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Cottage Cafe is a 20-year Pensacola staple that's only open 15 hours a week

Jake Newby
Pensacola News Journal

The Cottage Cafe in Pensacola is only open for three hours a day or 15 hours a week. It only serves lunch and its sequestered location is nestled in a mostly residential area on West Gregory Street. It is closed on weekends. 

Apart from one company delivery van that has a Cottage Cafe sticker on it, owners Chuck and Barbee Major don't really advertise. 

But the exiguous hours and unassuming former house have only added to the cafe's charm over the years. It's one of those places you either know about or you don't. Until you happen to cruise past it one day. 

Max Major loads up orders to deliver at the Cottage Cafe in downtown Pensacola on Thursday.

"People are shocked when we tell them how long we've been open," Barbee Major said Thursday. 

"They say, 'I've never seen you before, we just happened to drive by and saw your place,'" added Chuck Major, who sat beside his wife about a half hour after the cafe opened. 

For the first four or five years, the cafe, which opened in 2004, didn't even benefit from the large white sign that now bears its name. Yet it still built a healthy clientele of regulars, thanks largely to word of mouth. 

"If you serve good food, they will come," Chuck Major said, before using Girard's Law of 250 as an analogy to explain his restaurant's organic brand of marketing. "In a person's lifetime, they see or meet 250 people. So you satisfy one person, that person is going to tell everyone they know. But everyone that's close to them is going to know they had a really great meal at the Cottage Cafe." 

Owner Chuck Major adds a signature hand drawing indicating the contents of a to-go box at the Cottage Cafe in Pensacola.

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The 203 W. Gregory St. restaurant is locally renowned for its sandwiches, wraps and quiches, and for the baking prowess of Barbee Major, who spent 45 years in the restaurant industry in St. Louis, Missouri, before the couple moved to Pensacola in 1997. 

"She makes every kind of bread pudding you can name," Chuck Major said, before switching gears to marvel over his wife's gooey butter cake. "St. Louis is known for its gooey butter cake. So we brought that down here with us. She makes chocolate, vanilla and banana nut." 

"Well," Barbee Major cut in, "I can make a bunch of different ones but those are the ones we have all the time."

She then broke down the essence of the cake's popularity: "It's cakey and crunchy and gooey all at the same time."

Curry chicken salad sandwiches and wraps are always a hit at Cottage Cafe, where everything is made from scratch. The "Max" wrap has become the menu's No. 1 seller. 

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Owner Barbee Major prepares an order of chili at the Cottage Cafe in Pensacola on Thursday.

Named after their son, the "Max" wrap is a flour tortilla packed with thinly sliced smoked turkey, bacon, avocado, Swiss cheese, cucumber, lettuce and tomato and drizzled with the cafe's house creamy cucumber dressing. 

They also serve homemade soups and chili, but only during the coldest time of year, between Oct. 1 and March 1. The Majors said they have a special contact list of customers they call up when one of their seasonal soups is available. 

That's right, there's a Cottage Cafe soup with its own fan base. 

"Our No. 1 soup is creamy lemon chicken. We have a list of people that we have to call and say, 'Next week is creamy lemon chicken soup week,'" Chuck Major said. 

If the dining room radiates the ambiance and feel of a bed and breakfast, that's because a bed and breakfast is the Cottage Cafe's sister business and next-door neighbor. 

Server David Lewis, center, takes orders from David Nobles and his mother, Joyce Nobles, at the Cottage Cafe in Pensacola on Thursday.

After making the southeastern trek from St. Louis to Pensacola, the Majors started scouting bed and breakfast locations. They wound up buying the Pensacola Victorian Bed & Breakfast on the corner of West Gregory, which was a package deal with the property that was formerly a home, and is now the Cottage Cafe. 

For the first six to seven years as bed and breakfast owners, the Majors served as landlords to the people renting the home. They got the itch to open a sandwich spot that served frozen custard around 2003, but just couldn't track down the ideal property for the concept. 

They eventually dropped the custard part of the concept, but their perfect piece of property was right under their nose the whole time. 

"We looked where Tops is now, buildings like that," Chuck Major said. "Back then it was like $1,500 for a month's rent. That's a lot of rent for a custard place. And then one night, about a year later, we're talking about it and (Barbee) said, 'What about the cottage?'" 

"It wasn't even a thought, it just fell out of my mouth like, 'Blah,'" Barbee Major recalled. "And we looked at each other and went, 'Oh!' It was part of the mortgage, so we thought, we won't be paying anything separate."

All these years later, the Cottage Cafe, with its quaint aesthetic and 50 to 60 indoor and outdoor seats, has carved out a niche in Pensacola as a tasty and reliable lunch spot. 

With the downtown professional lunch crowd in mind, their menu was designed to be speedy and efficient. The Majors and their itsy-bitsy staff also delivers for free, so the restaurant owners have no plans nor desire to expand their hours. 

Owners Barbee and Chuck Major prepare orders Thursday at the Cottage Cafe at 203 W. Gregory St. in Pensacola.

"Our clientele is downtown. You have somebody sitting there that gets a half an hour for lunch. They can call their order in before lunch, we make it for them, deliver it to them for free, and they get the full half an hour," Chuck Major said. "They don't have to drive some place, spend 10 minutes trying to park, and then have to choke down their lunch." 

They've operated at their pace and garnered rave reviews for almost two decades now, so why tinker with the formula? 

"We had four ladies that drove all the way over here yesterday from Gulf Breeze," Chuck Major said. "They'd never been here before. And they were in love with it. Stayed until we closed. Because when you walk in, it's a cottage. It's welcoming. That's the way we like to keep it."

The Cottage Cafe is open between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. every Monday through Friday. Call the cafe at 850-437-0730. 

Jake Newby can be reached at jnewby@pnj.com or 850-435-8538.