Luke’s Local: A Taste of Local and Sustainable at a Caltrain Station

Owner Luke Chappell outside his Luke's Local store at the Caltrain station.

As you race to catch the train home after a day that’s left you running on empty, wouldn’t it be great to pick up a fresh, nourishing, convenient meal for the ride home?

You can if you stop at the San Mateo Hillsdale Caltrain station, where Luke’s Local opened this spring in an old, vacant ticket office.

This is a convenience store that’s all about local and sustainable food products, as well as gourmet-to-go meals, made fresh daily by a former San Francisco restaurant chef. We’re talking Dungeness crab mac ‘n’ cheese, skirt steak with creamed corn, and chicken stuffed with chevre — all precooked and packaged (at $7.99 each) for you to take home to heat up easily.

Or grab a dripped-to-order Blue Bottle coffee, a pastry from San Francisco’s Sandbox Bakery, an organic locally grown apple, a Free-Trade banana, or a chorizo breakfast burrito ($3.49) that you can nuke in the microwave there to nosh on your morning commute. And yes, Caltrain does allow food and beverages on its trains.

The front of the store, just a few steps from the train tracks.

Sure, the Palo Alto Caltrain station boasts a gourmet coffee kiosk. And the San Francisco station has a coffee stand and a Subway sandwich shop. But the Hillsdale station, where 1,300 passengers go through daily, is the only one with meals like this, prepared by Adel Benmahdi, who used to work at Orson in San Francisco.

Luke’s Local — open weekdays, 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. — was started by Luke Chappell, 27, whose family founded Tom’s of Maine, which makes toothpaste, soap and other natural care products.

Instead of tickets, you can buy fresh-dripped Blue Bottle coffee or a pastry.

The original bench at the old ticket station.

Chappell, an entrepreneur from the early age of 11 when he started his own bagel business in Maine, thought commuters would embrace a convenience store steps from the platform that offered quality food, especially since the Hillsdale station is set back from El Camino Real and is surrounded by hundreds of parking spaces, making it a chore to grab any kind of sustenance quickly.

“I want to do food that people don’t expect at a train station,’’ Chappell says, whose goal is to sell mostly products and ingredients that come from no more than a day’s drive away.

That’s exactly what sold Caltrain authorities, who mulled over eight applicants for this long-vacant ticket station before deciding upon Chappell.

“Hands down, he came out on top,” says Lance Gilbert, real estate officer for the San Mateo Country Transit District, which leases the property to Luke’s Local. “He had a vision and made it happen. We couldn’t be more pleased with how it’s all turned out.”

The food, which includes one or two different prepared entrees daily, is made fresh each morning at a commercial kitchen in San Francisco from top-notch ingredients such as Niman Ranch beef, Petaluma Poultry, and organic fruit and veggies from local farms.

Wood bins outside stock flowers and fruit. You order through what was once the pass-through window for the old ticket office. And you can take a load off on the large wood bench inside that was original to the building.

A breakfast burrito to grab on the go.

Already cooked entrees need only be heated up at home.

I had a chance to sample some of the offerings and came away impressed with how fresh they tasted, unlike so many prepared foods at supermarkets that get a tiredness about them.

A veggie breakfast burrito from Luke's Local.

The veggie breakfast burrito had chunks of zucchini, carrots, mushrooms, caramelized onions and Gruyere in a rolled up omelet that was nicely moist and fluffy in texture.

The eggplant parmesan could have been served at a restaurant. The flavors were bright and vivid with ricotta, parmesan, tomato, thyme, and parsley. A dredging of panko added texture to the eggplant slices, which were creamy soft inside.

Tasty eggplant parmesan from Luke's Local.

Even if you’re not a Caltrain commuter, you can still get a taste of the entrees made by Luke’s Local, as they’re now available at about a dozen San Francisco grocery stores, including Real Food and Rainbow Grocery.

Chappell also is working on creating kids’ meals. “Luke’s Cub Grub” will include selections such as baked fish sticks and alfredo pasta with fried green tomatoes.

Additionally, he has teamed with Capay Valley Farm Shop so that folks can sign up for weekly CSA shares of  Capay Valley produce, eggs, olive oil, meats, nuts and honey that will be delivered each Wednesday for pick up at his store.

Luke’s Local, which has only five employees and is inching toward profitability, has much to offer. But there’s one thing you won’t find at Chappell’s store — Tom’s of Maine products made by his family.

Chappell laughs, “They’re not local enough.”

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