.
A few years later, when her husband's enrollment at the University of Pennsylvania brought Haines to Philadelphia, she joined the Germantown Friends School faculty, where she taught French before founding its Spanish department. Arthur, a landscape architect, died 20 years ago of esophageal cancer. In addition to Ezra, Michele has another son, Jason, who is an engineer in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
More information about Spring Mill Café, 164 Barren Hill Rd. in Conshohocken, at springmill.com or 610-828-2550.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org