COTTAGE GROVE — After a brief reopening followed by a quick closure late last year, The Hot Spot Café reopened quietly less than two weeks ago — this time with a new baker and business model.
Owners Len and Deb Blackstone revived this historic café at 819 E. Main St. In August 2022, the Blackstones first reopened the café as a full-on restaurant, with 15 employees operating 14 hours a day.
Then – abruptly – the Café closed and everybody was let go.
“When we first opened up in 2022, we were swamped with guests and this continued for a good two months. Then November hit and revenue just plummeted,” Len said.
““The staff and management we had last year were great. It was just that the plan didn’t work,” Deb said.
Len said that the business plan had included a tourism aspect “that just did not materialize last summer,” Len said, noting that construction delays ultimately led to a late start, missing the critical window at the height of tourism and busy summer months.
Did the Hot Spot 2022 fail?
“It depends on how you define failure,” Len said. “I made a lot of mistakes, but hindsight is always 20/20. Anybody who is an entrepreneur knows that is part of life as an entrepreneur: you are going to make mistakes.”
Blackstone admits that the Café’s quick closure was tough to swallow.
“I could not even drink a cup of coffee out of a Hot Spot Café coffee mug. It was just tortuous. I would not drive by this location because it was too painful,” Len said. “Did it hurt? Yeah, it hurt alot. But, that’s life and there is that thing of ‘don’t give up.’”
Since then, the Blackstones stepped back, reevaluated, and reimagined the Hot Spot concept.
“Once we decided to reopen, we knew it had to be with a new concept; it had to be something different, and this time we made the decision that if we reopened we wanted to do it together, both of us being fully involved,” Deb said.
The Blackstones reopened quietly on June 23, doing the opposite of how they opened last year: taking things slow and making sure everything is dialed. They’ve got a fully-equipped staff and fully-stocked coffee and pastries. The outdoor dining areas have also expanded and been made more comfortable, adding heaters to the seating area in anticipation of chilly nights spent with a cinnamon roll.
“We are starting fresh and it is a different concept altogether,” Deb said. With less staff overhead and more tailored hours than last year’s reopening, the café has reopened with four new staff members and is open from 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday through Monday.
The Café seats about 20 people inside, with a large seating area in the back courtyard. The space has been carefully decorated with rustic artwork and natural wood planters by Veneta artist July Buckridge and the Blackstones hope to use this space in many ways.
“For me it is about having a gathering place,” Deb said. “We have a little courtyard garden area in the back and I want people to feel like it’s a little get-away. I am a counselor so I am all about stress management, self care, and slowing things down. That’s the kind of feeling I want for people back here.” This space could also be used for artistic workshops, live music, and a space for groups to rent for meetings, she added.
Already the signature dish with biscuits and gravy is selling out fast, so are the pain au chocolates and the cinnamon twists. The Blackstones attribute items telling like hot cakes to the success of Bohemia Bakery’s Shelby Bartram, who sells baked goods wholesale to Hot Spot.
“It’s amazing that somebody as talented and good a baker as Shelby lives right here in Cottage Grove,” Deb said.
Made from scratch with 90% organic ingredients, Bartram has been a baker for 26 years. She has been operating out of Bohemia Bakery since the spring of 2021, and has been gaining traction since.
“Our pastries really started taking off in the summer of 2022,” Bartram said. “From there we have just been expanding at the Saturday Market in town, the Coast Fork Farm Stand and now the Hot Spot Café.”
Len said that a few breakfast and lunch entrees will soon be added to the menu, including limited gluten- and dairy-free options which they are looking to expand.
“Our target is to have breakfast or lunch for $10 or less,” he said.
Hot Spot origins
The Blackstones have been married for 49 years and share a dream that the business becomes once again an essential piece to the fabric of Cottage Grove.
“We want the opportunity to build community, to come together with the things we all love and make memories together,” Len said, noting the historical importance of the business in the community. “So many people are coming in and talking about how they used to come here back in the day and the good memories they have from that.”
For instance, “Our gravy is unique to Cottage Grove and our biscuits are tailored specifically to the Hot Spot Café for its longstanding history of serving biscuits and gravy,” he said.
The original Hot Spot Café opened in 1943 by owner Adeline Stroup who came to Cottage Grove in covered wagons from South Dakota in the early ‘30s.
She opened at 5 a.m. to serve loggers and millworkers an early breakfast, and also served lunch and dinner. Her regular customers were as loyal as they come and for 26 years she ran the place before retiring in 1968.
Stroup was so well known and loved that the song “Down at the Hot Spot,” written by her grandson Dave Munsell, is still played every year by the Windy Ridge Band at the Bohemia Mining Days.
Community member Sherry Hulse moved to Cottage Grove in 1961 and remembers how the Hot Spot was a going concern at that time.
Hulse recalls that the portion sizes were always big and the place stuck out because everything was homemade, not from cans or boxes, and in her opinion just tasted better.
“This was definitely a loggers town so they served a very generous portion of biscuits and gravy. It was always the same and you could always count on it,” she said. “Then there was a hot turkey sandwich or hot beef sandwich, with mashed potatoes and gravy all over that and it was part of their number one sellers. That was dinner or lunch. Everybody knew to go there to get good food. Teenagers would go there in the late afternoon and drink Coke and sit and talk, it really was ‘the place to be’. Sure, there were other places to dine in town, but this was ‘the one’ that people went to.”
A new beginning
While the Blackstones believe this business approach is more manageable, nothing is ever for certain.
“On the other hand, we could also fail and we could have a lot of ‘I told you so’s,’ Len said.
Len said he’s familiar with failure, having been through bankruptcy 40 years ago, losing everything and then moving to Cottage Grove. Today, he hopes the new Hot Spot Café will be successful, backed by community support, and that it could be a lesson to others of how a phoenix can rise from the ashes.
“I am called to love people and that is my drive,” said Len. ”I can’t think of a better expression of love than giving somebody a meal and creating an environment where people can experience unity and communion – that is community. We have a love for the community and we want to make a difference so for us it’s worth it to try it again. My mother was right, it is more blessed to give than to receive.”