When I ask Lachelle Cunningham, executive chef and co-owner of Breaking Bread Cafe, if north Minneapolis is considered to be a food desert, she says no, it's a food swamp. "There's food, but it's mostly garbage."
She's referring to the 40 or so fast food establishments along the West Broadway corridor -- if you can think of the logo, it's there. And if those places are the swamp, Breaking Bread is the life raft.
Cunningham came to inhabit the kitchen at Breaking Bread in part thanks to Appetite for Change, a nonprofit with a mission to approach the social ills that the economically depressed area suffers from through food: "Using food as a tool for building health, wealth, and social change."
And while it's a cafe with a mission, it's a cafe first.
A longtime caterer, home cook, and all around food obsessive, Cunningham found time to attend culinary school while raising two small boys and working in the administrative field, and then came home to cook every night for the family. The home cooking led to catering small events, then large ones, then larger ones still -- 2,000 guests large. Her cooking and community work -- she's always been interested in cultural studies, she's worked at the United Way and done all sorts of nonprofit work -- led her here.
"I've always wanted to do exactly this, without knowing exactly what 'this' was. Do you know what I mean?"
Many of her menu items came to be via happy accidents in the home kitchen -- no white bread for French toast? No problem; pretzel roll French toast was born, now served at the cafe with raspberry syrup and whipped cream. She specializes in global comfort food, and the menu is a smart compendium of just what the neighborhood needs, right now. The tagline is "real food for real people," and her home cookin' roots will likely assist in appealing to a wide audience.
"This is not a diet restaurant -- it's real food for living and health, so we're not taking the fat out of it, but then again we're not a pork-centric restaurant either."
There is a bit of a healthy bent, but it's stealthy -- proteins favor poultry and fish over pork and beef, all the sides just happen to be vegan, but they're still hearty and recognizable faves -- black beans and rice, collard greens, curried cabbage, and oven fries. There's even a little list of "breakfast salads," which Cunningham swears by.
"Even if you're eating fruit in the morning, which is good, that's still a lot of sugars. It's even better to be getting chlorophylls and plants to boost your metabolism first thing in the morning."
But she's also made sure to include flavors that are "near and dear" to the black community, with lots of nods to Southern and Caribbean cooking: biscuits and gravy (with turkey chorizo sausage instead of pork), jerk shrimp and cheese grits, black eyed peas, buttermilk fried chicken wings. It's not a soul food restaurant, exclusively, though.
"I love corned beef," Cunningham says (there's a Reuben with kimchee coleslaw and Russian aioli), and she wants to add some eggs Benedicts soon. You'll also find simple breakfast with eggs your way, a turkey burger, and a tuna melt. Even vegan sausage, compliments of the Herbivorous Butcher.
Cookbooks from The Picayune Creole Cookbook to International Vegetarian Cooking line the shelves.
Price points are low enough that they rival those great many fast food joints. Those breakfast salads are an unbelievable $3, generously portioned breakfasts fall in the $6-$7 range, sandwiches are $8, and sides are $4. There's even a "Value Menu" (take that, Mickey D's!) where a grilled cheese on Texas Toast goes for three bucks, and oven-fried loaded nachos are a big snack for a wee price tag: $4. All scratch-made and all-natural. This alone is a triumph for food accessibility.
Over time, the cafe will act as a job training incubator for at-risk youth seeking to learn culinary arts, workforce readiness, and eventually entrepreneurial skills. The restaurant is partner to the adjacent Kindred Kitchen, where around 50 small food entrepreneurs share business incubation space -- food truckers, caterers, cookie bakers, hot sauce makers, and lots of others.
"I don't know any greater way to make an impact in a community than to be an incubator to entrepreneurs, and to be a nurturing facility to do that. It's pretty great," says Cunningham.
Her passion is infectious -- she hardly takes a breath when describing how she got from home cook to here. She calls her own enthusiasm "unmatched," and we'd concur.
"It's just so crazy when you believe in something and put all of your faith in the idea that it will actually happen and then one day you're standing in it going 'What?!' Do you know what I mean?"
We do, and that's what those of us weary of the food swamp landscape similarly exclaim when stumbling upon West Broadway's Breaking Bread:
The cafe is currently open for breakfast and lunch only, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. They hope to eventually open for weekend brunch, and someday down the line, dinner.
1210 W. Broadway Ave., Minneapolis 612-529-9346 breakingbreadfoods.com
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