The Mag: It Takes a Village

It’s lunchtime, and as usual, the Magnolia Café is hopping. Cars maneuver into coveted spots in the gravel parking lot while hungry diners inside nab tables, mouths watering in anticipation. Built on nearly 40 years of repeat business and loyal customers, the Mag is a local institution known for nourishing both the bodies and the spirts of the people of St. Francisville.

The brainchild of Robin Marshall, the Mag first began as a small lunch operation run out of an existing health food store, which Robin purchased in 1982. The café quickly built a following for its sandwiches on homemade bread, pizza, and fresh sprout-topped salads. Later, Robin added dinner service and live music. Even after a fire threatened permanent closure in 2004, the Mag has achieved what few family-owned restaurants do. Over the years it has successfully adapted to unpredictable circumstances and changing environments, and has maintained a distinguished spot in its community.  

Since its start, the Mag has remained under the steady wing of Robin’s family—starting with her father, Roland Barber, who helped her to open the café all those years ago, and ending with her granddaughter Lexi Auxt, 21, who works there today. The café is now run by Robin’s daughter and son-in-law, Skye and Danny Willis; in the afternoons, their children hop off the school bus and head right into the Mag. “Just like I did as a kid,” says Skye.

Skye and Danny Willis and two of their daughters.

The two are joined by a team of 65 employees, including many who have been with the business for decades. Manager Mary Daniel, for example, has worked for the Mag for about 30 years and is a part owner.

“Our employees and their loyalty is one of the main reasons we’ve been able to stay in business like we have,” says Skye.

Another reason, Skye adds, is the effort that goes into preparing the spot’s signature dishes, even when it means additional time and cost. For example, the guacamole is always made with fresh avocados. The salads are served with homemade dressings, and all the sandwiches—including the popular Chicken Magnolia and French Dip—are bolstered by freshly cooked meats.

A longstanding Bank of St. Francisville customer, the Mag is emblematic of that special and necessary “third place”—that space besides home and work where residents in the community can interact and belong.

“What’s happened is beautiful,” says Robin, who recently retired. “What always made the Mag so special was that it was meant to be a place where everybody counted and felt like family.”

In December, Skye and Danny unveiled some changes the family has been eager to accomplish for years—namely, tying the restaurant to the other amenities on the block. Bringing the eclectic compendium all together, the Magnolia Café joins the family’s other businesses like the charming, vintage 3V Tourist Courts and Birdman Coffee and Books in a destination experience called the Magnolia Village.

Also in the Village is the recently opened Magnolia Sweets and Gifts, which, along with all of its other delectable treats, sells the restaurant’s signature chocolate chip pecan and oatmeal raisin cookies. Visitors to Magnolia Village can also enjoy the services of the local salon and wellness studio.

To really tie the complex together, Skye and Danny installed new greenspace as well as an arched sign with the original Magnolia Café script. It’s all part of a strategy to make the area feel like the community living room. As guests arrive at Magnolia Village, they can choose where to spend their time, from grabbing a meal and hearing live music at the Mag, to renting a cozy cabin for the night, to sipping coffee at the Birdman. New projects are under development as well, including events on the lawn and yoga classes in the health and wellness studio.

“We feel a big responsibility to be good stewards of the business,” says Skye. “It’s always worked because it’s authentic, and it feels like coming home.”

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