Café Du Cirque fills a niche

Chris Arrick needed a job, but he was having trouble finding one. So he stopped putting out his resume and tried another route.

He started a café.

That was the genesis of Café Du Cirque. Now, seven years later, the small restaurant and art gallery that patrons say has a college-town vibe has become a cultural gathering place in Peru.

Chris started the café with his mom, Bonnie, in 2006 when the family moved back to Peru after living in South Carolina for over a decade.

“We scrounged a few bucks together and started the place,” he said. “Peru didn’t have a coffee shop. There weren’t any Starbucks or anything, and we just wanted to fill that hole.”

The first year, they rented space inside Scarborough Fair, the mini-mall on North Broadway. But the location was hurting business, so they moved into a vacated antique store at 65 N. Miami St.

With a change in location, they also decided to change business strategies.

“The original idea was to have a coffee shop with a little food on the side,” Bonnie said. “But it quickly became a little café with coffee on the side.”

“We just rolled with it,” Chris said. “In order to survive, we had to do more than we were doing.”

Chris, now 38 years old, said he didn’t have any real experience as chef. He’d worked in a few restaurants and coffee shops over the years, but that was about it.

But once Chris began culinary experiments in the kitchen, Bonnie said he discovered he had a real knack for it.

“Chris has a sixth sense about what makes good food,” she said. “He’s able to taste something and know what’s in it. He knows how to put ingredients together.”

And a lot of those ingredients are locally grown and organic.

Chris said they try to buy as much local food as possible to use in their soups, salads, quiche, crepes, panini sandwiches and croissants.

He even helped get the Miami County farmers market up and running so he’d have easier access to the ingredients he needed for the café.

“My first question is, ‘Is the food local?’ My second is, ‘Is it organic?” Chris said. “Usually those two things go hand in hand.”

Now, about half the ingredients at the café meet those criteria. They buy veggies from Green River Greenhouse north of Peru. They buy eggs from a small farmer near Macy. Herbs come from an organic garden called It’s Simply Thyme south of Peru.

Sometimes, Bonnie even brings in eggs raised on their own small family farm in the south part of the county.

The café also only serves organic, free-trade coffee.

“Maybe it’s trendy. Maybe it’s the right thing to do. I don’t know,” Chris said. “If we can afford to do it, though, we’re doing it.”

And all those fresh, local ingredients are put into some pretty unique dishes.

There’s the turkey and granny smith apple croissant, made with roasted turkey breast, slices of tart granny smith apple, smoked cheddar, mayo, honey dijon and lettuce.

There’s the Croque Madame that has ham, swiss, dijon, and bechamel sauce in a toasted croissant with a fresh egg on top.

Then there’s a panini composed of smoked ham, chevre goat cheese and honey, and another café favorite – the tomato and pumpkin soup.

“I like to make food that’s a combination of simple things that are out of the ordinary,” Chris said. “I like to make things that are unique, but I have to keep in mind too that I have to sell it.”

Selling food didn’t seem to be much of a problem on a recent weekday afternoon. A handful of patrons ordered sandwiches and sipped coffee inside the café, where painting by local artists lined the walls and stacks of newspapers lay around on tables.

It’s the unique atmosphere that keeps Jim Yates, the recently retired CEO at Miami Cass REMC, coming back to Café Du Cirque.

“There’s no place else quite like this in Peru,” he said, as he ate a sandwich with his wife, Rayne. “We really like the atmosphere. And it seems like I never get out of here very quick once I come in. I always end up chatting with somebody.”

Bonnie said she thinks it’s that unique vibe that draws a lot of customers.

“I wish I could walk up those stairs and see the place the way other people see it – through their eyes,” she said. “We’ve had people come in and tell us, ‘Oh, this reminds me of a place I went to in New York City. This reminds me of a place in Boston or Chicago or California or even France. To us, it’s just how it is. But so many people have said it has a college-town feel.”

And, of course, Yates said besides the atmosphere, he likes the food too.

“I’m not really big on organic food one way or the other,” he said. “I’m just an old Hoosier at heart, so if it’s good quality food and good service, I like it.”

Bonnie said keeping the café open has sometimes been a struggle over the years. Organic food can be expensive, she said, and a café appeals to a niche market.

But despite that, Bonnie said they’re motivated to keep the doors open because of the customers and the friends they’ve made running Café Du Cirque.

“I think Peru needs a place like this,” she said. “It’s hard work, and you’re tied to the place, but the people who come in here make you want to keep hanging on and keep trying.”

Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, [email protected] or on Twitter @carsongerber1.