Main Squeeze – Columbia
There was a time in American history when people knew exactly where their day’s meal came from, when they said good morning to the farmer who sold them corn and good afternoon to the butcher who cut their meat. Such memories are the basis for Columbia-based restaurateur Leigh Lockhart’s passion for supporting local food vendors and producers.
“I grew up in Kirkwood and I loved to buy food from the local butcher’s shop and grocer,” observes Lockhart, owner of the Main Squeeze Natural Foods Café and Juice Bar. “I love farmers. They are great people who are good to the environment.”
With this in mind she has created a restaurant that is not only an homage to pre-corporate America, but an example of a greener future.
Main Squeeze’s unique menu of delicious, mostly local and organic food, and its décor of recycled tables and chairs and local art make it a hot spot for many kinds of diners. It appeals to the young hipster who wants to step away from corporate chain restaurants and be a part of a more authentic experience. It also draws the civic minded who want to support local farms and businesses. And it attracts customers who simply appreciate whole, healthy food. Nevertheless, Main Squeeze came close to closing in November as the bottom fell out of the economy.
“It was the perfect storm,” says Lockhart, “Fuel and food prices went up while business slowed and credit became inaccessible.” Not surprisingly Lockhart found a truly local solution to the restaurant’s financial woes. “I wrote an impassioned letter to my customers offering them a 5 percent return on their investments.”
There were enough people who couldn’t stand to see the loss of the Main Squeeze, so with the help of loans from its customers it survived. The situation has gotten brighter as fuel prices have lowered and Lockhart has changed the menu, raised prices, and used various forms of free marketing to get the word out about the Main Squeeze.
The Main Squeeze, which was inspired by Lockhart’s experience with juice bars on the West Coast, first opened as an organic juice bar in 1997. The juice bar led to greater aspirations and the Main Squeeze began serving food in May 1998.
The restaurant serves as an example of sustainability. Its table tops are a mosaic of dishes broken in the restaurant, while its seat cushions are made from plastic grocery bags and vintage neckties. The food is bought locally whenever possible, so that it is not only fresh, but dramatically reduces the wasted energy and greenhouse gas emissions from shipping food long distances.
“Why would I buy apples from a farm in New Zealand when there is an orchard 30 miles away,” says Lockhart, “It’s simply more sensible and more sustainable to buy local food.”
Mostly organic food is purchased by the restaurant to reduce the amount of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides released into the environment. In addition to recycling every can, bottle, newspaper, and cardboard box on its premises, the Main Squeeze composts up to 50 tons of food waste a year, and then uses that compost to fertilize its own garden, which grows food that tantalizes the palates of its appreciative diners.
The most creative form of sustainability at the Main Squeeze is the sale of the Tiffin, a stainless steel, reusable box sold to customers to use in place of wasteful to go boxes. Customers receive 50 percent off of their first meal with a purchase of the box and regulars can purchase two, so they have one to take home and one in the restaurant for whenever they order food to go. Also, if they prefer to eat at home they can get the food delivered.
Lockhart also uses her restaurant to give back to the community. The restaurant collects contributions for the local food pantry and matches each contribution. This amounts to up to $1,000 a month in donations.
“I hope to be a role model,” says Lockhart, who recalls past employees telling her about experiences in restaurants after they have left the Main Squeeze. “One woman was shocked that her current employer didn’t recycle. I’m glad that I created that awareness in her.”
More importantly, she sets an example for other businesses. “I want to show that you can make a profit while making the community a better place and helping people.”
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