I’m at brunch with friends at Occasionally Yours. It’s only been about a week since they’ve opened after renovating the place, but you’d never guess it from how smoothly the kitchen and service is running. Coldplay plays quietly in the background as we wait for our food, and Scott Richardson, the owner, sits down at each mahogany table and introduces himself. He is warm and personable, one of those people who can connect with just about anybody, and it’s clear that he loves Occasionally Yours and everyone who walks through its doors.
“Here’s your first plate!”
Scott comes out beaming and places the first course, banana-berry foster french toast, on our table. The toast is topped with whipped cream, a light dusting of cinnamon, and a colorful mix of fresh, carefully sliced fruit that brings the whole plate to life. The berry compote, tastefully spread on the side, adds a touch of class to the presentation.
We all take our first bites and look at each other. I think this is probably the best french toast I’ve ever had. It is moist without being soggy, as is often the case with the thicker varieties of sourdough french toast. What’s the secret? Scott says it’s the real maple syrup.
Scott grew up in western New York, where as a child he’d watch the local syrup farmer, Mr. Barney, “come down the street with his horse and wagon, and a big vat.”
“In the old days,” said Scott, “you’d walk up to the trees and see Mr. Barney out there and yell ‘Hey, need some help? Need some help?’ And he would drill a hole in a tree, reach into his vest, take out a little spout … do the tapping, and then he just went up the road; he never stopped.”
“So you’re running over, sloshing, dumping it, going back,” Scott’s voice rises with excitement and he swings his arms as if running again. “If he got on ahead of you and you had a full bucket — man, it was brutal … All that for just one dollar a day!” Scott laughs. His childhood gig seems to have ingrained in him a deep appreciation for maple syrup.
“I have never been able to eat pancakes or anything like that that doesn’t have real maple syrup, you know, like the Aunt Jemimah or corn syrup things.” It’s the pure syrup, Scott says, that makes the french toast his personal favorite on the menu. “Throw the banana-berry foster on it, and that just tops it right off.”
The french toast is a time-honored item on the menu of the long beloved eatery, originally founded as a catering-only business in 1989 by Scott and his wife Theresa, who shared a passion for and extensive experience in the food industry.
After ten years, Occasionally Yours added in-house dining to their repertoire and became “Occasionally Yours: Catering and Eatery”.
The Richardsons brought head chef Nathan Moore on board last year. An infantry veteran, Nathan found that “cooking, and the fast-paced, high-stress environment [of cooking management] was therapeutic” for him. He came from another cooking management position at Avenue Eatz, a hot brunch spot in Wayne, PA, for students from Villanova, Cabrini, and Eastern Universities. His experience there gave him “insight into what the more millennial and college student crowd wanted,” explained Scott.
“The big drive was to add in the trending type foods,” said Nathan. “The food has always been pretty top-notch. When I first came, I saw the menu was all of your classic, home-style, American favorites, just done extremely well. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I can remember in the months leading up to us closing, nearly daily, someone bringing up: ‘Do you have any gluten-free options? Do you have any vegan options?’And actually, we did — it was just a matter of phrasing things differently on the menu, so that the language used would jump out at people.”
While additions of avocado toast, vegan black-bean burgers, and sriracha aioli might appeal to a millennial crowd, the menu’s more timeless choices have been revised to entice readers of any age group. What were once mere “Omelettes” are now “Unforgettable Omelettes”, and their “Cheese,” “Sausage & Cheese,” and “Chef’s Special” varieties have been replaced with the more appetizing “Farmhouse,” “Norway,” and “Backyard Garden”.
“Nate has put in a tremendous amount of energy to redesign our menu,” said Scott. “You know, this is Nate’s baby. The wording of the menu, the items on the menu, how they are done — that’s all Nathan.”
“With [Nathan] on board, we started experimenting with different specials and saw that the people really liked it,” said Scott. “He is much more knowledgeable than I am regarding the mixing of different ingredients and what it does for the overall omelet or sandwich. What we’re trying to do is take our tradition of good food, and elevate it.”
Before long, Nathan’s adjustments to the menu led to physical renovations. “We built a menu, and built the kitchen to fit that menu,” explained Nathan.
Both the gastronomic and physical makeovers were done not without sensitivity to the wishes of loyal customers.
“Scott had this whole vision of what he wanted it to be: ‘urban chic,’” Nathan recalled. “We had this customer who would come in and eat with us, and it turned out after talking to her that she was this design architect, getting into this new space of her own with interior design, and helping people bring concepts together.”
