Harvest Coffee & Cafe Does Good While Doing Good Business
When someone tells you that the food for their café is prepared in a closet, it is hard not to be skeptical. When you see the beautiful stacks of mouthwatering scones and muffins atop a display case of sensual salads and savory delights, it is even harder to imagine. Just one taste of a blood orange scone dotted with goat milk caramel, and you know it can’t be true.
A small space, sure, but a closet?
Melinda Hardin, owner of Harvest Coffee & Café in Shelbyville and ever the gracious hostess, offers a quick tour as proof. Sure enough: a closet with nothing more than some refrigerator space, a boom box and a residential-type stove that has seen better days and more working burners. There’s also Bill Walters, chef-in-residence of the closet kitchen and the mastermind, along with his wife, Christy, behind the delicious farm-to-fork fare at Harvest Coffee & Café.
Melinda is quick to sing the praises of her culinary team and the quality of food they have been able to wrangle out of such a meager galley.
“They just cook up such amazing magic in there,” she says, and the tales of valor that follow are as shocking as the kitchen itself. Bill once cooked steaks for 40 people at one of the restaurant’s monthly farm-to-fork dinners … with only two functional burners on the stove. “It’s quite the upgrade from cooking on a Coleman stove,” he quips. After all, he fine-tuned his culinary skills cooking for Grateful Dead fans outside of shows, an experience that gave him a black belt in overcoming challenging circumstances.
Then there was the time that they plated four courses for a 40-person dinner, even though the business only owned 42 plates. “Don’t drop the plates,” Melinda kept telling her staff, as they tossed them back and forth — serving, washing, replating and serving again. “I’m not one of those people who say, ‘That can’t be done.’ I’m one of those people who say, ‘How can that be done?”
This mantra of “How can we make this happen?” and a blind faith in real food and real community is what propels Melinda and her team to keep moving forward as they establish this new business, just over a year old. The passion and dedication they display is the kind that you have to see to believe.
They care deeply about the quality of their food, about supporting local farmers and about educating the community about healthy living. Their desire to go “all in” is what leads them to taking such drastic measures as cooking in a closet and forging ahead even when business is lean, as in a winter with record cold and plenty of snowfall.
So how did they get here — a former pharmaceutical sales rep with a Deadhead for a chef, and a staff that includes a local homeschooler, all selling local food out of the front of an antique mall? Melinda puts it pretty bluntly, “I had a big bunch of money but felt no personal purpose.”
She made a great living working in the pharmaceutical industry, all while her own health was deteriorating under a steady diet of bad food, cigarette smoking and a constant supply of soda. A few years in, she had what she calls a “wellness awakening” and started making drastic changes to her life. As her health improved from her new nutritional choices and exercise, she wanted to share the good news with others.
“People kept eating at our house and saying, ‘We need a place where can we eat healthy food like this in Shelbyville!’ We never really had the guts to open a freestanding restaurant, though.” The antique mall — purchased “for a song,” Melinda says, on the courthouse steps — served as a catalyst to move forward with the vision for the café.
Right now, Melinda is working three other jobs to support the coffee shop. She has quit her lucrative job selling pharmaceuticals… “And I’ve never felt freer,” she confides. She works as a wellness director for a company in Louisville, and operates her own wellness coaching business, called Your Reset Button. Five mornings a week, she teaches a fitness boot camp and Pilates classes. She’s committed to continuing that way as long as her staff at Harvest is cared for, her business can continue to grow and they can all continue to support the community in very tangible ways.
“A friend told me I have a nonprofit heart in a for-profit business,” Melinda says. That’s not just talk, either.
Harvest’s business model reflects this generosity every day, but especially on Wednesdays. “You know, I loved that we were feeding people healthy food and educating people about where food comes from, but I still felt like there had to be more. What else could we do for our community?” The answer came in the form of someone’s recommendation to look up a café in Colorado. Melinda went online, found the café and proceeded to weep at her computer.
“The entire business was operated on a pay-what-you-can model,” Melinda says. “I was blown away. There are only about 22 restaurants in the country that operate on this sort of model, most of them run by rock stars or other people with deep pockets.”
As an example, Jon Bon Jovi’s nonprofit operates a community restaurant following a pay-what-you-can model in New Jersey. While some people might feel daunted by the idea that a startup business, already operating on razorthin margin, could survive such a risky business move, Melinda was undeterred and plotting how Harvest could make it happen.
“I immediately began thinking, ‘How can I take this concept and put it into my already established for-profit business?” Melinda approached her husband with the concept, bracing herself for the worst.
“That’s crazy,” Ben told her. “Let’s do it next week!” Driven by a deeply rooted spiritual faith that acting in love and generosity is the only way to go, “Pay What You Can Wednesdays” at Harvest Coffee & Café began in July 2014 and have continued since. Instead of an order total, patrons are offered a bucket for cash and an anonymous iPad payment system. Melinda and her staff never know how much a patron spends on their order.
For Melinda, Wednesdays aren’t just about putting food into hungry mouths. They are about giving unlikely people the opportunity to taste healthy, local and delicious food. Even in the dead of winter, with snow piled high, Harvest continues to maintain active relationship with local farmers, sourcing all of its meat and eggs from area farms. Everyone is looking forward to spring, when more fresh produce will be available as well.
“I’m a teacher at heart,” Melinda says. “When people say they love our food, I am excited to tell them where they can buy it and give them tips on how to prepare it.” She hopes that the café’s patrons will use this knowledge to transition from not just eating healthy food at Harvest, but more nutritious meals at home.
Another long-term goal at Harvest is to work towards offering basic ingredients for sale on-site.
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if someone complimented our lamb and we were able to sell it to them right there to take home and cook?” This lofty goal, which once seemed financially out of reach, may happen sooner rather than later after Harvest achieved the milestone of a successfully- funded Kickstarter campaign in mid-March. The funds raised, totaling over $12,000, will go towards upgrading the kitchen and hopefully purchasing some cases for retail food sales. “How do you summarize gratitude to the people who gave your dream wings?” Melinda says of the campaign’s backers.
In the meantime, Harvest is hosting once-a-month farm-to-fork dinners that have become very popular in the community with an eye on more frequent dinners as time progresses. Like everything at Harvest, the dinners are about more than just food. The events are an opportunity for attendees to “shake the hand that feeds you,” in the words of author Michael Pollan. Each meal features several courses prepared by Bill and Christy, plus a visit from some of the farmers behind the ingredients. It is just one more way to find synergy between farms, food and the local community.
Is it all worth it? Would Melinda trade it all in, heading back to her luxurious lifestyle in sales, maybe even upgrading the 1975 station wagon she is driving now, if it meant giving up everything her life has become?
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been,” she says. Even though business is slow, “as it is for any business this time of year,” Melinda remains confident that the future of Harvest Coffee & Café is bright and their mission of educating and feeding their community will continue for years to come.