Bulgarian-born Stoyana Petkova, 28, and Oxford native Michael Lacroce, 33, grew up a world apart, but have spent years finding culinary common ground. The pair owns Wild Owl Cafe at 28 South Broad St. in Norwich.
Though they met working at a water park in Old Forge, Petkova said, their shared experience in the hospitality industry began while working at Hoppie’s in Oxford. Wild Owl Cafe launched in November 2016.
“I came down here to work with him and this (space) came up for sale,” Petkova said. “We didn’t have a huge business plan or anything. He said, ‘Want to open a restaurant?’ and I said, ‘Sure, let’s try it.’”
The cafe reopened in mid-April, Petkova said, following a planned two-month closure for renovations and one of her annual return trips to Bulgaria. It was chance, she said, that the closure coincided with shutdowns caused by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Petkova said, before Wild Owl, the site saw four restaurants start and fail, including one owned by Lacroce. Petkova said, as she and Lacroce have established ties in the community, the cafe’s place in it has grown.
“The first time people came, they were so excited,” she said. “They love this place and they love the atmosphere. We didn’t know anybody, I was new and he was from Oxford, but we slowly started building clientele.
“When you’re in Norwich and you’ve been here for years, you get to know everybody,” she said. “We’re doing this for the community and you literally become family with them. They’re your friends and you live in this community, you hang out with these people, they support you and that’s your life. We’d miss them (if we didn’t do this); they need it and we need it.”
Petkova estimated that locals make up “50% of the clientele.”
“That’s how we’re in business,” she said. “It’s the same people here every week, at the same time, and that’s what keeps a restaurant going. We do have travelers … and we get people from the car museum.”
Petkova said customers represent a mix of families and business professionals.
“We are very family-oriented, and a lot of families come with their kids,” she said. “But we mostly have older clientele of 40 and up. It’s a lot of lawyers and bank people, because NBT is right here.”
Lacroce and Petkova said Wild Owl offers "elevated" American-style fare, with an emphasis on quality ingredients.
“It is American food, but there is a little twist to it,” Petkova said. “It’s not like a traditional American restaurant you’d go to. We use good ingredients and we try to support local, because the taste is better; we help them, they help us and that’s what you have to do in a small town. I’m growing the vegetables and I grow the herbs in the backyard. It makes a difference.”
A popular menu item, she said, is the cafe’s personal flatbread pizza, or abeetz.
“It is absolutely people’s favorite choice,” she said. “It’s light, but it can fill you up and there are nine different flavors.”
“Our food is fresh and it’s all natural,” Lacroce said. “Our chicken is Coleman chicken and we’re transitioning — it’ll probably take a full year now — but all our beef is going to be from local farms. That’s what we’re moving toward.”
Though Lacroce and Petkova said the pandemic has made planning tricky, they will continue offering takeout and curbside pickup, which they’ve done since April 13. And Wild Owl will offer limited-capacity indoor dining and outdoor seating on the seven-table patio.
Additionally, Petkova said, Wild Owl features two banquet rooms, one of which has a 70-person capacity and is typically booked for local Rotary meetings, bridal or baby showers and political party meetings.
“It’s a new environment, so we’ve got to adjust to the new rules,” Petkova said. “You cannot make long-term plans, because you don’t know what’s going to happen. The hospitality industry has been the most affected, so we just have to wait.”
“We’ve been telling everyone that we’re starting from scratch,” Lacroce said.
Wild Owl is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
The Wild Owl Cafe dinner menu changes weekly, Petkova said, and a full menu can be found at wildowlcafe.com or the “Wild Owl Cafe” Facebook page. Takeout orders are accepted only over the phone, at 607-373-3209. Also, follow @wildowlcafe on Instagram.