GENOA – Ask most people what trinkets and treasures they tend to bring back from their romantic sojourns or family vacations to New England and chances are their answers would go like this - fresh lobster from Maine; sweet tree-drawn maple syrup from Vermont; a Red Sox cap from an afternoon game at Fenway; and postcards from Cape Cod.
But Shirley Frater is not most people. The Gibsonburg native is the owners of the hip and decidedly earthy A Most Unusual Garden & Gift Shop and Mugg’zs Tea Nook & Café located at 624 Main St. in the heart of Genoa’s business district.
A then slightly jaded Toledoan who about 14 years ago left the city to “live life more deliberately,” Frater set out to learn more about the organic food movement, try her hand at running an antique linens and lace shop and be closer to nature a la Henry David Thoreau in wild, wonderful Maine.
Ten years later, when she migrated back to the rustbelt to be closer to her grandchildren she brought back with her a collection of stories and adventures straight from a page of Fodor’s travel guide.
After enjoying success at her unique boutique, A Most Unusual Garden & Gift Shop, she decided to re-introduce – Mugg’zs Tea Nook & Café, which serves wholesome, homemade, no-preservatives-added soups, sandwiches, breads and more Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
“There was this little restaurant in Maine called Sara’s when I was living there, and it just served homemade soups and homemade breads, and was always all-you-can-eat and it was just absolutely fantastic,” Frater said. “So, that’s what we’re shooting for here - just good, wholesome, homemade food that’s good for you, and not deep-fried or full of preservatives.”
“Plus, we have the soup bar back in the kitchen, and the bread bar right out in front of the café, which is great for the ladies, and even the guys, because they can eat all the good, homemade soup and bread they want,” she said.
“I don’t know why I was drawn to Maine originally,” reflects the self-described “old soul.” “But I think it was just the wilderness, the ocean, the oldness of the state and the different way of life there.
“ Out there people are really laid back - they don’t spray their lawns with chemicals; there are a lot of artists and craftspeople; they have great recycling; and a very large organic farmers’ association.
“I am not an organic nut, or even an environmentalist, but I do love nature, and I can appreciate the concepts,” she said.
“But out there as it is here, organic food is a very expensive concept, and out of reach for most people to practice unless they raise their own fruits and vegetables,” she said. “So as where we’d love to serve all organic at Mugg’zs, we can’t, because nobody would pay what we’d have to charge.”
Frater says they use organic ingredients when they can. They also make their own breads and soups, therefore no preservatives are used. Beverages are all-natural, with no artificial coloring or flavors.
“We just really enjoy it all, and so do our customers,” she said.
At Mugg’zs, you can dine in or take your lunch out, but if you have the time, “The nicest thing about it is when two people or more wander in, get to talking, and get to know one another, because my daughter (and business partner Jennifer Younker) is a great waitress with a great shop laugh who loves to talk to people,” Frater said. “We have great gardening books to flip through and it’s a great place to linger and sit by the fire with a cup of tea, and just relax.”
Mugg’zs offers all your favorites, from a timelessly-classic but trendy gourmet grilled cheese sandwich (with your choice of up to three cheeses and pepperoni-marinara), to Frater’s own spicy, summery chicken salad; to a savory mug of their signature tomato basil soup with crackers.
There’s also the aforementioned all-you-can-eat soup and bread bar, which boasts a different homemade soup every week, along with plenty of crusty, freshly-baked bread, including a healthy whole-grain, a sweet whole-grain fruit and a super-savory specialty bread chock full of olives, peppers, onions, garlic. ($4.95)
“I love to go to Ray & Jet’s and get a burger and fries as much as everyone else, so I’m not a fanatic about this - it’s just nice to have a choice,” Frater said. “When we decided to do this, it was right around the time that Ray & Jet’s and the other businesses burned, so it’s been nice to have another place here in town to have lunch while they rebuild.”