Douglas LaBar planned The Mason Jar via email from Italy, where he was studying for a master’s degree in food sustainability and ethics.
When the corner location in downtown Cheney became available, his mom – and now business partner – emailed information and photos, and they began designing the space and configuring menus.
After eight years of living in Portland and abroad, LaBar returned to his hometown in 2012, opening The Mason Jar two months later.
It’s been a year and a half, and LaBar – who once couldn’t wait to leave this college town – is deepening his roots and connection to the community.
He recently purchased a small farm and is looking to help revitalize the area’s slow food movement. Plus, he remains committed to The Mason Jar, which serves breakfast, panini sandwiches, baked goods, beer, wine and espresso, and offers a break from the town’s fast food, chain stores and bars.
The atmosphere is hip, but “not too hip,” LaBar said. “I wanted something comfortable, where I would want to go everyday” – somewhere with old world charm but that’s also, light, airy, ‘breathable.’ ”
The high ceiling bears the original 1912 tin tiles, but they’ve been redone in a modern metallic color. Chairs are painted robin’s-egg blue. LaBar made the chandelier and other light fixtures out of Mason jars, which also decorate shelves and double as sconce vases on the walls.
“It’s not a hipster thing,” he promised. “It’s the whole practical use. It kind of encompasses what we do. What we can, we jam or jar.”
The Mason jars pay homage to canning and preserving local seasonal ingredients, which LaBar is committed to using. His motto for the restaurant is “Local. Seasonal. Sustainable.”
“We create our menu based on what we can source,” he said, calling the fare modern American with a slight European influence.
The same description seems to fit him.
LaBar, 27, grew up and graduated from high school in Cheney, then promptly moved to Portland, where he worked in coffee shops and restaurants and ran his own catering business on and off for about eight years.
During the “off” time, he traveled: herding goats in Kashmir (“That was random”), working on a coffee plantation in Sumatra, farming in France.
During the “on” time, he picked up “like 75” tattoos – whimsical renditions of insects, birds and nautical images, all done by a friend in Portland – on his chest, arms and legs.
He also received a bachelor degree in international diplomacy and development from Portland State University, thinking, “I’d save the world, or whatever.”
However, while working and wandering overseas, he realized he could make more of an impact at home. He decided to help change Cheney, or at least influence its food scene.
His master’s program in Italy required an internship, and when his mom emailed with the info and images of the open corner space downtown, it seemed like a perfect fit.
“My internship was opening this restaurant, actually,” said LaBar, who moved back from Italy in August 2012, opening The Mason Jar – occupancy: 29 – at the end of October.
During warm weather, the outdoor seating area nearly doubles the space. Thursday nights, there’s live music. The menu features $6 breakfasts, $9 panini, $8 seasonal salad and $5 seasonal quiche. Other items include the soup du jour, hummus plate and bruschetta.
“It’s relaxed,” LaBar said. “When I grew up here, you were either from here or you went to school here” – and rarely did the two sides meet and mingle.
At The Mason Jar, he wanted to build a place where locals and students could come together, creating a sense of community – a gathering place in the heart of downtown.
Students at Eastern Washington University are welcome to camp out, meeting for coffee and homework or studying. There’s free Wi-Fi.
It’s a charming date spot, too, and just a cool place to hang out, listen to music, enjoy a mimosa and brunch or lunch.
That’s exactly what LaBar wanted to build.
And he isn’t done yet.
He’s hoping to host farm-to-table dinners and weddings at the farm, start a community supported agriculture program, and help reignite Slow Food Spokane River, the local chapter of Slow Food USA, a global network dedicated to “good, clean and fair food for all.”
“I’m very invested in this community and this town,” LaBar said. “My whole thing is seasonal, sustainable and ethical food.”
Buttermilk Pound Cake with Jam Glaze
From The Mason Jar, Cheney
3 cups sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup jam
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Mix in eggs, one at a time. In another large mixing bowl, combine flour and baking soda. Add buttermilk and butter-sugar mixture to dry mixture a little at a time, beating well. Stir in vanilla. Pour batter into 10-inch tube or Bundt pan, greased and floured. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until tester comes out clean. Cool for 15 minutes before removing from pan. Heat jam in saucepan over medium-low heat until it becomes smooth and runny, then drizzle over cake and serve.
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