Cafe owner Deb Buol has decorated almost every inch of Belleville’s Lingonberry Llama coffee shop with a colorful dash of whimsy.
Diners in the restaurant and bakery can clearly see the theme in the cafe’s large collection of cute and kitschy llamas. There are photos, paintings, coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, stuffed animals, children’s books and textiles — all featuring llamas — gracing nearly every wall and shelf. Buol adds a similar helping of fun to baked goods and beverages with edible glitter.
“We try to make sure the experience of coming here is worth the drive,” Buol chuckled. On a warm May weekday, we chatted outdoors sitting on mismatched patio furniture in a grassy lawn between the restaurant and the bank of the Sugar River.
Ironically, Buol is personally lukewarm about llamas. “They’re fine,” she said begrudgingly, when asked about the cafe’s name and decor.
An idea that caught hold of the imaginations of patrons, her camelid collection expands every time a fan of the coffee shop encounters a llama in a gift shop or craft fair. An area llama farmer even brought a few of the South American pack animals to graze in the restaurant’s backyard to celebrate a recent anniversary.
What’s in a name?
“The cafe was actually named by the first owner’s daughter,” she explained.
When Jon Cleveland was setting up the business in 2018 he asked his nine year-old for help with the name. After some internet research, she came up with the alliterative moniker Lingonberry Llama to honor both the area residents’ Scandinavian heritage and the animal that is a cultural icon in Peru, where a great deal of the world’s coffee is produced.
When Cleveland scoffed at the odd name, his daughter asked for others to weigh in. Facebook fans voted overwhelmingly for her brainchild.
“We’re thinking of changing it to Llama and Co.,” Buol said. “The ‘Co.’ stands for community, coffee and conversation. But the llamas are here to stay.”
The journey from barista to boss
A longtime resident of Belleville, Buol started working at the cafe as a weekend barista, shortly after it opened. Over time her responsibilities and her hours grew. As the venue’s event planner, she booked artists to play small concerts, set up classes in cookie decorating and calligraphy, hosted coffee tastings and invited patrons to decorate gingerbread houses during the holidays.
In a small backroom of the cafe, a children’s area stocked with toys (and more llamas) encouraged groups of new moms to gather there as well. But after a successful — if stressful — first year, Cleveland remarked that he was thinking of selling the place. When Buol expressed interest in taking over, they discussed the move for several hours before drawing up the paperwork.
Although she had never owned her own business before, Buol thought she had a handle on what she was getting into. “My parents owned a family-style restaurant in Evansville for years,” she said. “I started washing dishes there when I was 12. Food service is in my blood.”
In January of 2020, with very little savings left in her bank account, Buol became the new owner. Looking forward to putting her own spin on the space and the menu, she set to work thinking, “this is going to be my year.”
Then COVID-19 hit.
“For the first couple of weeks we were closed, I took advantage of the time, cleaning and painting. Then I used some PPE funding to invest in new equipment, like a panini press. As the business closings dragged on, it forced me to get an online ordering platform up and running on my website.”
Creative spins on coffee and baked goods
Buol spent the pandemic making to-go lunches, baking for catering orders and experimenting with recipes. “That’s when I came up with the Llama-Tarts ($3.35) we have on the menu,” she said, referring to the crimped-edge hand pies, filled with pie filling and topped with frosting and glittery sprinkles. “I love frosting,” she admitted, which is evident with one glance at the pastry case, which holds doughnuts, scones and cookies.
The cafe’s drink menu is also extensive, featuring all the standard coffee variations served hot or cold, chai, matcha, fruit smoothies, Italian sodas, lemonade and lotus drinks, which claim to provide plant-based energy.
Buol encouraged me to try a staff favorite, the Flamingo Lotus ($5.35 for 16 ounces); a pale pink fizzy concoction with raspberry, strawberry and vanilla flavors, topped with cool coconut milk. It’s served over ice with a dash of edible glitter, garnished with a pink bendy straw and a paper flamingo. In addition to the delightful presentation, the drink was citrusy and refreshing without being too sweet.
If you’re looking for the same kind of bling in your baked goods, the Llamazing unicorn doughnut ($3) sports a generous layer of vanilla frosting, accented by multi-colored sugar sprinkles, glitter and a tiny edible unicorn horn. The turtle scone ($3.35) from the bakery section could serve as either breakfast or dessert. The flaky, buttery pastry was chock full of salted caramel, pecans and chocolate chips, topped with creamy chocolate frosting.
On the savory side
Over on the savory side of the menu, the bacon and cheddar crustless quiche ($5.85) is more like a generous helping of a breakfast casserole, browned and bubbly on top, dotted with vegetables inside and served alongside a simple spinach salad and vinaigrette.
Bagelwiches ($6.90) are hearty morning fare, customized with your choice of bagel, meat, cheese and vegetables. The sausage, egg, spinach and cheddar version we tried on an everything bagel was fresh and filling.
If you stop by for lunch, try the chicken bacon ranch sandwich ($9.05) on sourdough bread, topped with havarti, cheddar, tomatoes and the cafe’s own homemade sauce. In a state where ranch dressing is a food group, this secret recipe stands out.
Non-meat eaters will love the loaded veggie sandwich ($8.95) which features a generous layer of hummus topped with tomatoes, peppers, red onion, avocado slices, fresh spinach and a schmear of Rhoda’s Mustard for kick. It’s spicy, cool comfort food.
Let’s Eat is a budget eats column about delicious food in the Madison area that doesn’t cost a lot. To submit an idea for coverage, contact food editor Lindsay Christians at email@example.com.
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