Spotlight: The Root Cafe
Join us as we talk with Conner Speigner from The Root Cafe about transitioning from fine dining to The Root, what it’s like being a personal chef, and her dream to one day own her own business.
How would you summarize The Root to people?
The Root is a cafe that’s focused on community. We always have someone’s art showcased on the walls, we have an open mic night and live bands here from time to time, good food, vegetarian food. The owners just really believed in a plant-based lifestyle for whatever reasons. We’ve had people tell us it’s like stoner food.
How long have you worked here?
3 years in August.
The idea of keeping it local obviously has a specific resonance for food. And it's really hard to buy mostly locally. But you say most of your produce is local?
We get most of our produce from Samson, which is a produce hub, and a lot of their stuff does come from other countries. Our avocados and ripe bananas are not gonna come from Ohio. We have citrus from here, lemons limes and oranges. There are times when we just have to bite the bullet and buy non-locally just to have it available. But our greens especially, there was a time this last year when we didn’t have fresh basil and spinach for a month because there was a freeze in Ohio that even got to greenhouses. Which taught us to have multiple providers that we can go to. Kudos to those restaurants, they call them hyper-seasonal, where if it’s not in season then they’re not gonna serve it at all. That’s great, but for a place like The Root that’s just too hard. We do use a lot of root vegetables, which are year round in Ohio.
Is that where the name came from?
I don’t think that’s it. I know I’ve heard the story once or twice. I think we just wanted to play off of the idea of being rooted.
So beyond the idea of keeping money in the community and making connections, are there health benefits to eating local food?
Yeah that’s actually something I tell people all the time. I used to live down South and have terrible allergies and I started consuming local raw honey down there and that was it, that was all I needed. I would have a spoonful of honey with tea in the morning and I was good to go for a few days. So I do the same thing here, like once a week. Other than that, there are a lot of health benefits, especially for greens; the less they have to travel, the more nutritional value they have. We’ve had farmers just give us produce before because, by the time they would have made it back to the farm, it would have died.
What would you say your title is?
What I like about The Root is there’s not too much of a hierarchical system. I come from fine dining, so when I first started here I wanted to know who’s head this, who’s this who’s this, and it’s nobody. I tell people I’m a chef here. To go from chef to cook, also coming from restaurants, that was something that was hard to let go of. A chef is someone who has studied and a cook is someone who is at home or works at a cafe. They let a lot of that go here which is really awesome, so I just cook here. We have a cooking manager, too.
I was wondering about that distinction because I don't totally understand the chef/cook distinction.
We all try to make it a point to be educated about everything in case someone asks a question. So for example people might want to know where we get our ingredients from, and we get most of our ingredients locally, so knowing who the farmer is, what is seasonal and what’s not, and all that jazz.
So how did you end up here and how does it fit into your career?
I moved home from North Carolina where I went to culinary school. I was burnt out from working 14-16 hours a day in a kitchen with mostly old white men, so it was kind of a boys’ club. It was cool creative-wise, but politically and emotionally it was really taxing, so that’s why I came home. I came home and became head chef for all the vegetarian and vegan children in the Shaker School District. I grew up in Shaker Heights. But we had a meeting one day where all the chefs came together and were talking about breaking our contracts with local farmers. All the schools I oversaw had fruit and salad bars. Frito Lay wanted to come in and give us huge bonuses and a paid vacation in Aruba, but it would mean we’d get most “fruit” in frozen, which was just weird colored apple sauce. And I don’t eat perfect all the time. But to know that a good 60% of the students at that time were on free or reduced lunch, so two of the meals they might get that day were coming from school, I didn’t want to give them blue raspberry applesauce; I wanted them to eat real food because they might not get food when they got home.
That makes a lot of sense. Especially given that you’re vegan, right?
Yes, for ten years, so fresh fruit and veggies are really important to me. And it does take a lot to order and prepare food for schools. It takes a chef’s training to be fast and efficient enough. And then you’ve got a lot of student’s with health issues. So if you’re not willing to pay for the training so that someone can learn that stuff, then yeah you’re just going to want to heat and serve. But I decided to quit when I got hired at The Root. Me coming here was just me trying to detox from that situation. I didn’t think it was gonna be 3 years. It’s super chill here and you can do really cool creative stuff, so I was like, heck yeah, I can do that.
How do you think The Root has influenced your professional goals going forward?
They’re flexible here schedule-wise so I do have different side hustles. I’m a personal chef, so I go to different client’s homes and I cook for them. I’ve gotten a lot of clients who like The Root. If they want to be plant-based but they want more comfort food, The Root is a really great influence for that. A lot of my clients work at the Cleveland Clinic and work 18 hour days, so I just leave everything in their fridge. I’ve had clients who I never even met.
Do you cook in your kitchen at home?
I cook in my kitchen, and sometimes if I have a lot going on The Root will let me use their smaller kitchen. I also volunteer with homeless organizations to teach free cooking classes, or with homeless individuals and their families or for low income individuals. So that’s why I have my bread and butter clients who are surgeons and doctors, so I can pay it forward. I also do food research consulting. So say someone wants to write a cookbook but they’re not a chef, they contact me for different food research. Being able to collaborate with the owners of The Root and different farmers and producers we work with has also been a great influence on the food research side, too. You learn a lot about food from all the people who work here and the people we work with. And then going forward and looking into owning my own business if I should want to, I’ve asked the owners to see their inner sanctum and how things are run.
That’s cool that they’re willing to show you what’s going on from the inside and they’re not like, “don’t take our secrets!”
There have been a lot of people who have worked here and gone on to have their own business. There’s Beet Jar, one of the owners used to work here. Wake Robin Ferments, who we use and sell, she used to work here. Kitchen 216, the manager there who co-owns the kitchen used to be a manager in our kitchen. So it’s a good launching point for people. Hopefully I can ride that wave. That’s my new goal.