Elyse Dana will open Iris Eats on Friday, Dec. 3. (J.W. OLIVER PHOTO)
A South Harpswell native has returned from a career as a yacht chef to open a year-round cafe, Iris Eats, at Safe Harbor Great Island.
Iris Eats will have a “soft open” on Friday, Dec. 3. The cafe will serve a style of food that chef and owner Elyse Dana calls “comfy gourmet.”
“Comfy gourmet” is comfort food, but “elevated,” Dana explained.
The menu will feature “a lot of things that are kids’ favorites but you wouldn’t feel bad about eating as an adult,” she said, “and things that are easy to take out on a boat or take on a hike or take to a party.” Examples are “interesting grilled cheeses,” “fresh and delicious salads,” and “a lot of homemade soups,” as well as baked goods and breakfast sandwiches.
Dana’s specialties are charcuterie boards and grilled cheese sandwiches. She uses high-quality local ingredients in both.
Baked goods will include cinnamon buns and other sweets. “My baker makes the most delicious whoopie pies,” Dana said.
She plans to sell beer and wine by the bottle, but does not yet have a license to serve it. Once she secures her license, she will add beer on tap and wine by the glass.
Iris Eats will offer counter service and takeout items. The cafe has five tables inside and four on the deck.
Dana has one employee, the baker, and hopes to eventually add three more.
“I moved back to Maine with the idea of owning my own business,” said Dana, who now lives in Brunswick. She operates a “side hustle” out of a camper-trailer that she calls Iris. She describes it as a “little turquoise retro-looking thing” that started as a “gourmet grilled cheese-slinger” and grew popular at weddings for food and drink service.
Dana continues to operate Iris, but wanted something bigger. She inquired about the space at Safe Harbor last winter, but it wasn’t available. The building was most recently home to a seasonal cafe, Craft Kitchen and Provisions.
In August, Safe Harbor contacted Dana. “I felt like it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to,” she said.
She has updated the space with a new counter and tables. Brunswick artist Rachael Nimon painted a mural on an inside wall.
Dana did not set out to become a chef. She grew up in the Given House, a former boardinghouse on Hurricane Ridge in South Harpswell. Her first job was as a server at the nearby Auburn Colony. She attended West Harpswell School and graduated from Mt. Ararat High School in 2004.
She studied horticulture and landscape architecture at the College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor.
During a semester in the U.S. Virgin Islands, she worked for a business called On Deck Ocean Racing that operated high-performance racing sailboats. When cruise ships would come into St. Thomas, On Deck would offer passengers a taste of America’s Cup-style racing.
While there, Dana would see mega-yachts come and go, and started to grow curious about life as a crew member.
Another influential experience was a semester in Italy, where she went to help restore sunken gardens. “I learned to cook real Italian food in Italy, but because I had to, not necessarily because it was something that interested me at that point,” she said.
After graduation in 2009 and a stint as a crew member on a sailboat, she ran out of money and wound up back in Maine. An online job search led to a position as a stewardess on a 112-foot motor yacht. She accepted the job on a Friday and started work in Florida the next Monday.
One night, the owners of the boat asked her to make them dinner. “They had a reservation canceled on them or something,” she said. She remembers the meal: pesto prosciutto-wrapped chicken breast with a citrus asparagus risotto.
Her employers were “blown away” and more requests followed. “I became their full-time chef when they bought a bigger boat,” Dana said.
She would spend 10 years on yachts — about a year and a half as a stewardess, the rest as a chef.
Iris Eats is at 419 Harpswell Islands Road. Winter hours are 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Dana plans to have a grand opening in the spring and extend her hours for summer.