Story by Jordan Pye

Photos by Chrissy Skutnik

The “Maharaja Bowl” began with a recipe for curried lentils from “Extending the Table” by Joetta Handrich Schlabach, an international collection of everyday recipes “in the spirit of more with less.”

The kids liked it, the restaurant owners liked it and the name, the Hindi word for “Indian prince,” was a suggestion from an intern. Served over rice with mango chutney, yogurt and a side of fresh-baked nann, it’s now No. 4 on the menu at A Bowl of Good Café. Tucked into the Common Good Marketplace off Mount Clinton Pike in Harrisonburg, the café turns internationally inspired recipes into a community-centered business. “We are passionate purveyors of food that is good, not complicated,” restaurant owner and founder Katrina Didot said.

Open at 8 a.m. Monday through Saturday to serve breakfast bowls, the café bakes its own bread, cookies and gluten-free brownies. Coolers near the cash register display grab-and-go sandwiches, frozen quarts of soup and locally-produced goods including granola, honey and canola oil. By lunchtime, the scent of cumin and fresh rice waft from the kitchen into the contemporary entrance, where a round ceiling looms over red counters and cabinets and the walls feature artwork from Artisan’s Hope, the adjoining fair trade craft store. Customers gather at the homemade tables and booths, fashioned from the planks of a century-old barn in Cross Keys, Va. and modified with ceramic tiles from Guatemala and other countries. Tribal drumbeats of world music drift through the air while Didot and her staff craft their dishes from locally-grown ingredients.

Good to the Earth

Each day, the restaurant produces up to 10 buckets of pre-consumer compost — including peels and vegetable ends from cooking — that go to a local farmer. In addition the café only produces one half full single 40-gallon garbage bag of trash per day. The coffee cups and 16 oz. cold cups used in the restaurant are also compostable. In a backyard garden, the café grows cilantro, basil and mint. After meeting Didot last semester, James Madison University juniors and integrated science and technology majors Sam Frere and Daniel Warren began its transformation into a sustainable agriculture project to create a year-round garden.

To make the garden self-sufficient, the plan will incorporate an on-site rotating compost system, mini plastic wrap greenhouses to extend the growing season and an irrigation system supplied by rainwater collection from the building’s roof. The facility itself was designed with solar water heating technology to reduce energy needs and long-term costs. Didot, a licensed clinical social worker and mother of two adopted children, Eva, 13, and Luther, 15, has been a Harrisonburg resident since 2003. She began selling soup in 2005 inside Kate’s Natural Products on University Boulevard after a year of social work. Her experiences with troubled young people confirmed her belief that having family dinner can make a big difference in a child’s life.

“We’ve lost the ritual of eating together and cooking together,” Didot said. At A Bowl of Good, “we want people to have those rituals and want to model them here.”

The menu features 10 bowls, each a recipe from a different region of the world. Most of the dishes draw from Didot’s international experiences: the Mediterranean bowl, “It’s All Greek to Me,” was inspired by her travels to Greece during college. The “Tom Kha Gai Bowl” is a Thai recipe she learned from a Vietnamese colleague at her first post-graduation job in Philadelphia, working with unaccompanied Vietnamese refugee children placed in foster homes.

Didot has lived in Haiti and Guatemala, backpacked through parts of Europe and traveled to Mexico, El Salvador, Belize and other parts of Central America. Her Vietnamese coworkers and other people she has met abroad impressed her with how much they enjoyed celebrations and coming together over food. “Something I’ve learned from other cultures,” Didot said, is “learning joy, nurturing joy in a workplace.” A Bowl of Good provides a “third-place” for community members, after work and home. The café exemplifies social entrepreneurship at the community level, a drastic difference from the franchises and chain restaurants that line the sides of Route 33. Didot encourages her staff to get to know their customers, to bring community members together and connect the dots between them, “because a lot of people are looking for some kind of connection.”

Community connections played a large role in the early days of her business, when Didot rented the kitchen of Blue Nile restaurant’s old location to make soups on days they were closed, and Red Front Supermarket gave her freezer space to store her products. After moving out of Kate’s Natural Products, Didot kept in touch with her customers by selling her wares at the farmers’ market. “I had no idea how many I had,” Didot said of her solid customer base, which encouraged her to continue to make and sell products. “I think it’s somewhere in my heart because I didn’t picture myself in a farmers’ market. The relationships Didot formed through the farmers’ market expanded her knowledge of the local food movement and broadened her connections with local farmers. In 2008, she saw an opportunity to take her business to the next level when she learned of a storefront opening next to Gift and Thrift on Mt. Clinton Pike. With the help of business partner Rachel Rose, a real estate agent and frequent customer from the farmers’ market, Didot opened the restaurant in August 2009. 

