Sowers Harvest Cafe has been offering “naturally healthy cuisine served with a heart of welcome” to diners in downtown State College since 2015, and the troubled landscape of the last year has only made it more obvious to owners Bryant and Lynelle Martin just how important the cafe’s mission is. It’s a mission Bryant Martin describes as “to be a welcoming place, a place people love coming to, where they’re served well, where the food is excellent, and where you can relax and have a sense of peace in a chaotic world.”
Sowers Harvest Cafe remained open over the course of the pandemic in 2020, a decision Martin affirms was the correct choice.
“We followed all the mandates to the T, everything we could do to protect our employees and customers … even though business was quite slow,” he says. “Just about a year ago, we were hitting our slowest point in the pandemic. We might’ve had 15 customers a day that would come in, but we felt like we could stay open and be there for our regulars. We had some students, especially international students, who were not able to go home; they came in every day. … It was a really special way we could connect with people and serve people in that time.”
To better keep customers safe, the restaurant added outdoor dining last year, an option that is still available. It also began offering delivery, a service that Martin admits he initially didn’t feel fit within the brand’s aim to build connections and community.
“Before the pandemic, we were not doing any delivery. … If you wanted something at Sowers, you had to come in and pick it up. You could call in an order, but you had to come in,” he explains. “But now, with the pandemic, we had to quickly transition. We did free delivery for about a month and ran deliveries ourselves. … Once we were coming out of the worst stage of the pandemic, we brought on DoorDash and Grubhub. … We deliver a lot and we plan to keep it on. We really have a solid customer base on those two platforms. It’s working well.”
But other changes have appeared at Sowers Harvest Cafe in the recent months that aren’t so connected to pandemic needs, but rather the brand’s local food and high-quality focuses. Starting this year, Sowers is roasting its own coffee, a development that Martin credits to the connections he’s built with cafe customers over the years.
“We’ve developed good friendships with students from all around the world. We’re using these connections to source coffee,” he says. “We’re going to start selling a coffee from Burundi. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s landlocked. They grow tons of coffee, but, sadly, the farmers have very little leverage in terms of who they can sell to. They tend to have big buyers come in and pay them pennies to the dollar; it’s not much. They’re over a barrel, which is very sad. My friend has seen so many coffee farmers being exploited. … He’s helping us with connections in the country to source coffee … [and] just like our cafe is all about community and local relationships, our coffee roasting is going to have the same vision [of] being connected relationally to the farmers.”
It’s a vision that Martin applies to his relationships with local farmers and producers as well, whether he’s sourcing brown eggs from pastured chickens at nearby Amish farms or produce grown only a few miles away from the cafe, at the newly established Sowers Market (which, despite the similar name, is not under the same business umbrella). It all results in a better product for the customers.
And some of the customers’ favorites? Martin points to bestsellers on the cafe menu such as the chipotle chicken bacon ranch panini, which has been a top seller since the cafe opened, and the veggie pesto omelet, made with house-made pesto, fresh veggies, and four eggs.
Additionally, a new favorite is the Sowers burgers, served only on Thursdays, hand-pressed in-house and available four ways – including topped with tempting ingredients such as house-made barbecue sauce, bleu cheese, chipotle mayo, and more.
But the food is nothing without the environment.
“I care deeply [about] being part of creating a space where people can pull up a chair and sit face-to-face and talk, whether it’s with friends, families, etc. Environment is key to that,” Martin says.
As such, the only music you’ll hear in Sowers Harvest Cafe is from the piano that customers are invited to play, and you won’t see a single television screen on the walls.
“We’ve done that intentionally,” Martin adds. “We’re … trying to be leaders in spaces where human interaction and where conversation is nurtured, and having a latte with some beautiful latte art, an omelet with some local eggs from happy chickens, and veggies from two miles away – you just can’t get any better than that.”
Sowers Harvest Cafe is open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and is located at 421 East Beaver Avenue.
Holly Riddle is a freelance writer.