After years of working together at a bakery in Washington, D.C., two friends ventured south to open their own spot, The Harbinger Cafe & Bakery, in the Holy City
PHOTO: Greer Gilchrist (left) and Cameron Neal launched The Harbinger in June.
CM: When did you decide, “Let’s open our own place”?
GG: One rainy day, I was waiting for Cam at our favorite D.C. coffee shop, the Wydown, and she came in looking very serious. She said, “I want to open a café with you.” Cameron doesn’t say things like that lightly, so I knew she meant it. CN: Which is funny, because I don't cook at all.
GG: That’s my part of the bargain—the food. Cameron does everything else.
CM: What made you pick Charleston?
CN: It’s home to me. I went to College of Charleston, and my family lives here.
GG: It wasn’t hard to lure me. Plus, I would’ve gone anywhere Cameron wanted to go; there’s no one else I’d start a business with.
CM: Did the North Central neighborhood speak to you particularly?
CN: We both live nearby, and we knew the neighborhood needed something. We found this place last October; it was a pool hall and ice-cream parlor before and had been vacant for seven years. It was perfect—although my dad needed a good bit of convincing that this area of Charleston was ready for our café. But I had a good feeling about it.
CM: You did a beautiful job designing the space. What inspired the décor?
CN: We wanted to have soulful materials with a lot of personality. There are tin tiles that Greer and I picked up in Georgia, knickknacks from Virginia and Maryland, and random objects we snagged on a road trip to Maine. We found all of the chairs washed up on the beach after Hurricane Matthew—we carried them back on our beach cruisers and refinished them.
CM: Does the food draw from lots of different influences, too?
GG: The food menu is a representation of my life—it feels really good to say that. I drew inspiration from restaurants and meals that I’ve loved in the past: a bakery in Montreal; a super-trendy café in Los Angeles; Cameron’s mom’s salad.
CN: Greer’s from Maryland, but she didn’t try to recreate New England down south, or make a Southern menu, which I appreciated. Instead, she took advantage of what Charleston does well, which is produce.
CM: How do you feel about calling The Harbinger a vegan café?
CN: We don’t use the word “vegan” in our menu, even though it’s 95 percent plant-based. I’m so aware of people like my dad, who have lived in Charleston forever and aren’t open to veganism. It can be pretentious and ostracizing.
GG: People think they won’t be full! Portion size is important to me. Growing up, I cooked for my older brothers, six-foot-five guys who played football at Dartmouth. I think that’s the test. I make meatless meals that would leave even my brothers satisfied.
CM: It’s hard not to fill up on your baked goods first! How long have you been baking, Greer?
GG: I started when I was five. I baked in D.C., and then when I first moved here, I worked as the pastry chef at Gnome Café. I like to make off-the-wall cookies with local ingredients, like dark chocolate with Edisto Island rosemary and cinnamon-ginger with sweet-potato frosting.
CM: What’s Dad’s verdict, Cameron?
CN: He loves our café. He’ll stop in to order all the time, not knowing the dishes are vegan (or “veh-gen,” as he says). And he never can tell.
Photographs By (1) Anna Warner & courtesy of (Okinomiyaki) Xiao Bao Biscuit