A nywhere you go, food, friends, and family are found together. In Tennessee, artisans are creating natural and organic food and body care products that go beyond helping us live healthier lives. Nowadays, good eats and good looks are not just skin deep, and these men and women remind us that when we help ourselves to a tasty meal or a luxurious product, we can also help our brothers and sisters who might be having a harder time helping themselves.
Kinda’ Blue Susan Binkley started the Blue Chair cafe in Sewanee in 2000. She ran the space for a dozen years before selling it in 2012. The place has become an integral part of its University of the South community with a college-life take on Eggs Benedict (on a bagel with Black Forest ham) and a roast-beef sandwich dressed up with local tomatoes and pesto mayo. However, there’s also a story behind the Blue Chair’s fresh and fun fare. Here’s a hint: Try the granola.
The inspiration for Binkley’s most inspired offering came to her in a dream in which she found herself reading a business plan for a project she could accomplish in real life—and one that would make a difference in the lives of others. She woke up transformed and determined to make her dream come true.
“Blue Monarch is a long-term residential recovery program for women and their kids,” says Binkley. Blue Monarch accepts women who are recovering from physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse, alcohol or drug addictions, poverty, and severe family issues. Their kids are also welcome. In addition to recovery, the one- to two-year program often has a long-term goal of reuniting women with their children and healing families. “Some of these women are felons who have lost their kids,” Binkley notes. “Some of them are one step away from losing their parental rights. This program teaches these women to be better parents. It teaches them what that means. Over 100 kids have been able to re-establish a relationship with their mothers because of our program.”
Blue Monarch also serves as both a job trainer and employer to these women, giving them an opportunity they might not otherwise be able to realize while involved in a long-term recovery situation.
“It would be difficult for them to have a job and earn an income while they’re in the recovery program,” explains Binkley. Many of the Blue Monarch residents also have past criminal records that might prevent them from getting hired. Blue Monarch offers a rigorous work ethics course as a gateway to employment in a commercial kitchen, where the women learn how to create the Out of the Blue granola they sell at the Blue Chair and at other cafes like Nashville’s Fido and Bongo Java. A portion of the women’s pay is donated back to fund the otherwise-free recovery program. Bags of both the honey-oat and the coconut-and-cranberry granola include profiles and photos of the residents, helping to spread their stories.
“Thistle” Be Great Katrina Robertson is the national sales director for Thistle Farms. Created in 2001, Thistle Farms is an offshoot of a recovery program for former prostitutes known as Magdalene House. Since Magdalene began in 1997, the program and its founder, Becca Stevens, have been praised and lauded for their efforts, and while Stevens and her works are relatively well known in Nashville, it’s Thistle Farms that often makes the first impression through the customers who buy their artisan natural bath and body products.
“Thistle Farms was started because the women of Magdalene were staying clean, but nobody would hire them because of their past criminal records,” explains Robertson. Similar to the Blue Chair, Magdalene and Thistle Farms work to help women in recovery from lives of abuse, addiction, prostitution, rape, and sexual abuse, while also providing them with an opportunity to work, earn, and save money. Products are sold at their Charlotte Avenue storefront as well as at home parties.
“It’s like Tupperware—with a conscience,” says Robertson, who manages over 200 retail accounts in stores across the country. “The Thistle Farms name comes from the weed,” she explains. “It’s the only flower that grows on the streets that these women used to walk—it comes right up through the sidewalk. The whole world is our farm.”
Along with their popular body butter and body balm products, the ladies also create sootless soy candles with cotton wicks and an award-winning lip smoothie. Thistle Farms has started selling product subscriptions to new “Thistle Farmers” for a monthly subscription fee and are planning to open a Thistle Stop Cafe in their retail space at 5122 Charlotte Avenue this spring.
Baby Love Dan Maggipinto opened Caffe Nonna 14 years ago, pioneering the remake of the Murphy Road/Sylvan Park neighborhood into a food destination and helping to alleviate Nashville’s dearth of Italian eating beyond pizza and subs. Maggipinto’s pastas and entrees were an immediate hit, and the chef—along with Co-owner Bob Sillers and General Manager John Michael Thurman—has been serving packed houses in his cozy dining room ever since.
However, Caffe Nonna’s success was overshadowed by tragedy when Maggipinto and his wife lost their two-year-old daughter to a rare form of brain cancer. Having enlisted St. Jude Children’s Hospital in her fight, Maggipinto decided to do something in his daughter’s name to help other parents facing similar diagnoses.
“After she passed away, I wanted to do something for this particular type of brain cancer,” says Maggipinto. “I created the products to create the company and the charity.” Nonna’s Gourmet Foods started a decade ago. Established firmly on Maggipinto’s trinity of marinara sauce, spicy marinara sauce, and Chianti jelly, the line now includes pasta and cheese-and-pesto crackers for home chefs who’d like to try their own variations on the restaurant’s dishes. Their hunger-pang-inducing online store makes for easy ordering and celebrates $21,000 in donations to St. Jude through the Zoë Marie Brain Tumor Research Fund. All proceeds from sales of the products go to support research into Zoë’s rare cancer, and a portion of sales from restaurant dishes made with the products is also pledged to the charity.
“We use the products in both restaurants—at Caffe Nonna and the pizzeria,” explains Maggipinto. Nonna’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar opened next door to Caffe Nonna four months ago and is already getting great word of mouth for its wood-fired pies and its unique calzone-meets-panini piadina sandwiches.
In addition to online sales, Nonna’s Gourmet Foods can be found at Whole Foods and the Produce Place on Murphy Road. Maggipinto also sells his sauces wholesale through Robert Orr Sysco, giving other Nashville restaurants the chance to serve better dishes while supporting a great cause.