On Christmas Eve, 2016, the ceiling fell in over the Thistle Stop Café, and it wasn’t because Santa and his reindeer had made a hard landing on the roof. “We had patched the roof several times,” recalls Reverend Becca Stevens, founder of the 20-year-old social enterprise dedicated to healing, empowering and employing women survivors of prostitution, trafficking and addiction. “We were in the middle of our big manufacturing expansion and had hoped to put off doing the café until that was done. But then the roof caved in — it was kind of a sign.”
Reverend Stevens, pastor of St. Augustine Episcopal Chapel for more than two decades, is a believer in signs, messages from the universe, the power of community and above all, the movement’s mantra, “Love Heals.”
It’s everywhere. The profile picture for Thistle Farms Facebook page. On all of the recently re-branded bath, beauty and home products and on t-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, hats and onesies for the littlest Thistle Farmers. On huge banners that hang in the 12,000-square-foot manufacturing facility that opened in April behind the original 800-square-foot space long outgrown by the success of the operation.
The thistle was embraced by Stevens when she grew the model of Magdalene residential homes for women coming off the streets to a business that would employ them. “The thistle is resilient; it grows in the grit on the sides of the roads our women walked when they were on the street,” Becca has explained over the years. “It is a symbol of their strength and beauty.”
The thistle — the huge metal one crafted by sculptor Ben Caldwell located atop the new roof — marks the spot; on the sign that marks the entrance to Thistle Farms’ first retail shop adjoining the café; etched onto frosted panels of glass on either side of the cafe’s front door; gathered in a vase beside a window and on the botanical print by Nashville artist and botanical illustrator Susie Webb Ries hung above the serene seating area.
The genesis of the café was Becca’s desire to have a place in the Charlotte Pike building the non-profit was headquartered in that “ … would welcome the community in. We had just started working with Justice Teas and thought we could re-do the space that was the paper studio and have tea parties. I thought it would be pretty simple. That’s how I start most projects — I over-simplify and underestimate. It has turned into a completely different thing, thank God. You might have an original idea about something, and then people who really know what they’re doing step in and it becomes something much greater than you could have ever imagined. When people realize you’re in over your head, they come into the waters and lift you up. That’s the truth.”
Café Director Courtney Johnson Sobieralski, who started volunteering at Thistle Farms after graduating MTSU, is the first to admit she had no idea what she was doing when Becca told her she wanted to open a café. But she jumped in to help. After a fundraiser in April 2012, she helped oversee five months of construction. She oversaw dozens of volunteers who turned wood from Al Gore, Sr.’s tobacco barn into flooring, painted the legs of old tables donated by members of the community and installed the cabinets built by prison inmates in West Tennessee. And she collected hundreds of tea cups that artist James Worsham turned into chandeliers.
The Thistle Stop Café first opened on May 24, 2013, staffed by residents and graduates of Magdalene and volunteers. The kitchen was basically a pantry, and the food was provided by vendors such as Vegan Vee, Dozen Bakery, Spark of Life and Chef/Restaurateur Arnold Myint. There was tea and coffee service, but the operation was bare bones, getting by on a wing, a prayer and the loyalty of customers who loved the mission. The next year, a couple of prep tables, soup warmer, microwave and panini press were added, and the food was made in-house.
When Hal Cato answered his pastor’s call for help and accepted the role of CEO in the fall of 2015, his primary objective was to expand manufacturing and drive the growth and reach of the Thistle Farms product line; the café re-do was down the road somewhere. But well before the new manufacturing center opened, the café ceiling fell in, closing it for two months while the roof was repaired. It re-opened in February for one week to share plans for the future with customers, then closed again for a major renovation and construction, with plans to re-open in May.
Less than a mile away, esteemed Nashville chef/caterer/food activist/cookbook author and early pioneer of the local farm-to-table movement Martha Stamps had closed her Bergamot Market. The old saying about doors closing and windows opening comes to mind when she says that on her last day of business, her old pal and longtime customer Hal Cato came in the door. Seizing the opportunity, he asked if she would consider “consulting” on the café’s new operations — which would include a full commercial kitchen — and work with the existing cooks on creating a new menu. “I thought what a great opportunity this would be,” Martha remembers. “They wanted a real restaurant, and it was so exciting to think of doing something so meaningful, while sharing the importance of food sourcing and seasonality. They are allowing me the kind of kitchen I always wanted. It’s not dog-eat-dog, shouting and yelling. It’s a bunch of women in recovery — including me. We start each day with a meditation and giving thanks. This work is a form of healing our bodies while loving each other and our guests.”
A Detroit native, Donna Dozier was on drugs for more than 40 years, and prostitution was the means to sustain her addiction. She had heard about Magdalene through a friend of her brother’s, and after a month in rehab at Metro General, she was accepted into a residence in October 2013 (she graduated in 2015); in 2014 she went to work in the upgraded café kitchen, taking pride in the food being made by her hands.
Already eagerly anticipating the installation of a real kitchen and make-over of the space, she becomes emotional speaking of meeting Martha. “Martha brought me back something I hadn’t felt in a long time — tasting vegetables right out of the earth. When I tasted a tomato from one of our farmers picked that day, it made my insides dance like ballerinas! I almost cried! The first thing that caught my attention with Martha was her hands. She touches things and puts her hands into it — she gives the food personality and love. She makes me want to put my soul into my food! Watching her and line cook Donald Reed together is amazing. Donald will take a radish, a carrot, a potato, some herbs and make a soup that will heal you. If you have food memories of your grandmother or mother, Martha and Donald’s food will have them sitting right beside you while you eat.”
Due to construction delays and set-backs, Martha had a lot more time than anticipated to cultivate her relationships with farmers and sources, create and test the menu, and train staff. “We spent a of time in training,” she laughs.
Much to everyone’s relief, The Café at Thistle Farms passed its final inspections and opened its new front door on September 20. Though it boasts an all-new look, the service model remains the same: pick up the breakfast/lunch/beverage menu from the seasonally decorated welcome table just inside. Check out the specials on a paper roll — there will always be a daily soup and daily quiche, before placing your order at the counter on the left side of the room. Café staff is ready to take your breakfast or lunch order, or prepare hot tea service or a specialty coffee drink, such as the Love Heals Latte with raspberry and white chocolate syrups.
Seat yourself in the cozy banquettes (built from the tobacco barn wood taken up from the floor), or at one of the new tables and chairs throughout the café’s main room.“It was such a gift to be able to pick pretty new things!” says Courtney. “We also have real china, silver and linens now.”
The Café at Thistle Farms officially opens at 7 a.m. for breakfast, but longtime regular Trish Blair squeezed in early opening day and became the first official customer at 6:45 a.m., picking up two breakfast biscuits and some coffee to go. You don’t have to arrive that early for one of those beauties: scrambled farm egg and thick slices of award-winning family-owned Kentucky Broadbent bacon spill out between two halves of still-steaming hot buttermilk cheddar biscuits. Breakfast is served until 10:30 am. If you are in a rush, the cases are stocked with prepared foods to go (like the daily soup, chicken salad and egg salad), desserts and breakfast pastries.
From the café, mosey on over to The Shop at Thistle Farms next door and say hello to manager and Magdalene 2015 graduate Kim Stevens. Along with the core line of candles, bath, beauty and home products, The Shop carries paper goods, clothing, jewelry and other items made by women around the world as part of Thistle Farms Global.
The Café at Thistle Farms is located at 5122 Charlotte Pike, Nashville, TN 37209. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. for breakfast, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch, and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. for afternoon tea.
Thank you to Ashley Hylbert for the beautiful photos!
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