Maegen Loring always knew she wanted to own a restaurant.
“I wanted a restaurant from the time I was a little girl,” Loring said.
Loring pursued her early fantasy; catering for 16 years and then owning a successful restaurant in the Railroad District of Atlanta for seven years subsequently led her to where she is today – the co-owner of The Neon Carrot, a breakfast and lunch café located on South Higuera St.
Born in San Francisco and growing up in Sea Side, Calif. with her mother, Loring moved to Canada at 15 to live with her father. These two different environments, she said, influenced her cooking styles.
“My mother was an artist, she was sort of a fearless mother who cut me loose, and I’ve cooked from day one,” Loring said. “And my dad was a mathematician, and I moved to live with him when I was 15. We’d open a Julia Child (cookbook) and make cassoulet; we’d start from scratch and do all these things.”
After years of developing her style, Loring began a catering business: Maegen Loring Catering. Around the same time, Loring married her husband Jeff, who is the co-owner of The Neon Carrot.
The two opened a dinner restaurant, The Park, which was in business for seven years until closing in July 2009. Although the restaurant was successful, Loring wanted to find a medium between running a full-time catering business and owning a restaurant — an all-in-one area to satisfy both ends.
So earlier this year on May 5, the Lorings opened The Neon Carrot, a breakfast and lunch café. Although located off the beaten path, the clean and unique interior elicits a more sophisticated take on casual café dining. Yet, the affordable prices averaging around $10 a plate makes the café a suitable destination for students looking for a mid-day meal.
Sitting at a corner table on their lunch break, Farren Francisco and Tio Mallet enjoy their fresh club sandwiches. Francisco, who has been to the restaurant before, said she returns because she finds the food interesting.
“It’s different, but not too far out to where you’re kind of weird about it. But it’s not the typical sandwich. They add a little twist to it with something like their lemon caper mayonnaise,” Francisco said.
Francisco and Mallet agreed that the clean and simple atmosphere is comfortable and relaxing.
“You can tell just by their furniture that they put a lot of effort into it; I like that. It gives you that feeling like you want to come back,” Francisco said.
And the clean interior didn’t happen by accident. Jeff Loring, who is a Cal Poly architecture alumnus, turned the café into his architecture lab, tinkering and experimenting with the design.
“I’ve always said that every architect wants to own a restaurant — you get to create your environment and see people react to it all the time,” Jeff said. “Most times when you do a building as an architect, people come and they go ‘yeah that was great,’ and it’s kind of over with. This renews itself.”
The seating area is open, with a large central dining table surrounded by smaller tables. This, Loring said, creates a space for hosting events, such as private parties and business dinners.
“What’s nice about this location is that we can do the night time programs — we can really dress it up,” said Loring.
The new atmosphere has also brought Maegen opportunities to broaden her menu. Although she loved owning a dinner restaurant, she said, she now enjoys playing with breakfast and lunch items.
“I love doing the breakfast and lunch thing because I didn’t really get to do that in the old restaurant. I get a much broader range — for me — for cooking,” Loring said.
The surface of the menu looks similar to what one might find at any café, with sandwiches, soups and salads. However, Loring combines different and distinct flavors, adding a different take on café classics. And, with meal items such as flatbread topped with carrot-ginger puree, grilled veggies and greens and treats like cocoa cookies with chocolate creme braîche, she’s created items worth sinking your teeth into.
“I like fresh flavors and real flavors,” Loring said. “Just things that are an expression of what’s going on in the season.”
The Lorings also purchase local market produce as well as working with fruits and vegetables that are in season. As environmentalists, they use serving materials that can be composted and later sort the day’s waste into appropriate disposal.
“We don’t have trashcans out there, so we can make sure we’re recycling and dividing everything,” Loring said. “From an environmental standpoint, as an eat-in take-out facility, we try to do the small things.”
Behind-the-scenes, Loring has also garnered a strong staff of servers, prep cooks and chefs, some of which she met through catering. Rachel Perez, a San Luis Obispo High School graduate, said she learned a lot of what she knows about cooking through working with Maegen.
“I was serving with her for maybe about a year, and I told her when we were at a private party in Shell Beach, ‘I really want to cook.’ And she brought me in and I’ve been here ever since,” Perez said.
The quality behind the counter translates to satisfied, loyal customers. With lunch lines out the door on a daily basis, the Lorings have created a restaurant whose heart lies in the kitchen. Although the seasons are changing, The Neon Carrot isn’t going anywhere.