SOUTHWEST HARBOR — On most weekdays between 7:30 and 11:30 a.m., you’ll find Larry Stettner holding court on the patio of the Common Good Soup Kitchen & Cafe, located in a 1930s-era brick building in the middle of town, next to the post office. He’s the one looking dandy, with a white goatee and a straw boater with a red-and-blue hatband.

On a sunny Thursday in early August, a man strolls up with his daughter and they glance from the donation box to the food table, wearing smiles and slightly puzzled expressions that say they aren’t quite sure what to do next.

Sensing they are new, Stettner halts another conversation and rises to greet them: “Hey folks, have you been here before? Well, welcome to the Common Good. My name is Larry. What brought you here? Did you see our sign? Were you just walking by?”

The man says friends told him about the place.

“OK,” Stettner continued, “so the deal is we serve fresh, hot popovers, we serve oatmeal, we serve juice, we serve coffee, hot chocolate, homemade butter and jam. You take as much as you want, eat as much as you want, have as much fun as you possibly can, and donate whatever you care to donate on your way out, because we do this to support our soup kitchen in the winter.”

Stettner, the acting director of Common Good, hands them a sheet that explains what this unusual little cafe is all about, then points them in the direction of the popovers.

Ah yes, those popovers. Jessica Stewart, the kitchen manager, and the volunteers who work with her bake between 400 and 600 of the light, hollow, eggy rolls daily. On weekends, that figure can rise as high as 700.

Larry Stettner greets patrons arriving at the Common Good Soup Kitchen & Cafe. Stettner is acting director of Common Good, which began in 2009 as an "anti-soup kitchen" and hit on its popular popovers two years later. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Larry Stettner greets patrons arriving at the Common Good Soup Kitchen & Cafe. Stettner is acting director of Common Good, which began in 2009 as an “anti-soup kitchen” and hit on its popular popovers two years later. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Popovers are the signature item at the soup kitchen’s daily summer brunches, where the crowd is about 80 percent tourist, 20 percent local.

Anyone can eat here, and what you pay is up to you. Just leave whatever you can afford in the donation box. If times are hard, don’t worry about leaving any payment at all.

The allure of popovers is strong on Mount Desert Island. So strong that Common Good raises a surprising $35,000 every summer just from their sale. All of the “profit for a nonprofit,” as Stettner puts it, is used to fund the soup kitchen’s winter meals – a lunch of soups, salads and casseroles on Thursdays, dinner on Saturdays and brunch on Sundays. The staff also packs up food to send home with guests whose cupboards are empty, and they deliver food to residents who are hungry but can’t leave home.

Most Mainers associate popovers with the Jordan Pond House in Seal Harbor, where they have been served to summer tourists for decades, along with a spot of afternoon tea. The Asticou Inn in Northeast Harbor sells them, too, some with fancy toppings like red pepper cheddar and chocolate sauce. Stewart considers the Asticou the cafe’s biggest rival (in a friendly way, of course) for tourist dollars.

The popovers’ popularity arises from customers’ fond memories of their mothers baking them as a Sunday treat, Stewart says, and from the fact that scoring a popover in Downeast Maine is like finding a beignet in New Orleans. It is one of those foods, like Thanksgiving pumpkin pie or Memphis barbecue, that is tightly linked to memory and place.

And then there’s the way they look and smell.

“It feels luxurious and extravagant even though it’s just eggs and milk,” Stewart said.

Common Good has taken this indulgent, airy roll and, over the past five years, transformed it from a quick culinary trick to keep the organization’s head above water into a social service workhorse that feeds hundreds of needy Mainers annually and brings people from all economic walks of life together for food, music and fellowship.

A patron deposits money into a donation box at the cafe. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A patron deposits money into a donation box at the cafe. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

HOT OVEN, THIN BATTER

Stewart’s morning begins at 5:30 a.m. in the Common Good commercial kitchen, where she will eventually fill 32 popover pans two-thirds full with thin batter.

Stewart has no cheffing experience, but she cooked for large groups when she was involved in social justice work through the Catholic Worker Movement. A lot of people think popovers are complicated, but there’s really no trick to them, she says – just make sure the oven is hot and the batter is thin.

By 6:30 a.m. on this morning, volunteer Don Whalen is outside raising umbrellas the color of orange, raspberry and lime sherbet over about 14 tables. The picket fence that encloses the gravel-covered patio is lined with Adirondack chairs.

In the kitchen, a buzzer goes off, signaling that the second batch of popovers is ready. It takes 40 minutes for a batch to bake, and on weekdays they make about five batches. The baked popovers, some of them impressively puffed up, sit on a big counter in their still-warm pans. They look like dozens of miniature chef’s hats.

Sometimes there is entertainment. A ukulele group plays on Sundays, a local band on Wednesdays and a guitarist on Saturdays. On other days, summer visitors may grab their own guitars and play for free, as a man from New York did recently before donating $100.

As she baked, Stewart talked about the need for a soup kitchen in an area that has been known for decades as a playground for the wealthy and for tourists.

“People would be surprised at the level of poverty on the island,” she said. “For one thing, the cost of living is quite high here. We have a lot of elderly people, and we have a lot of people who are unemployed or underemployed in the winter.

“Most of our jobs here are service industry,” she continued, “and there aren’t pension plans when you work in the service industry. You don’t retire with a 401K when you’re a house cleaner.”

