Mae Suramek spent years doing good. Now she’s cooking well and doing good at the same time. After graduating from Berea College, Suramek served in the Americorps Program, at a Lexington domestic violence shelter, at a refugee resettlement center in Raleigh, and in human rights advocacy for city and state governments in Kentucky and North Carolina. She was Berea’s alumni director. She became the executive director of the Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center, and she ran unsuccessfully for Berea City Council.
Through much of her experience, she found that too often, the need to raise money came before the need to do good. Even when businesses tried to help out by donating a portion of a single day’s profits, the experience occasionally turned out to be only a handful of cash.
How could she change that?
Walk into Suramek’s restaurant, Noodle Nirvana, and see. It is literally in front of your face.
One wall is composed of the restaurant’s philosophy - each year, it will partner with one local nonprofit and showcase that nonprofit’s philosophy on the main wall. The restaurant shares 25 percent of its profits from the first Tuesday of every month for a year with that nonprofit.
The current recipient is Berea’s New Opportunity School for Women, which gives low income Appalachian women knowledge and support to build lives for themselves, their families and communities.
Berea Urban Farm supplies local vegetables for Noodle Nirvana’s noodle bowls. A vat of ramp kimchi (ramps are a kind of wild onion) sits fermenting on the counter at nearby Clementine’s Bake Shop, which will be used later for Noodle Nirvana bowls.
Suramek said she has found a way to make the comfort food of her youth, use local food and give back to the community. Her hours are long, but she is aided by her husband, Adam, at the restaurant, and she is quite happy: “We constantly support one another.”
Clementine’s Bake Shop - named for the dog belonging to owners Drew and Lindsey Elliott - began selling its products at the Berea farmers market in 2011. In 2017, they are doing a brisk business in a sunny restored storefront with stamped-tin ceilings, original wood floors and an exposed brick wall. On the shelves are chocolate croissants, quiche, cake and lots of fresh homemade bread.
Drew Elliott said the two started with a 2 foot-by- 2 foot card table and $100 in sales at the farmers market.
The Elliotts used to grow a lot of ingredients on their farm, where they had a certified kitchen, but now that they’re working all day at the bakery, they plan to buy from local farmers. Like Noodle Nirvana, Clementine’s pairs with a local nonprofit, in this case Grow Appalachia, by sharing 10 percent of its proceeds on the first Wednesday of every month a year. Grow Appalachia combats food insecurity in the region with programs including a summer feeding program for children.
Berea is establishing a thriving ecosystem of restaurants that connect with the area’s farm producers and the Berea farmers market. Three recent additions are within a stone’s throw of each other on Chestnut and Boone streets, near the farmers market.
For many communities, customers visit the farmers market and later hit the drive-through at a restaurant whose supplies come in big cans from suppliers who refine their products to within an inch of its nutritional value. Berea’s farmers market is after a bigger notion of interacting with small business: It wants its small vendors to get big enough to open storefront operations while maintaining a presence at the farmers market and buying supplies from other vendors.
Margie Stelzer, manager of the Berea farmers market, said the business-incubator process for breakout businesses, financed in part by grants, make their small vendors better business people. In turn, the local vendors provide fresher food for the community at reasonable prices.
Stelzer said the farmers market businesses that have opened storefronts, Clementine’s and the nearby Native Bagel Co., got help with testing their products. The lines at Native Bagel for their chewy variety of bagels, sandwiches and coffee attests to the success of that model; the little shop might soon need an even bigger space.
At Native Bagel, there’s local sausage, local vegetables to blend with the cream cheese, and local eggs.
“It really is for people who are dedicated to local food,” Stelzer said. “We’re creating a flow of how people can sell and what they can purchase.”
A sign at Noodle Nirvana spotlights the area businesses that contribute to their product: Kimchi from Clementine’s, fresh flowers from Sunshine Farmstead, ramen from Lexington Pasta, Lazy 8 zucchini and Berea College Farm eggs.
Berea College opened a farm store on North Main Street in 2013. The college operates a 1,400-acre farm.
The restaurants involved in the new local-food businesses work excruciatingly long hours - often more than 70 hours a week. As they begin to stabilize, they hire workers to supplement their family’s labor.
“We definitely feel like we’re part of a food moment here,” Suramek said.