After Sarah Boyd first read about the concept of a plant gallery in the Netherlands several years ago, she soon decided she wanted to open her own.
Plants have always been her mental health therapy, she told the Press, adding that she wanted to share that with her community because people underestimate the impact that caring for plants can have on us.
Boyd opened Vert Cafe and Plant Gallery on Nov. 1 at 6858 Paoli Road. While she admits it was not an ideal time to open a business – between the pandemic and heading into winter, where businesses often see less clientele – she felt she “just had to get it open.”
So she located a spot in Paoli — a small community full of boutiques and art galleries five miles south of Verona.
Following Public Health Madison and Dane County’s 25% capacity guidelines, Boyd is only able to seat five people inside at a time – which means just three tables being available. Fortunately for Boyd, most people have been wanting to do carryout, she said.
Those capacity limits are why she said she’s looking forward to summer, when she can open all the doors, including to a patio off the dining room, adjacent to the Sugar River, which her business sits next to. She expects that what has been mostly a carryout business so far will expand in the summer.
But even now, in the coldest days of winter, the indoor atmosphere of Vert Cafe is summery, with pots of plants lining the floors and shelves and some hanging from the ceiling — from the red-orange flowers of abutilons to the towering broadleaves of banana trees.
Many are grown by Brooklyn-based North Parish Gardens, but Boyd also brings in plants she orders online from overseas.
Almost everything on display is for sale, but a handful of the plants are from Boyd’s private collection because she “likes to show off,” she said.
Vert, which gets its moniker from the French word for green, was also meant to reference the French word verre meaning glass, to invoke the cafe portion of the business – the glass being for a vessel of coffee, Boyd said.
Boyd wanted to bring lattes and espresso to Paoli, and she’s doing that with coffee grounds from Madison-based Just Coffee Cooperative.
“The community has been really receptive to having a coffee shop in Paoli,” she said. “I feel like I’m really filling a need that has kind of been overlooked for a while.”
The menu also includes paninis and breakfast sandwiches. Boyd said she’s been cooking for most of her life and is currently cooking for a corporation, but she will be done with that job soon.
“I really love food, feeding people is one of the most intimate things you can do,” she said.
But despite her culinary background, she doesn’t view herself as a chef.
“I don’t like to be associated with chefs, they’re so crabby, I like to be more playful,” she said.
This summer, Boyd said she plans to expand the sandwich menu, but she said the menu will remain limited until April. That’s in part due to the growing pains of opening, saying it’s been challenging to get the word out during winter, and hard to determine hours – some days she sees lots of people stop in, other days are quiet.
After having worked for a corporation for six years, Boyd said she felt had more to contribute to her community than what she had been doing. A Janesville native who now lives in Paoli, Boyd signed a lease for her space in Paoli Mill before she even had a business plan written.
“I just knew this is what I needed to do,” she said.
The cafe also offers a convergence for Boyd with two businesses she loves from her hometown – one of which is MacFarlane Pheasants, which is owned and operated by one of her family members. Each Sunday, she turns MacFarlane products into pheasant soup, along with selling pheasant brats and snack sticks.
The other Janesville business Boyd stocks is Hemp 1848 – she carries some of its line of CBD products, including balms, roll-ons, and tinctures – and even some for pets.
As for the next step to grow her four-month-old Paoli business, she’s planning on creating a menu of pastries. For now, she only has a toaster oven and a hot plate to work with.
“I am really excited about the pastry part of it, I love a challenge,” she said. “I am kind of hoping to push myself in this direction of French pastries. It will be really fun – quite an adventure to do that in a small space.”
She hopes to attract people to the cafe by creating “fabulous pastries people get excited about” such as “amazing scones” that will be limited in availability so people will have to get there early to enjoy.
It would be expensive to install the hood system required for a full oven, Boyd said, so that dream is one that might still be a few years off, she said.
For now, she said she’s just excited by how she’s been able to combine her love for plants and cooking.
“It all just came together in a really wonderful way,” she said.