Despite fitting in perfectly with the nonprofit atmosphere of the Common Good Marketplace, Didot described herself as an unapologetic income generator. “Profit isn’t a bad word,” Didot said. “If we don’t get the profit someone else will, and may not put it back into the community. The more we generate, the more we can do.” While striving to build local roots, A Bowl of Good also keeps an eye on the international community. Immediately after the 2010 earthquake disaster in Haiti, the café hosted a fundraiser, set up an 12-person tent city and spent the night outside to remind people about the plight of the Haitians. They raised $8,000 for disaster relief and, on the earthquake’s anniversary, raised another $4,000.

Efforts to embrace more international community members have included inviting them as guest cooks to share dishes from Indian and Chinese culture. During international story time at 9 a.m. on Wednesdays, a volunteer reads a children’s story from a specific culture before an ethnically-themed lunch special. For one Wednesday in February, an Eastern European story was served with borscht.

Didot’s nonprofit neighbors share her global focus, food justice and fair trade causes while attracting similar clientele: locals, middle class professionals, the Eastern Mennonite University community, as well as people who travel and care about how they eat. Gift and Thrift employee Ruby Lehman and her daughter Judy Lehman came to the cafe the first weekend it opened because they liked Didot’s soups. They enjoy the affordability of wholesome, organic and international foods that also support local farmers. “It feels like you’re supporting the principles of a restaurant,” Judy Lehman said. Harrisonburg residents Emily Casey and Katherine Morrison work together at MODdisplays on East Market Street. Casey had been coming to A Bowl of Good for about a year after she first heard of it through word of mouth.

“I like that everything is local and it’s all really fresh,” Casey said. She’s partial to the “Mac and Jack of the Valley” bowl, which pairs baked macaroni and local jack cheese with green beans in a garlic butter sauce. Morrison ordered a side Greek salad with the soup of the day, and said she’s a fan of the cafe’s salad choices and ready-made lunch options. “The grab-and-go features appeal to students on the run. [Eastern Mennonite University] students love it here,” Morrison said. “I like coming here to support a local establishment that provides great service.” No one has a better appreciation for how far the cafe has come than the 15-person staff. They come from diverse backgrounds and reflect the cafe’s multicultural atmosphere: Artisan cheese maker Melissa Lapp, who was adopted from Belize, joined the crew after moving from upstate New York, and Andy Whitten, who has been with the restaurant since it opened, was adopted from Colombia.

English and Spanish are spoken in the kitchen and several employees are bilingual, including Cuban native Marielys Leon, who worked with Didot at Kate’s Natural Foods and has been producing soup in the cafe since October. “We hire for heart,” Didot said. “I see us as a great place for an immigrant to get a start, to be able to give people their first job here.” Employee Rachel Freed graduated from Longwood University last year, and after working other jobs in food service and college dining halls, she found that the staff at A Bowl of Good has more compassion than the others. “People are willing to forgive mistakes and I really appreciate that,” she said. “There’s a lot more love, the bosses care about you and you care more about what you’re doing.”

Last June, Pennsylvania native and EMU graduate Benjamin Bergey began working in the soup production aspect of the café. By November he had transitioned into a newly-created general manager position. Despite the negative aura he thinks surrounds employees in other food service jobs, A Bowl of Good is “nurturing and geared toward employee needs,” Bergey said. “It’s about the camaraderie, friendships and relationships with staff and customers.” Employee bonding activities have included field trips to the production centers for Route 11 potato chips and herb grower, Shenandoah Growers, just up the street from the café. Christmas dinner and a summer swimming party are annual traditions. To put their servant leadership ideals into practice, Didot began a quarterly staff dinner where employees take turns preparing and serving a meal for each other. Customer service training sessions also focus on team building and sharing food. “Our staff is very playful,” Didot said, and when gathering off the clock, “we usually eat together no matter what we do.”

At the café, one of Bergey’s responsibilities is to place orders for the ingredients, most of which come from a core group of local farms that Didot has networked with since the farmers’ market. The café uses hydroponic lettuce grown by Portwood Gardens, tomatoes from Wayside Produce, wheat berries from Heartland Harvest, onions from North Mountain Produce and carrots and other produce from Harrisonburg farmer Radell Shrock. The coffee is roasted locally, and the beef and pork are bought locally one animal at a time, instead of 20 pounds at a time.

“When you have a relationship with the person you buy from, you want to be able to afford it, and you want them to profit, too, when you know the person on the other end,” Didot said. The community connections come in handy when farmers can offer Didot an excess of produce. She sometimes purchases food in bulk from the Shenandoah Valley Produce Auction. In August, Didot hopes to reach new customers by opening a second cafe on Port Republic Road in the Port Crossing shopping center near Vito’s Italian Kitchen. The main kitchen in the original location would produce much of the food for both cafes, a testament to the simplicity of the recipes that Dido encourages customers to try on their own.

“There’s no mystery to the recipes,” she said. “It’s basic ingredients in a bowl, meals that are easy to recreate at home with the family.”