Common Roots, Common Ground
The stripped-down space has exposed brick walls, concrete flooring, and burlap coffee sacks that double as decor. The counter staff's look is misfit mod, and the guy with the chin scruff wearing the "I'm gonna be a great auntie" T-shirt, and the girl with the thick black eyeliner and the studded belt, are surely the object of many a customer crush. In the back, laptop users sit one to a table, loosely tethered by their technology, sharing power strips like animals feeding from a trough. With the bean grinder screeeching in the background, Common Roots Cafe feels like a typical urban coffee shop.
When 26-year-old Danny Schwartzman opened Common Roots a little more than a year ago, I made the mistake of treating it as such—meaning that while I might stop in to grab a latte, I hesitated to try the food. Most coffee-shop cuisine—an unappealing array of dried-out scones and plastic-wrapped sandwiches—reminds me of the enamel paint-topped nachos sold at ballparks: something captive customers tolerate but don't seek out. Sure, Common Roots had a real kitchen and a community-oriented mission, but still I was skeptical—wasn't everybody hopping on the local-food tractor these days? With farm names becoming as trendy as designer handbag brands, "sustainable eating" was starting to sound less like sincerity than marketing buzz.
But then I tried one of Common Roots' bagels, which was my first tip-off to the talent in the kitchen. The bagel's crust—pleasantly chewy, with a thin, crackling veneer—vastly distinguished it from its pillowy peers. The experience was like biting into the seat of a diner booth—and I mean that in a good way. The deli case and chalkboard-scrawled dinner specials I had banished to my peripheral vision became my central focus.
Next I tried a beet-and-wheat-berry salad—not something I'd typically order, as it's one of those dishes that seems way too healthy to taste good. (Scores of co-op kitchen mishaps—gluey vegan pancakes and undercooked chickpeas—have left me wary of hippie fare.) In any case, the wheat berries, which are actually whole-wheat kernels, had a pert skin and creamy center that reminded me of the sorely unappreciated French lentil. They were mixed with green beans, yellow beans, beets, and cranberries, and laced with a little dill and oil. I'll bet the salad contained enough vitamins, nutrients, and fiber to reboot even the filthiest system polluted by a booze-cigarette-Twinkie-Frito bender. And yet it still tasted lively—inspiring, even. After trying a few more dishes from the short, seasonal menu, I realized that Common Roots was far more than a coffee shop with benefits. It was a three-meals-a-day, scratch-cooking cafe—a place you could have a relationship with.
That means that for breakfast, depending on the season, you could have a basic egg scramble mixed with spinach, tomato, and cheese. Or fluffy cornmeal pancakes, studded with bright, juicy kernels and topped with whipped cream, fresh blueberries, and sliced peaches. But it's also hard to top Common Roots' breakfast sandwich of egg and tomato tucked between two halves of a bagel.
For lunch the kitchen serves salads as simple as sliced heirloom tomatoes dressed with olive oil and fresh basil, or sandwiches that stack tastes like geologic strata. The roast beef sandwich was a favorite. The meat was as tender as pot roast and sliced as thin as notebook pages. Layers of sliced tomatoes and greens clung together with melted cheddar cheese and cilantro-jalapeño aioli—which is quite an improvement on roast beef's typical horseradish-mayo slather. I was also impressed by the Rootsy Lucy, the cafe's reimagining of the lowbrow bar staple of a cheap beef patty stuffed with American cheese and washed down with a 3.2 beer. Instead, this one's made with grass-fed beef from Thousand Hills and packed with sharp aged cheddar. Improving the ingredients certainly improved the flavors, though I was puzzled by the logic of putting a round patty between square slabs of focaccia bread.
Dinner specials were the weakest part of the menu—not bad, just less remarkable. A corn soufflé had a nice texture but lacked the oomph that makes you delight in a dish and want to order it again. Same thing with the salmon, which was perfectly cooked, but the accompanying ratatouille-stuffed peppers could have used more seasoning. I liked the arugula, olives, fennel, and roasted potato bits that came with the chicken paillard, but the meat had been pounded to the point that it tasted like tofu. A little refinement—maybe using smoked, pulled chicken instead—could make all the difference. But fine-tuning dishes is a challenge when a kitchen cooks with the seasons, as Common Roots does, and relies on fleeting Minnesota produce.
The cafe, it turns out, also depends on a lot of local meats, grains, and dairy. Unlike any Twin Cities eatery I know of, Common Roots quantifies its commitment to sustainable food. By categorizing every kitchen order when he pays his suppliers, Schwartzman has calculated that, on average, the cafe purchases about 80 percent of its ingredients from a combination of local, organic, and/or fair-trade producers.
The cafe's eco-friendly ethic pervades beyond what's on the plate to include the space it's served in, the people who serve it, and the leftover waste. From the reclaimed barn wood on the floor to the salvaged light fixtures on the ceiling, resource use was a primary concern when Schwartzman remodeled the building. Employees are paid a living wage (at least $11.40 an hour), and if they work at least 20 hours a week they're eligible for health insurance. With the help of Eureka Recycling, Common Roots composts all leftover food and plant-based materials, and the cafe offers biodegradable to-go containers and utensils.
But one of Common Roots' biggest successes is the way it's been able to make its mindful business ethic feel comfortably mainstream. Alongside legumes and tofu, the kitchen also turns out a hazelnut cake elegant enough for a wedding reception. This summer, when beekeeper Brian Frederickson of Ames Farm Honey held a discussion about colony collapse disorder, the cafe's private meeting room was standing-room-only: A farmer-as-rock-star was in the house.
Common Roots shares similarities with other counter-service cafes, certainly, but to me, it seems to have created a stronger sense of neighborhood ownership than most. Those who live nearby can hardly set foot through the door without running into someone they know. Sometimes it makes me feel as though Uptown is a dormitory and Common Roots is its lounge/cafeteria/computer cluster. (During warm weather you'll see more bike helmets than at a grad student mixer.) But it also attracts a broader clientele, ranging from a white-haired couple sharing a salad to a shirtless toddler crawling under a table, toting a squirt gun.
Part of Common Roots' attraction is its versatility: It's open seven days a week, early to late, transitioning between coffee shop, cafe, and bar—and often feeling like all three at once. But the cafe's other major draw is affordability. Most dishes cost less than $10, and even the dinner entrées typically cost no more than $12—the price of an appetizer at many local-food-focused restaurants. When Winona LaDuke hosted a fundraising dinner for the White Earth Indian Reservation at Common Roots, tickets cost $20, which opened the event to a much broader audience than those who typically parade through the charity circuit pictured in the local glossies.
For many, the idea of eating local, artisan foods sounds great—until the co-op cashier informs them that the jar of handmade sauerkraut they brought to the register costs more than two tanks of gas. Surely there are many more people who'd like to buy organic food than can afford it. Which is why the Cities could use more places like Common Roots—to prove that mindful eating need not be elitist.
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