Field Trip: The Rail Trail Cafe

A nook off the Wallkill Valley Rail Trail, a 24-mile hiking and biking path through Ulster County, is the last place you’d expect to find a food truck. But that’s just where to look for the Rail Trail Cafe, a non-motorized food cart with a decidedly rustic take on mobile dining.

The kitchen is housed inside a 96-square-foot cabin made of reclaimed wood; a hand-built clay oven sits nearby, and the dining area opens to the lush green canopy overhead.

Husband-and-wife proprietors Brian Farmer and Tara Johannessen have been serving freshly made pizzas, dumplings and baked goods out of the cafe since May. Most of their menu items are made using local products, including microgreens sourced from their own farm, the Farmer’s Table, located a quarter of a mile away. Farmer, who has experience as a professional chef, says that using produce that they grow themselves makes the distance from farm to table even smaller.

Plus, according to Johannessen, it’s just good business practice.

“It’s important to buy and eat local not only because it supports local economy, but also because interfacing with farmers and business owners creates stronger communities,” she said.

Open Friday through Sunday in the warmer months, the cafe serves up hearty items like smoky wood-fired pizza topped with farm-grown zucchini, and steamed dumplings with sesame-ginger-shoyu dipping sauce. Snacks on offer include oat-buckwheat-cranberry scones and Cosmic Nectar Balls, made with raw cacao, pecans, coconuts and dates.

The couple had considered opening a food truck for some time. They stumbled upon the perfect place when they were working their farmland near the rail trail one day, and noticed the amount of foot traffic passing through. Realizing the potential of the spot as a pit stop for hungry hikers, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to raise funds. Soon, they had almost $7,000 in startup capital to fund the construction of the cafe’s mobile kitchen, parked on a small plot of land leased from nearby Stone Mountain Farm.

“We wanted to provide a service that relies on the beauty and simplicity of enjoying a meal in the woods,” said Johannessen.

Farmer designed and built the structure himself—with help from Johannessen—out of donated leftover lumber donated by friends and investors. He equipped the 96-square-foot kitchen with refurbished kitchen appliances from Green Demolition and items from Craigslist.

Most of the baking goes down outside the kitchen, however, in the alfresco wood-burning oven, built by Farmer’s friend, Shawn DeRyder, out of a mixture of sand, clay and straw.

Below: Brian Farmer with the clay wood-burning oven at the Rail Trail Cafe. Photo by Charlene Martoni. 

The Rail Trail Cafe is an eco-friendly operation from stem to stern. The eatery’s seating area is comprised of found tables and chairs that have been upcycled and decorated using leftover paints. Farmer and Johannessen reduce waste by composting food scraps and using biodegradable cups.

The cafe hosts performances by local musicians on Saturday nights, and the owners are hoping to host a speaker series and poetry readings going forward.

“We want the cafe to create a closer community, one that knows itself,” said Johannessen.

The cafe will stay open until Columbus Day weekend, and Farmer and Johannessen plan to return for business next May. Another Kickstarter campaign is in the works to raise funds for improvements like a sheltered seating area and the hiring of additional staff.

The restaurant’s success so far is due mainly to word-of-mouth from customers like Stone Ridge resident Alex Kahan, who stopped for a bite one Saturday afternoon with his girlfriend.

“It’s just magical,” he said. “You’re taking a walk, and you find this little surprise.”

The Rail Trail Cafe. River Road Extension, Stone Mountain Farm, Rosendale. 845-399-4800.

An edited version of this article appears in the print version of the 2015 Catskills Food Guide, our annual publication covering food and farms in the Catskills. The Catskills Food Guide is distributed across the Catskills region and at select locations in the NYC metropolitan area. Find a copy near you here.