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Free Range Café
Good food that makes you feel good!
By Nicole Jovel and photos by Ryan Daughtridge
Free Range Café is the story of a family – a mother, daughter, and husband working together to bring fast, healthy food options to the community.
Rori Daughtridge, a Smithsburg High graduate, first considered the need for a kid-friendly, healthy café when she lived in New York City and had her first child. “I wanted to get out and meet friends for coffee, but there was nowhere to put a stroller and no coffee shops or cafes with a play place. That’s when the idea first started to form.”
Once Rori and her husband Ryan Daughtridge (whom she met in the third grade at Pangborn Elementary) moved back to Washington County, they realized a need for a place where parents and kids could eat comfortably and healthfully. “It started because we needed something in our lives that didn’t exist,” said Ryan.
Along with Rori’s mom, Bettina Messersmith, the trio got involved in the Downtown Movement, a community organization in support of revitalizing downtown Hagerstown. The group participated in the Movement’s Pop Up Shop events that put temporary vendors in vacant retail spaces downtown and that spurred them on to continue to grow their idea.
Once Bettina retired from her job as an art teacher, she was ready to use what she had learned changing her personal health through nutrition to start a new chapter. “This wouldn’t have happened if my mom hadn’t retired and agreed to do this with me,” said Rori. “We call ourselves the real life Gilmore Girls.” Ryan added of his mother-in-law, “I call her Chip and Joanne Gaines in one. She has so much energy!”
As the idea became more of a reality, it also became more of a family affair. “My sister helped design the kids play area, my dad did the training and logistics, my stepmom is a lawyer. Everyone brought their special gifts,” Rori recalled. “We’re big leapers,” added Bettina.
Ryan brought his experience as founder and CEO of Bustin Boards, a company specializing in hand-crafted longboards and skateboards that he started nearly 20 years ago. “A lot of what we’ve learned about marketing, branding, training, and strategy we learned from Bustin,” he said.
Once they secured the old McDonalds building on Northern Avenue and a grant from the city of Hagerstown, they could see their idea becoming a reality. “I had zoned in on this as a possible location, and two weeks before I retired a ‘for lease’ sign went up,” said Bettina. With the help of Ted Shank, Randy Rachor, and others in the community, they reinvented the space inside and out, including a dedicated kids area and drive-thru. Bettina used her muralist background to paint the exterior of the building, and with her brother, Skip, found an antique Ford Ranchero they originally bought to haul equipment to the site, but soon realized would make an eye-catching addition to the front of the property.
Once the property was complete and they had the greenlight to open, they held a soft opening in February and immediately found themselves busier than expected. “We didn’t realize we’d go from zero to 60 so fast,” said Ryan. “We’ve been so busy. Another indicator of how much people wanted a place like this is that we received over 200 applications without advertising. People feel strongly about the mission.”
That mission Rori sums up as “healthy food in a quick way. We want to be a go-to spot for quick healthy options; to get more fruits and veggies into people’s mouths.” Ryan added, “We’re trying to rethink fast food. We’re a fast food restaurant that’s rebranding what fast food can be.”
“Since we’ve opened, I’ve had people come up to me and say, ‘I felt really good after I ate your food’, recalled Bettina. “Now it’s part of our slogan – food that makes you feel good,” added Rori. “You get so many vitamins and nutrients in our cold pressed juices.”
In addition to their line of juices, the café specializes in bowls, salads, wraps, smoothies, and other healthy options for a variety of diets and taste buds. They also feature a signature Free Range coffee roast and other blends from Hagerstown-based specialty coffee roaster, River Bottom Roasters and cookies and baked goods from vendors they connected with through the Downtown Movement’s Pop Up Shops. “It all adds to the big Free Range family,” said Rori.
Avocado toast is a staple on the menu, but other items will be added seasonally, and the option to “build your own” salad was added after the soft opening. Recent additions to the menu include the Orchard Chicken Salad, Kale Chicken Noodle Soup, and overnight oats. They’re continuously developing relationships with local farmers to include things like local honey and microgreens on the menu. “We’re organic and local as much as we can be,” said Rori.
When you eat at the café, you’ll notice signage at the trash receptacles about composting. “We’re working with Key Compost in Frederick to be as earth-friendly as possible, too,” Rori explained. “A full third, or maybe even half of our waste is going back into the earth.” Instead of Styrofoam and plastic items, which can take hundreds of years to decompose, the café uses plant-based bowls and silverware that turn back into fresh soil within months of use.
Just weeks after opening, the coronavirus pandemic closed sit-down eating at all Maryland restaurants, limiting them to pickup and delivery services. Free Range reacted quickly, creating an online ordering system and opening their drive-thru to continue to provide the community with convenient, nutritious food that supports immunity, including wellness shots packed with vitamins and nutrients, and their cold pressed juices, including the Super Immunity blend.
They also committed to donating food, including providing gift cards to include in care packages for the Micah’s Backpack community program that provides food to hungry students in Washington County. The café’s Facebook page stated, “With so much need, fear and uncertainty in our community, we feel called to do whatever we can. After talking with our team today, we’ve decided that this also includes helping to keep our community nourished. If the front lines involve feeding our community, then we want to be there serving healthy, whole food to our friends and family in this town. This is why we opened, and this is why we are remaining open.”
“We are so thankful to the response and support we’ve had from our community since the first day we opened,” said Rori. “We are really just a family trying to do something that is positive, something that is needed here where we live.”