It was the first weekend of October and the air was brisk enough to want comfort food. I walked into a cozy cafe in Firestone Park, its tables and chairs reminiscent of the family kitchen area where I learned to bake cookies and pack my own lunch.
Both the women working there greeted me with smiling faces, as if I were a friend coming over for tea. The kitchen was open. The farm decor and furniture made me forget I was in urban Akron. Pictures of loved ones and employees hung above the counter where I ordered vegan sloppy mac and cheese and hot apple cider.
I sat down with a friend. Next to us was a refrigerator labeled “Waffles,” with a sign that added, “straight from the freezer to the toaster.” Inside, there were pumpkin spice, chocolate chip, blueberry and gingerbread waffles.
A Post-It note on the outside of the fridge explained, “It’s like someone took home and put it in a restaurant.”
Welcome to Ms. Julie’s Kitchen.
I asked my friend, musician Zach Friedhof, what makes him a regular at Ms. Julie’s Kitchen.
“I love that everything that [Ms. Julie] makes is from scratch and is from a sustainable permaculture garden. I love the energy that she puts into the food. It’s a loving atmosphere. Everybody that’s involved is here because they really appreciate what the restaurant stands for and what it’s trying to do,” he said.
On Oct. 11, Ms. Julie — whose full name is Julie Costell — won the Summit Food Coalition’s Local Food Hero Award, which honors people who have significantly influenced greater Akron’s food system.
During the award presentation, Beth Knorr, Director of the Summit Food Coalition, said Ms. Julie was a high-end chef for many years. Then a heart attack and diabetes made her reevaluate what she was consuming and serving. She set out to transform her life and health through veganism.
Today, her work is dedicated to sharing healthy food and teaching the community about it.
Ms. Julie’s Kitchen serves only locally sourced ingredients. She has been active in community gardens since 2007. Before that, she had to start a food co-op so she could get organic ingredients like almonds and dates, which weren’t readily available at that time.
“Her level of commitment to local ingredient sourcing is truly something to behold,” Beth told the audience.
Ms. Julie recalled living with her children in a food desert, a neighborhood with few healthy options. She thought it was unacceptable. So she kept looking for solutions until she found a community of others that, like her, wanted fresh produce to be more accessible.
“I couldn’t buy groceries, so I had to start my own co-operative in a church parking lot in the rain, once a month,” Ms. Julie said.
“It’s just crazy how much you go through to be [who] you want, [to do] what you’re really passionate about. All of those things led me into thinking, ‘I can do this too.’ I would drive around and see little businesses and think, ‘if they can do it, I can do it. I can have a business,’ right? If you’ve got an idea and you think you can’t, you can!”
Now, Ms. Julie has three of her own urban organic gardens. Her menu changes according to what’s being harvested. She also acts as her own distributor, driving her produce and goods to several other markets.
“Rebecca [the restaurant manager] holds down the fort, while I’m out running around getting our locally sourced ingredients, and Steve’s holding down the gardens. It takes a team, you know. It takes a village, it takes all of us together, it takes education, it takes a team,” Ms. Julie said.
She is loved and appreciated by all who work with her — a sentiment apparent at both the awards ceremony and at her restaurant.
“It’s like family, it really is,” said Alexis, one of Ms. Julie’s employees. “Whether you come for a cup of tea or meal, you are always welcome and family and home.”
“These are skills that few of the youth have encountered prior to working with Ms. Julie. As of this year, Ms. Julie has trained 180 youngsters. I can only imagine the huge impact that has on their lives — but also, think about the future of our community, that these youngsters can grow and prepare great food,” said Beth Knorr at the Oct. 11 ceremony.
Ms. Julie is the author of three cookbooks, one of which has sold over 50,000 copies. She continues to promote healthy thinking and eating. If you catch her at the restaurant, ask her what they’ve freshly canned or what’s currently growing in her garden. Ask her what you should be planting before the ground is frozen, or where to find her pumpkin pie recipe.
“It’s hard to imagine just how much less colorful or vibrant our community would be without her in it. She’s provided inspiration, shown dedication to nourishing foods and given a niche to local farm communities,” Beth added.
During my visit at Ms. Julie’s, people came in to get gluten free donuts, to ask if the carrot cake was sold out yet and to buy kale chips. They talked to the cooks like they’d known each other for years. They smiled leaving with their bags of homemade hot sauce and potato salads, or seasoned cashews, protein balls and cookies — all of it vegan and organic, made with love.
But if you’re headed straight for the icing-covered goodies, Ms. Julie will lovingly say: “No donuts until you eat your kale chips.”
Ms. Julie’s Kitchen is located at 1809 Main St., Akron, OH 44301. To follow the restaurant, find “Ms. Julie’s Kitchen” on Facebook.