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At Dandelion diners come for the cause and come back for the food

Dandelion cooks and servers are, from left, Rosie Loch, Jessica Conklin, Nicola Singer, Sarah Greene, Jacquetta Tyree and Sara Cole. Dandelion cooks and servers are, from left, Rosie Loch, Jessica Conklin, Nicola Singer, Sarah Greene, Jacquetta Tyree and Sara Cole.

When Mainstay started the Dandelion Eatery five years ago, the founders knew they would train women who had come to the shelter to escape trauma. They knew a little bit about running a restaurant and a lot about pimento cheese and shrimp and grits. And they knew that a dandelion was a gritty little flower that grows under adverse conditions.

This much growth, though, they could not have predicted. Diners have made it No. 1 in the Henderson County area.
Mainstay has changed its name to Safelight since it founded Dandelion and sadly founding chef Robyn Graham Painter died of breast cancer two years ago. The Dandelion continues to thrive.
The breakfast-and-lunch café on Fifth Avenue West vaulted to the top of the TripAdvisor rankings for the greater Hendersonville area. (Also topping the list were Postero, No. 1 in Local Cuisine, Hot Dog World, tops for lunch, and the Fireside Restaurant and Pancake Inn, favorite for Cheap Eats.)
No. 1 among 59 restaurants in the Moderately Priced category, Dandelion is surely the only one that doubles as a training center for women rebuilding their lives after domestic abuse. And it deserves extra credit because of its location — off Main Street, beneath a small unlighted sign.
House specialties shrimp and grits and tomato pie are so popular that they each earned their own heading in the TripAdvisor review.
“I think first of all people knowing about the mission,” manager Sara Cole said when asked what accounts for the growth. With the restaurant’s glowing reputation on the web, though, that’s changing.
“People are raving about the tomato pie on line, they’re raving about the shrimp and grits, they’re raving about the quiche, oh, that sounds good, we’ll give that a try — and then they come in and they realize our purpose and our mission and it just goes from there,” she said. “That’s the best part.”
Other popular items are the chicken pot pie (a winter favorite), grilled pimento cheese sandwich with bacon and tomato, egg, chicken and tuna salad sandwiches and spinach quiche. You can get an eggplant, black bean or portabella burger but no hamburger. Prices range from $8 to $11.

Trademark specials remain popular

Cole, a Mississippi native, was promoted to manager last month after Kat Neville left the kitchen to manage the Purple Ribbon thrift shop next door, another Safelight affiliate.
“I think it’s well deserved because I think our food is exceptional,” Neville said of the TripAdvisor voting. “I think that a lot of people’s ratings is to credit the fact that we’re helping women in our program. The expectation isn’t high when they show up but it’s quickly overreached when they try our food and they get the service and our quality and I think everybody that works there tries really hard to make everybody feel comfortable and have a great experience.”
So, they come the first time for the cause and the next 50 times for the food?
“And the service too,” Neville said. “Yeah, I always thought they come for the cause and come back for the food and the experience. Because there’s a lot of great restaurants but you have to work a little harder to come to the Dandelion.”
Neville teamed up with Painter to produce specialties that became a hit with local diners and have remained local favorites. Several dishes were Painter originals — the trademark homemade pimento cheese and shrimp and grits.
“I brought the tomato pie to the table and putting a more vegetarian items on the menu so we could do as much local and healthy that was a little alternative to what was offered on Main Street,” Neville said. “We’ve grown in the past five years in Henderson County (in dining variety) but we wanted to have something other than a burger and fries.”

‘What a find!’

Although regulars know that Dandelion is affiliated with Safelight, most tourists only learn that after they’ve already chowed down.
“Found this restaurant while looking for a parking spot,” one TripAdvisor reviewer said. “What a find!!! Can't say enough good things about the staff and the food. My husband and I both had the chicken sandwich for lunch and were both pleasantly surprised by the amount of food served and the taste. We went back two days later for breakfast with some house guests and we all ordered omelets. Once again, very tasty and filling. Not only would we go back because of the service and food, but will definitely support their worthy cause. Highly recommend it when in Hendersonville.”
The café’s fame is going to spread farther soon. Our State magazine has visited for a story it plans in an upcoming issue.
In the summertime, tourists may make up 60 percent of the crowd, Neville said. But she credits local repeat business and friends of Safelight for the enduring success.
“The community has really been the reason why that’s become so successful,” she said. “When Robyn and I started, we were doing $200 days. (Now it’s around $1,200.) People were coming because they knew Robyn or myself or they wanted to come for the cause, then they just kept coming. They are really the reason why we’re so successful. We appreciate them.”