The customer was Samina Iqbal, an alumna of Columbia School of Architecture. I met with her for breakfast at Occasionally Yours to learn more about her involvement in the renovation.
“My family and I moved here a couple years ago. We’ve been coming here ever since and we’ve always felt very welcomed by Scott and Theresa,” said Samina. “I saw this as an opportunity to help them make their place more appealing to more communities of people — specifically, I think they were really interested in attracting students.”
According to Samina, Scott approached her about the renovation early last June. One of the first things they discussed was surfaces.
“In modern design, surface and texture are really the key elements,” Samina explained. “You have less overt ornamentation and then you deal with the richness of surface and texture.”
She is interrupted by the woman eating next to us.
“The coolest thing in this whole place is that that ceiling is copper,” she says enthusiastically. “You know when you think of a specimen tree in a yard? This is the specimen tree of this place.”
Our neighbor is right. The crown jewel of the renovation is the copper ceiling. The metal’s luster accentuates the ceiling’s height, a classic feature of Swarthmore architecture.
“The existing ceiling was painted white, and so it blended in with the surrounding soffits,” said Samina, pointing as she takes a sip of her coffee. “You didn’t necessarily notice that it was this great, metal-stamped tin ceiling.”
Once everyone — the whole Richardson family and their many loyal customers — was on board with the copper ceiling, Scott asked Samina about seat and table materials. Creating and sending him mood boards, Samina helped him come up with a palette.
The goal was “balancing the warmth of the copper, reflecting that in the tables and the seat materials, and then balancing that all with the cooler tones of the floor and walls,” Samina said. “Social media platforms like Instagram and Pinterest have increased everybody’s design awareness, and so there’s a lot more visual acuteness [for people in general].”
“My main focus was to bring the design of [Occasionally Yours] to appeal to a more modern sensibility,” she said.
Her design expertise here is clear: The caramel-colored leather seats, the silver, weathered oak flooring, the navy beadboards, all together with the richness of the mahogany tables, complement each other perfectly in texture and color.
The renovation increased not only visual but also physical accessibility to customers. The Richardsons moved the wall of the dining area back eighteen inches, sacrificing precious kitchen space to make room for more customers at the eatery.
One of the most distinctive parts of the new space is the open kitchen concept, suggested by Nathan in order to give an experience of the cooking.
“Now customers can look you in the eye afterward if they don’t like [the food],” Nathan said with a chuckle.
Though the transparency of the visible kitchen increases pressure for the staff, they are well rewarded with the natural light of the dining room and its large windows.
“To have natural light from our end — I just can’t believe we used to be in a dungeon for thirty years!” said Scott. “From our end of it, there’s this window, and it’s like a movie screen! The people are walking by, and it’s so cool.”
Beyond menu and design revisions, another way Occasionally Yours is trying to connect with the local community and college is by adopting more environmentally conscious practices.
For years, Occasionally Yours has used plastic disposable cups for its drinks.
“We could only do so many dishes,” explained Scott. According to him, $6,000 of their investment (—“not counting china”—) in the project went towards a new, more energy-efficient dishwasher.
“A whole rack of dishes is done in a few minutes with only two gallons of water instead of [the previous] 40 or 50 gallons. It’s insanity! In my mind, with all the plastic we’ve eliminated and the water savings, it’s a win for everybody: it’s a win for our customers, it’s a win for us financially, and it’s certainly a win for the environment,” Scott said with enthusiasm.
Other new, greener practices at Occasionally Yours have been instituted with busy Swarthmore students in mind. “The takeout containers are now in a compostable, clam-shell container — the takeout sandwiches now don’t get wrapped in plastic, and we’ve got compostable forks … If the students get things to go, they can now take things back up to campus and put it in a compostable unit.”
Scott said he hopes the renovation helps him give back to the community that has served him well.
“Swarthmore and the College have given my wife and my family and me thirty years of a wonderful, wonderful life here,” he said. “You know, I don’t have to be here much longer, but my children and grandchildren do.”
Though Scott admits that prices are on the higher side for college students — one meal is around $15 — he added, “You’re not just coming for the food. You’re coming for the combo of everything that makes the experience worth it.” He has a point — for all that the restaurants of Swarthmore boast, ambience is rather lacking.
Experience aside though, I’d easily pay fifteen Swat points for that french toast any day.