Common Good doesn’t know exactly how many people it helps every year, mainly because that would mean asking questions when patrons come in for a meal. The group has sacrificed statistics in favor of letting go of the shame or stigma of asking for help.

“This is a region where, culturally, it’s hard for people to ask for help,” Stewart said.

This is truly a grassroots operation. Stettner, a retired psychology professor and competitive croquet player, says he was never the kind of person to volunteer for anything before he got involved with Common Good. “I got pulled into this by my friend Bill,” he said.

The cafe in Southwest Harbor has an outdoor seating area where patrons can serve themselves. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The cafe in Southwest Harbor has an outdoor seating area where patrons can serve themselves. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Bill is Bill Morrison, a chef who has since left the area but started this whole thing in 2009 by delivering homemade soups to his less fortunate neighbors. He recruited Stettner, who called it the “anti-soup kitchen” since the food came to the people who needed it.

Eventually the group moved into the old restaurant at the Seawall Motel, where they decided to tap into the summer population of the island to raise money for their winter meals.

The restaurant had wi-fi, which attracted tourists from the nearby campground. That first summer, Morrison and Stettner sold them coffee and scones baked by a volunteer.

The next summer, they expanded, making it a small cafe. They barely broke even.

“We were about to fold in November 2011,” Stettner said. “We had no money in the bank. We told our landlord at that point that we couldn’t pay the rent.”

Then, in fall 2011, Common Good tried holding a Sunday popover brunch using Stettner’s own popover recipe. It was a shot in the dark, but it worked. They made more than $1,000 on brunches, total, that fall.

The following summer, they stuck with the popovers. One person made them. A buzzer let the baker know when a customer walked in. “That’s how slow it was,” Stettner said. But the popovers continued to deliver: That first day, Common Good took in $85 in donations.

The Seawall restaurant was torn down last year, and Common Good moved into a commercial kitchen at 19 Clark Point Road offered at an attractive rent by a local business.

The patio can hold up to 100 guests and an indoor dining rooms holds 50, which is a good thing since attendance at the brunches has grown every year, mostly through word of mouth at campgrounds, flyers posted at local businesses and recommendations from hotels and inns.

The soup kitchen does not actively pursue any grant funding, Stewart said, but occasionally a summer resident affiliated with an organization will funnel money their way. Mostly the organization pays for its programs through the sale of popovers. It takes no money from the government.

“These kind of places should be in every community,” said Jim West, a retired schoolteacher from DeLand, Florida, who eats breakfast at Common Good at least four times a week. “It takes the energy of somebody like Larry and the vision that he has. It’s a great model. And it doesn’t have to be popovers, it could be cereal and scrambled eggs.”

The cafe's popover brunches are a favorite of residents of Southwest Harbor as well as visitors, most of whom hear about them through – what else? – word of mouth.

The cafe’s popover brunches are a favorite of residents of Southwest Harbor as well as visitors, most of whom hear about them through – what else? – word of mouth.

A 6-MILE BRUNCH

A few early birds always show up before 7:30, but generally during the week the crowd grows until it reaches a peak around 10 a.m.

The serve-yourself line starts with coffee and juice, then popovers. A separate table offers oatmeal, honey and containers of homemade cinnamon-honey butter and maple-walnut butter. A small cooler stocks blueberry and strawberry jams, made every two weeks from local organic berries. (The family that grows the berries volunteers at the soup kitchen during the winter.)

Buzzing around the tables, replenishing glass and silverware, and wiping up messes is Amy Trafton, an experienced volunteer who is working as a paid dishwasher for the soup kitchen this summer. Trafton and her 17-year-old son, Zachary, moved to Trenton a couple of years ago and started volunteering at Common Ground as a way to meet people.

Trafton’s Apple watch tells her she sometimes walks six miles while working a brunch.

“The volunteers truly do a little of everything,” she said. “When it gets crowded – and it gets crowded – you’re running around making sure everything is stocked. Coffee is almost a full-time job, just keeping it replenished.”

By 8:30 a.m. the space has filled with a few dozen patrons, and the line for popovers is growing. A little girl picks up a popover and giggles. “These are so big!” she says.

At another table, a mother asks her son who has just snatched a popover, “Is this your second or third?”

He avoids the question by answering, “It smells so good!”

The idea of “leftover popovers” seems crazy in this atmosphere, but it does happen. Leftovers are held as an “emergency supply” for 24 hours, Stettner said; after that, one of the volunteers takes them home to feed her pigs.

Kim and Tim Brown from Morgantown, Pennsylvania, and their dog, Cinnamon, are sitting quietly at a table. This is their first time here. They heard about Common Ground from the man they’re renting from in town. The day before, they enjoyed popovers at the Jordan Pond House – “a lot of them,” Kim Brown said, laughing. They pronounced the Common Good popovers “delicious” and said it made them feel good to know they were supporting an important cause.

It was also the first visit for Karen Larmon of Dallas and her boyfriend, Brian Lawhorn, who lives in West Virginia. Lawhorn found Common Good on Trip Advisor.

“We love the idea of it,” Larmon said.

“That’s the whole reason we came,” Lawhorn added.

Like the Browns, the couple had already tried popovers at the Jordan Pond House. “I think these were better, really,” Lawhorn said. “These are fluffier. They’re definitely bigger.”

That’s the kind of reaction Stettner likes to hear. Ask him what he gets out of doing all of this, and he replies, “pure joy.”

Then he goes back to work.

“Hey, folks, have you been here before?”