Not everyone “thru-hikes” the Appalachian Trail (AT), but nearly everyone who does eats at the Appalachian Trail Cafe in Millinocket.

The Appalachian Trail Cafe is also a popular eatery and gathering place for many day hikers and campers heading into Baxter State Park, as well as those who live or visit the Millinocket area.

In 2015, the AT, a footpath stretching 2,180-plus miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to the summit of Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, saw approximately 2,000 “thru-hikers” – hikers who walked from one end to the other. If you own a restaurant at the end, that can mean a lot of hungry hikers.

Millinocket isn’t right on the trail, but it is the largest town near Baxter State Park and located on the road most often used to get to and from the park. Originally called “Jo & Mary’s,” the AT Cafe has been a fixture in Millinocket for over half a century. Jaime Renaud, a former registered nurse, along with her husband, Paul, purchased the cafe as well as the AT Lodge, located a very short distance away, about 10 summers ago.

Both Jaime and Paul are “section hikers,” according to Paul. A section hiker is one who completes the AT in sections, usually mixing it up with shorter hikes in random locations along the trail and often taking several — or more — years to complete the entire trail. “That’s what brought us here.”

“When we started, we didn’t know a thing about running a restaurant,” says Paul. “We really didn’t want it,” adds Jaime.

But they wanted the AT Lodge, and the cafe came with it. Now, after 10 years of serving hikers and the community of Millinocket, Paul says: “It’s still going pretty well.”

With a large proportion of its clientele being of the adventurous sort, the AT Cafe is, Jaime acknowledges, a “niche” business. And it’s been good business the last 10 years.

In 2006 there were about 400 northbound thru-hikers (also known as “NOBOs”) who finished the Appalachian Trail, but those “numbers have changed dramatically,” says Paul.

“Last year we saw (more than) 1,100 northbound thru-hikers,” Jaime adds.

“So far this season, we’ve seen about 1,500 hikers,” Paul continues, including SOBOs (southbounders), NOBOs, flip flops (those who start somewhere on the trail, hike to one end, travel by other means of transportation back to the original starting point and hike to the other end) and section hikers, “and we’ll see about 2,350 when it’s all said and done.”

Many of those who stop at the cafe will also stay at their lodge. The AT Lodge, which can accommodate 32 people, has “a hostel-type of atmosphere . . . (and) an apartment where families can come to meet their hikers” as they leave the trail, says Paul.

At the cafe, hikers completing the AT are given the opportunity to sign their trail names — nicknames given to hikers by others on the trail — on a ceiling tile, making the AT Cafe’s ceiling an experience in and of itself.

The couple have made the cafe and lodge a destination, catering to hikers and their supporters, as well as area residents. But don’t try to go to the cafe for dinner, because it’s not open. Seating about 65, the cafe serves only breakfast and lunch, with a Hiker Happy Hour from 2 to 4 p.m. featuring $2 beers, sponsored by Lewiston’s own Baxter Brewing.

Hikers, apparently, love beer. However, in light of a controversy last year involving a thru-hiker celebrating with champagne on the summit of Katahdin in violation of park rules, Jaime said: “There are three things that we are trying to get across to hikers: Hike in small groups, save alcohol for later/drink in town, and celebrate quietly.”

Hikers also love food.

Says Paul: “Food is the main thing on their minds when they leave the trail. . . . A hiker will eat anything you put in front of them.”

With so many finishing their thru-hikes at the top of Katahdin in autumn, this is the time of year when the cafe is super busy. And there’s plenty to consider in addition to signing the ceiling tiles.

Whether enjoying a gluten-free, vegan burrito with black beans and rice or devouring a decidedly non-vegan Katahdin burger with French fries and a milk shake, for most hikers, eating at the AT Cafe is not just about food, it’s about celebrating an achievement and at the same time transitioning from trail life back to the real world.

Highlights for meat eaters include the Katahdin burger (a double-meat cheeseburger with bacon, lettuce, tomato and a special sauce, served with French fries, a pickle and an optional side dish) and the cafe’s open-faced turkey sandwich (served with fries, cranberry sauce and gravy).

(Author’s note: The latter is my personal favorite, but I always ask for extra gravy to douse my fries. That said, on the day of my last visit, while I enjoyed my turkey sandwich, a fellow diner stopped by my table to tell me that his “omelet was amazing.” I’m just sayin’.)

Vegetarian fare includes a “carrot dog.” According to Jaime, it’s “a steamed whole carrot on a hot dog bun, trimmed with all the traditional fixings of a hot dog and topped with cole slaw.”

For breakfast, or whenever, “the Millinocket Special is a favorite, period,” says Paul. It’s “a heaping serving of tater tots with fried onions and cheddar cheese, topped with two eggs, served over two thick homemade English muffins. . . . We brought (the recipe for the muffins) here,” he adds proudly.

Although “a lot of (our patrons) like the big burgers and fries,” Paul notes, “we’re also famous for our squash doughnut,” the recipe for which was requested by chefs from the Pentagon, to be prepared there and served as a “squash beignet” to visiting dignitaries. The cafe also makes chocolate, plain and, on Thursdays, molasses doughnuts.

If diners still have room after their lunch — or perhaps in lieu of lunch — they might consider taking the “Summit Sundae Challenge.”

“We wanted to have something that would be a final challenge for the hikers,” says Paul. So the AT Cafe assembles a “sundae mountain” that begins with a couple of bananas, piles on 14 scoops of ice cream – one for every state that hikers pass through on their way to Maine — tosses in a Snickers bar, little M&Ms, an AT Cafe doughnut, whipped cream, chocolate syrup and cherries.

According to Paul, “They have a ‘half-gallon challenge’ in Pennsylvania, but the AT Cafe’s sundae weighs between 4.5 and 5 pounds.”

If a single person eats it all, they keep the bowl and get a T-shirt as well as a bumper sticker, and they get to write their name on the Pole of Fame next to the cash register. The Summit Sundae Challenge has become a popular tradition along with the signing of the ceiling tiles.

Alan Lessard of Winslow, a 2014 thru-hiker with his 29-year-old son, Jim, ate at the cafe after completing the trail. “We both had a big rib-eye steak and lobster. . . . I missed home cooking the most,” Lessard said about his trail experience.

The Appalachian Trail Cafe is located at 210 Penobscot Ave. in downtown Millinocket. Hours are 5 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, May 15 to Oct. 15.

Appalachian Trail Cafe breakfast burrito (single serving)

3 ounces chopped sausage patties

2 tablespoons chopped onion

2 eggs

1 10-inch flour tortilla

2 ounces cheddar cheese

Frank’s hot sauce

Brown sausage and onion, then scramble together with 2 eggs. Place tortilla on hot grill with cheese and a few squirts of hot sauce. Add egg, sausage and onion mixture and roll up. Top off with Frank’s hot sauce.

Millinocket Special (single serving)

2 cups potato tots, deep fried

2 tablespoons chopped onion

2 eggs

2 ounces cheddar cheese

Grill onions until brown, then combine with smashed potato tots. 

Top with cheddar cheese and 2 eggs cooked how you like them.

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