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Women are smarter at Grateful Bread

by Jordan Green

This roadside outpost of fresh-baked, made-from-scratch goodness that pays equal attention to gourmet offerings and convenient service kind of reminds me of an establishment in Durham known as Foster’s Market where I had the unfortunate experience of getting fired for overfilling a coffee urn in 2000.

Back then Sara Foster was anticipating an appearance on ‘“The Martha Stewart Show’” and the hapless image of me diving for a towel to catch the muddy liquid splashing over the counter as she walked by probably did not inspire confidence. (Incidentally, the forward of Foster’s new cookbook is written by the queen of omnimedia.)

Notwithstanding Sara Foster’s cruel termination of my employment I find something admirable about her aesthetic, and the same characteristic is also evident at Grateful Bread. Both are housed in modest buildings painted in bright, plain colors situated on busy four-lane thoroughfares and arrayed with simple outdoor tables. Both eateries prepare food on the spot and hand it over the counter to the customer with minimalist presentation.

At Grateful Bread,’ sandwiches and pastries are served in baskets lined with wax paper, soup in Styrofoam containers and fountain drinks in clear plastic cups. Grateful Bread, like the Foster’s Market I remember so well, also stocks two iced tea urns, one sweetened and one unsweetened, accompanied by a plastic tub of freshly sliced lemons on the counter.

The style is economical, but the food bursts with a creative fusion of down-home and innovative. On a recent Thursday afternoon, a bin of scones and muffins ‘—’ baked in the early morning hours ‘— is on display in a glass case on the counter. There are muffins variously baked with blueberries, lemons and poppy seeds, and scones ‘— flavored with cheddar cheese or blue cheese and pimiento. By 2 p.m. the lunch special, a prosciutto-mushroom melt, is finished.

To the left as customers walk in, a side counter is stocked with bins of breads: olive, pesto Italian, rosemary Italian, pimiento, rustic pumpernickel and farmers’ wheat.

Under the same counter with the scones and muffins rest platters of pastries that tease the eye like jewels. There are’ Derby bars, lemon bars, triple nut bars, pumpkin streusel bars, brownies, wedges of lime pecan tort, snowball cookies softly coated in powdered sugar and three different variations of the granola bar: classic, peanut butter chocolate chip and cranberry almond.

This afternoon owner Teresa Mackey, a 47-year-old woman with a robust personality and ready smile, is getting ready to start the dinner soup, a vegetable gumbo.

She explains that typically a vegetable gumbo will have ‘“lots of okra, lima beans and fresh herbs. If we have good North Carolina shrimp that will go in. If we have chicken we’ll use that. There is always a vegetarian and vegan option.’”

The soup is always made from scratch, and as the dry erase board explains, customers shouldn’t expect the soups to be announced in advance.

‘“We look through both doors before we start making the soup,’” Mackey says. ‘“We look out the front door to see what it looks like outside. We look in the refrigerator to see what we have and what will look good. If it’s hot, maybe we’ll do a cool cucumber soup. If there’s snow and ice on the ground we might want something hearty like a potato soup or chicken and noodles.

‘“I encourage everybody to try their hand at making soup because it’s a creative expression,’” she adds. ‘“It’s a simple thing to make, but it’s so satisfying.’”

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think Grateful Bread is probably a business with a bit more conscience than Foster’s Market. Its image is certainly softer, with a mood of industrious female camaraderie prevailing as the bandanna-clad women stir soup and ring up orders.

As for the restaurant’s name, Mackey cautions against making too much of it.

‘“It’s not overly indicative of a love of Jerry Garcia,’” she says. ‘“Old rock and rollers and young rock and rollers alike relate to it. Everybody will remember it.’”

Grateful Bread makes a point of using organic ingredients as much as possible, and leans on local farmers for fesh vegetables, cheese and coffee. The last two commodities are purchased from Goat Lady Dairy in Climax and Carolina Coffee in Greensboro. The restaurant also uses wholegrain flour and avoids processed foods.

‘“If you eat something that’s not overly processed it’s a complex carbohydrate; it takes longer to digest and is less likely to convert to sugar,’” Mackey explains.

She elaborates on her company’s socially conscious buying practices: ‘“Where possible we’re choosing small businesses or female-owned businesses, but female-owned is less important than small business. We go out to the farmers’ markets whenever possible to buy what’s the freshest.’”

With coffee and goat cheese obtainable year round, Mackey estimates that during the cold months about a quarter of Grateful Bread’s ingredients come from local suppliers; in the summer it’s closer to half.

Then there’s the matter of that soybean wonder of the green revolution.

‘“Margarine sucks,’” Mackey says. ‘“We don’t use margarine. I don’t know’… it’s a weird thing.’”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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