It was only minutes to Midnight when a violent thunderstorm whipped it’s way through the small river town of Rocheport, Missouri on June 17th. A thunderous atmosphere wailed and gale force winds tore through the village; ripping limb from root and sending the community into a blackout. While many in town slept through the storm, Rocheport residents Brandon and Whitney Vair were far from slumber. They lept towards the phone to report the power outage to the Boone County Electric Co-op. Just feet away from their front door, in the restaurant they had poured their blood, sweat and tears into, laid a fridge cooler full of food that comprised the menu of their only days-old restaurant Meriwether Cafe and Bike Shop.
Luckily, the power was back on at their restaurant less than an hour later and all was well. Such scares and stresses like this one are par for the course when opening a new eatery, but the Vairs have had more than their fair share of trials in the journey from raising a trailside restaurant from the dead and creating one of the most exciting new culinary experiences in the Mid-Missouri area.
Anyone who has biked to or from the trailhead in Rocheport knows of the space where Meriwether now resides. Previously known as The Trailside Cafe, the restaurant and bike rental business was the first merchant to open on the Katy Trail in the mid-80s. While the Trailside was once a happening spot, in recent years it had become somewhat of a perplexing staple of the town in that its location right on the Katy Trail would have made it a prime location for a thriving business, but inconsistent hours and lack of upkeep in led the property to lay mostly dormant. When the cafe went up to auction early this year, the Vairs saw an opportunity to turn the space into something new and fresh.
“Whitney and I moved here in 2014 to belong to a small community that would be an idyllic setting to begin our family,” says Brandon. “We have had such an amazing response from the people of Rocheport and that just increases the pleasure it gives us to open this business in a place that we care for so much.”
“Idyllic” is the operative word and it is exactly what comes to mind when sitting outside of Meriwether, under the shade of the large tree, enjoying a breakfast plate and sipping on a dark roasted Fretboard Coffee whilst watching bikes roll by on the trail. My first meal there consisted of a pair of Boatright Farms eggs prepared sunny-side-up, Show-Me Farms bacon, and house-made bread perfectly baked by Brandon’s wife Whitney. All of these traditional breakfast items are prepared perfectly, but the true champion of this meal was the not-so-traditional Patatas Bravas; Spanish style fried potato tossed in garlic and tomato sauce, topped with Creme Fraiche and chives.
The way in which Meriwether blends tradition with an eye to the future is indicative of Brandon and Whitney’s culinary backgrounds. Brandon has been working in the food industry since we was 14. In 2007, he worked closely with his family to launch Bleu Restaurant and Wine Bar in Downtown Columbia. “I performed every position from dishwasher to kitchen manager and every front of the house position from server to bar managers,” says Brandon. “Having such a diverse experience within a small business that I helped build has been invaluable to informing our new adventure in Rocheport.”
There is little doubt that part of what makes the Vairs approach so successful is their synergistic approach to working with one another. The two met one day when Whitney stopped by Bleu to fill out an application. The restaurant had not yet opened and Brandon proceeded to give his future wife a tour of what would be. “His passion for the place was infectious and I immediately began filing out the application in the lobby of the Tiger Hotel,” says Whitney. “He kept checking in on me and we ended up talking for almost two hours. I never finished the application and he never finished his shift. We walked through downtown getting to know each other and he asked me out the following evening. We haven't been apart for two days in a row since!”
The two of them worked together at Bleu for almost three years. Whitney worked as pastry chef and Brandon was Kitchen Manager. It was through that experience that they were able to find a workflow that would lay the foundation for their new culinary adventure in Rocheport. Whitney would tell you that it is their different approaches that make make things work. “We are very different in our approach to creativity. But our styles are very complimentary- I am very stylistic and freewheeling, where Brandon is a bit more analytical in his management style- he definitely grounds the business in the numbers while I excel in the aesthetics.”
While the Vairs have no doubt seen tribulations while working at Bleu, but nothing could have prepared them for the process of remodelling the Trailside into a restaurant worthy of their vision. What was initially thought to be a simple remodel turned into a long winding journey of basically rebuilding the interior of the space completely. While the tasks were arduous, the Vairs now view the whole process with the same level of plucky optimism that they approached the project with. “It has been an unimaginable thrill to have a clean slate to work with. Our vision for the space and what we wanted it to represent was in no way recognizable in the building we walked into,” says Whitney. “We are so grateful for the opportunity to revitalize one of the Katy Trail and Rocheport's most recognizable institutions.”
Another definitive aspect of Meriwether’s operations is their fleet of brand new bikes available for rent. A row of brightly colored 2017 Marin Stinson STs line the bike racks outside the shop, waiting patiently to get some trail dust on them. Aside from regular trail bikes, Meriwether also has some unique options by way of a selection of kids bikes from John Deere steel tricycles to 21 speed mountain bikes for young adults. There are also tandems(bicycles built for two), trikes(three wheel recumbents) and quads(side by side recumbent). The Vairs are always looking for new, eccentric bikes to appeal to everyone. They promise more additions to the fleet as they learn what people would like to see.
Meriwether is of course named for Meriwether Lewis whose famed expedition with William Clark in the early 1800s made its way through Rocheport. This history is very much engrained in the identity of the town itself and Brandon wished to further establish the connection with his restaurant’s namesake. “Their names grace the streets of town and even some barn cats we know of.” With an ear to the past and eyes toward the future, the Vairs have embarked on an expedition of their own. Though it has already had twists and turns, Brandon and Whitney’s epic journey has really only just begun. Like Lewis and Clark before them, Whitney and Brandon have the best possible companion in each other to help them down this path together.