After four years of planning, the Root Cafe opened in June of this year. The locavore-friendly South Main area restaurant is a great place to get a juicy all-beef burger made with Arkansas-raised beef or a melt-in-your mouth vegan doughnut. But when it comes to sustainability, owners Jack and Corri Bristow Sundell took the concept beyond what’s on the menu.
In addition to using small-scale, local suppliers — all of their meats are sourced locally, and a large percentage of their vegetables and cheeses are grown and produced in the region — they also took a sustainable approach to financing.
In 2007 they started small, raising awareness and money for the cafe long before they ever secured a location. “When we started looking into business research and writing a business plan,” Jack said, “we could see that, for a lot of small businesses, the money they have to repay in loans ends up being one of the things they can’t sustain.”
It took about $30,000 to get the cafe up and running. They took out a $10,000 bank loan, but most of the money was raised prior to opening their doors. Assistance also came via landowner Anita Davis who finished out the interior of the 900-square-foot former Sweden Creme after the lease was signed “and built it to suit a lot of specifications,” Corri said.
The pair adopted a micro-funding approach and hosted fundraising dinners at locations throughout town, generating interest in — and money for — the eventual storefront. Some of their most successful fund-raising efforts, Jack said, were the canning and food preservation workshops. “Initially we were thinking, well, this is something we’ll have to really get people interested in because no one does canning or food preservation anymore. But it turned out that, once we put the idea out there, there were more people interested than we could accommodate in the classes,” he said.
They also hosted what they called the Share Campaign, which allowed friends and family to donate money in $10 increments with the promise of being repaid with a meal when the cafe opened. “Basically,” Jack said, “it was like asking them to prepay for the food. So with a few things like that we were able to raise money and start buying equipment before we actually opened.”
They also kept an eye out for bargains on local equipment, shopping at auctions and storing their finds in the attic. When the Lions Club moved out of War Memorial during the stadium’s renovation and no longer needed the equipment, Jack and Corri scored their three-compartment sink, commercial-grade ’50s dinnerware and a large Vulcan stove. “They were basically just looking for someone to take it so it wouldn’t go to waste,” Jack said. “I think we paid $50 for that stove.” Soon, The Root will be offering coffee drinks thanks to an espresso machine purchased used from The House restaurant for a cool $400.
It’s been four months since the opening and The Root’s business is exceeding the Sundells’ expectations. Their staff has grown from two part-time employees to four full-time and six part-time employees. Their numbers to date show they’ve already spent over $25,000 with local farmers and food-makers. “We’re far beyond the volume of food we expected to be serving,” Jack said, “and that’s great because that means we’re buying way more food from local farmers than we expected to be.”
Despite the restaurant’s popularity, Jack and Corri acknowledge there was a bit of skepticism after their first year of fundraising. “People [were] asking if we were ever really going to open. ‘Oh The Root, isn’t that a virtual cafe?’ ” Jack said. They made the mistake, Corri said, of announcing a move into the old 7th Street Tattoos building, only to discover later that the location was economically unfeasible due to a handful of needed renovations, including a leaking roof. Despite doubts, their belief in what they call the “mission of local foods” and a desire to practice sustainability kept them motivated.
“We watched a lot of places come and go during our start-up phase, places that took out a huge loan, bought all new equipment, and then went under within a few months or a year. We knew we wanted to start small and stay small and that we wanted to be a community organization built from the ground up,” Jack said via e-mail. While it might have looked to others as if things were moving slowly, behind the scenes Jack and Corri were taking business classes, trying out recipes and preparing for opening.
They also attribute much of their success to the support and input they’ve received from the community, including their six-member advisory panel made of up a lawyer, an accountant, a business expert, a community organizer, a marketing professional and a farmer.
“We talk about how things are going,” Corri said, “review the numbers, look at what’s going well and what needs improvement.” In the coming months they plan to add to the number of edible plants that already grow in their garden. Focusing on their motto, “Building community through local food,” they’ll soon be hosting community gatherings similar to their early fundraisers, bringing people together to discuss small-scale growers, sustainable economies, and food as an entry point “for a broader conversation about local as a lifestyle,” Jack said.