MANCOS — Edie Hurst stood forlornly in front of Absolute Bakery’s half empty pastry case.
“Is there anything left?” she asked wistfully.
Nope, the cinnamon rolls and savory strudels she loves sold out before 10 a.m. at the Mancos bakery and cafe. There were a few oat-and-date bars, some carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and Mexican wedding cookies left. She contented herself with some fruit bars and vowed to be back in time for strudel tomorrow.
Absolute Bakery is one of the most acclaimed cafes and bakeries in the Four Corners, a small-town icon to the past, filling up a 1903 building with plants in the window, used books for sale, art on the walls and all around good cheer.
“Why are you here?” a waitress asked a young man amiably hanging around the cash register.
“To, you know, talk,” came the reply.
Most folks come for the famous strudel, cherry and apple, and egg, potato and cheese on this day or the cakes and cookies freshly baked by owner David Blaine every morning. Or they stop in for lunch, where the salad with homemade blue-cheese dressing is scrumptious, the tuna salad is tasty and the squash-ginger bisque lives up to its name with a spicy kick. And the macaroons — as big as an orange and dipped in chocolate — are not to be missed.
So, you might ask, why Mancos?
Why would a picture-postcard-perfect bakery with a region-wide reputation locate in Mancos? Or a coffee shop that roasts its own beans every day? Or a top-notch new restaurant with an enviable wine list and a French-trained chef? Or a hippie-cool natural food store and cafe with hard-to-find goods such as gluten-free flour and Belgian chocolates?
It’s Mancos, after all, the town you pass through on your way to the area’s most famous Native American ruin, Mesa Verde. It sports a state highway, a stoplight, a gas station, a few nice B&Bs and some eccentric galleries. The town’s marketing gurus champion Mancos as the heart of the Wild West, complete with signs of a cowboy on a bucking bronco along Highway 160 – kitschy, but in a sweet, goofy way.
As you round the last bend from Durango and head into town, Mesa Verde rises like an upturned, slant-sided bowl and the Sleeping Ute Mountain juts up behind it. It’s as breathtaking a vista as you’ll see between here and Utah. Looking down from this visual beauty you’ll see Mancos, population 1,336, elevation 7,000 feet, with the four-by-two-block business district on the south and the residential portion, several dusty, unpaved streets lined with wooden houses and free-ranging dogs, on the north.
The simple answer is that it is less expensive — a lot less expensive — to conduct business in Mancos than in Durango. Several business owners in the food arena estimated they were saving between 50 and 70 percent of what they would pay to buy or rent a building in Durango.
But there was something else that played into their decision to operate in Mancos — the welcome.
“La Plata County was not super psyched about another coffee-roasting company,” said Matt Lauer of Fahrenheit Coffee Shop.
By contrast, Mancos officials were like “Please! Please! Come!” he said. “It was just so simple.”
His coffee shop, newly moved from Zuma’s Natural Foods and Café into its own spacious building, offers baked goods, loose leaf tea in giant jars, a blackboard menu for grab-and-go items such as breakfast burritos and turkey sandwiches and well, delicious coffee drinks. You’re likely to be waited on by Lauer or his wife, Linda James, both Fort Lewis College graduates, she in sociology, he in political science, which of course, led them to open a coffee shop.
Well, it was almost that simple. Lauer muses over how coffee intersects with many of the world’s premier political issues – fair labor, sustainable agriculture and protecting the environment. Coffee, he says, is the second most traded commodity in the world. Number one? Oil.
He likes Mancos for its diversity, noting that it once had a gay mayor and residents are split between old-time ranchers, young, laid-back entrepreneurs like himself and hippies of all ages.
Jason Blankenship, who opened Olio last summer, cites the same eccentric mix of residents, a whole-hearted welcome by local officials and an I-have-your-back community ethic for convincing him to open his wine-bar-restaurant in Mancos.
He returns the favor by sourcing as much produce as he can from local farmers, buying beets, potatoes, cabbage, meat and eggs this winter to use in dishes such as trout schnitzel with roasted spaetzle and sweet and sour cabbage or Colorado lamb and mushroom pie on braised greens.
And for those conscious of the return drive to Durango, Cortez or Dolores, where many of his customers come from, Blankenship offers half-bottles of wine, a rarity in these parts. If you don’t feel like a full meal, Olio’s has a small bar where you can stop by for a glass of wine and say, a small bite such as the peppered antelope carpaccio.
“This is exactly what I was looking for,” he said, happily surveying the cozy dining room.
Longtime residents of Mancos, Cynthia and Steve Klumker had already found what they were looking for when they bought Zuma Natural Foods and Café six years ago. They’ve built upon that same dedication to local farmers and organic produce and meat that Lauer, Blankenship and Absolute Bakery manager Melissa Blaine espouse at their businesses.
“Steve liked the idea of having his own food bank and I liked the idea of selling locally grown fresh food,” Cynthia Klumker said. “Customers can come here and know they don’t have to look for ‘genetically modified’ on the label.”
The cafe is bright and airy and customers greet each other by name as they line up for the homemade chicken and vegetable soup, salad of organic greens and fresh hummus or a panini of roast beef with blue cheese. A sign promoted Friday’s special, green chili chicken casserole. The staff tries to fulfill requests for gluten- or dairy-free dishes.
To take with you, the refrigerators in back offer Colorado cheeses, organic yogurt and enormous sandwiches. You can also find freshly made salsa, chocolate-covered espresso beans and every type of corn chip known to man.
Whether Mancos is your destination — and strictly for the pleasure of eating, it can be — or you’re just passing through, it would be a shame to leave hungry.
So, you might ask, why not Mancos?