When Jennifer Ryan and her husband moved to Birmingham in 2016, they fell in love with Magic City and its Southern hospitality. But as she was looking for the quick and healthy food she’d enjoyed when she lived in New York City and her hometown in Southern California, she couldn’t find it. So, she decided to fill the gap. Teaming up with Chef Robin Bashinsky, a two-time James Beard award-winner, Jennifer launched the healthy eating brand known as BLUEROOT in 2019. First setting up shop at Pepper Place Farmers Market and later at a walk-up window in Mountain Brook, BLUEROOT now has a 1,700-square-foot brick-and-mortar restaurant at Pepper Place.
Even though Jennifer’s not a Birmingham native, BLUEROOT is Birmingham-bred indeed. Not only is the food locally sourced, but the restaurant’s wooden tables and seating are from Magic City Woodworks, and the space is decorated with plants from Botanica. We had a chat with Jennifer about healthy eating, building a business in Birmingham, and more. Welcome our newest FACE of Birmingham, Jennifer Ryan!
Why did you think Birmingham would be a good place to launch BLUEROOT?
When my husband and I moved here we decided we weren’t just going to exist in Birmingham, we were going to entrench ourselves. After really recognizing that that gap was there — for healthy, quick, convenient food that was able to fit into the schedule but also tasted great — we saw a real opportunity of this marriage of locally sourced goods and local talent. You’ve seen it on the fine dining level. That’s why Birmingham is on the map with the Stitts and the Hastings and restaurants like Ollie Irene and Automatic Seafood. I wanted to bring that marriage to the everyday level.
You’ve mentioned that you loved Birmingham for the Southern hospitality. Did you see this same hospitality when you launched BLUEROOT?
We are here alive, standing on two feet in the middle of a pandemic because of the hard work of a team of 20 and because we’re standing on the shoulders of people who have decided to be helpful to a small business and a business owner like me who has no business working in food. I didn’t come from this industry. I’m not from Birmingham, and our industry is very male-dominated. But all of these women came out of the woodwork to help me – women like Leigh Sloss-Corra, Pardis Stitt, Ashley McMakin of Ashley Mac’s, and Kristen Hall of The Essential. They all have a “pay it forward” mentality.
What tips would you offer to people who want to eat a more healthful diet but struggle to do so because they’re busy?
Start small. Introduce one good habit per day. A really easy one might be smoothies. Add some spinach to that. Find ways to incorporate more greens onto your plate — just a little bit extra on a sandwich, or you can roll it in a wrap and have little bit extra at dinner. Also, drink more water. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s simple, and it’s honestly the nicest thing you can do for your body. Before you start the day or chug your coffee, just drink one glass of water.
I just don’t believe in saying stop eating x, y, z, or cut out sugar. Those are wonderful aspirational goals, but I love a brownie. I love a good cookie or a glass of wine. I think there’s a balance with all of this.
And this has nothing to do with food, but add movement in some way – such as going for a walk or even just stretching for five minutes. I’m not a doctor, and I’m not a nutritionist — I say all of those disclaimers — but I think water plus some greens plus movement … those things collectively can be life-changing.
Are there any foods you’ve been adding to the BLUEROOT menu or your own diet to help boost immunity?
I’m not crafting a menu just on immune support, but what we’re trying to do is encourage broad self-care. And self-care doesn’t mean you have to come to BLUEROOT every day. It means that you can take care of yourself by eating good food that comes from the ground and ensuring that you get enough protein and fiber in and talking to your doctor to see if you do need a supplement.
We try to provide a balanced diet, and for us, that starts with eradicating processed foods. Otherwise, we’re focused on the big food groups – a lot of protein, healthy fats from things like avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, and complex carbohydrates in things like starchy vegetables, sweet potatoes, butternut squash, and oats. Complex carbs give us energy to do all the things we want to do.
We focus a lot on fiber for gut health. We’re seeing more and more research coming out talking about how gut health impacts almost everything else in the body. Antioxidants really help combat free radicals. Goji berries or pumpkin seeds are high in fiber and antioxidants. You probably hear a lot right now about zinc. Zinc is in a lot of things on the menu because goods that come from the ground happen to be armed with vitamins and minerals. Magnesium is also important. Pumpkin seeds pack a punch on both of those. And I have a turmeric butternut squash soup right now. Turmeric is one of my favorites for inflammation-blasting properties, and some studies say it’s helpful in supporting your immune system.
What books are you reading right now?
There’s a Harvard Business School small book called Managing Yourself — it’s about leadership, and I revisit it a lot. I also just finished Malibu Rising. That’s a great fun novel about California. And I’m reading Nail It Then Scale It. I like self-help books, and I like spy novels.
What’s some of the best advice you’ve been given by local female entrepreneurs or other mentors?
Don’t take no for an answer. That doesn’t mean not to review the information and look at the data and make good decisions. It just means to think outside the box.
Also, don’t let the small things slip. A male mentor of mine said this to me, and I appreciate it so much in terms of running a restaurant. How you do the small things is how you do the big things.
Name three little things you can’t live without.
A good book, a strong cup of coffee, and dark chocolate with hazelnuts.
Thank you, Jennifer! To learn more about BLUEROOT, visit bluerootco.com.
All photos courtesy of Jennifer Ryan unless otherwise noted.
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