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Alabama restaurant has a mindset and a menu for a healthy community

From mission to menu, Taproot Café in Hoover intends to make a difference in its community. That’s because everything here – from the wholesome foods to the friendly staff to the bright, comfortable setting to the people supplying local, fresh ingredients – is part of a larger intention.

The café serves sandwiches, salads, toasts, soups and smoothies, but owners Reggie and Michelle Torbor have a mission of service that goes well beyond handing someone a plate of delicious, healthy food.

From the very beginning, they have aimed to “love people, feed people and connect people.” It’s written on the front window of their cafe; it’s practiced every day.

The Torbors opened their locally sourced café about a year ago – on their wedding anniversary. The health-conscious, community-focused eatery seems a natural fit for the couple.

Reggie is a former Auburn University football player, NFL linebacker and New York Giants Super Bowl champion. These days, he’s a popular motivational speaker and personal development manager at Brasfield & Gorrie. Michelle is a licensed professional counselor and owner of Cardinal Wellness, where she specializes in treating anxiety and trauma. Physical fitness, mental and emotional wellness and a deep spiritual connectiveness are part of their daily lives.

Taproot Café serves fresh and delicious food while supporting Alabama farmers and businesses from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Taproot Café is a way to share all this with others. “We love people, and we love food, and we believe the best things happen when you put the two together,” Reggie says.

“I believe strongly that there is a connection between what we put in our bodies and how we feel and how our minds and brains work,” Michelle adds. “I know it from my personal experience, and the research shows it. … There are many things that we want to accomplish through the café, but one of those things is being able to offer good food that feeds people’s bodies, but it’s good food for your brain as well and it helps your mood.”

She says her favorite thing about opening the café has been giving people a trusted place to eat – a place that respects their dietary restrictions or helps them along on their personal wellness journeys. “I think it’s what we do best. We want to intentionally know the needs of the people that are coming in here, and we want to be mindful about those things so that we can provide the best product for them.”

Taproot’s good-for-you foods are made fresh daily with ingredients from a trusted group of local purveyors. That was part of the original intention. “One of the most exciting things,” Michelle says, “is we have found not just farmers, but curators of good, yummy products, too.”

It’s about sustainability and “doing what we can as individuals to sustain the spaces around us,” Michelle says. The goal in supporting local farmers and makers, she adds, is to better serve the larger community. “We can serve local farmers by providing their products and going the extra mile to do so. It just makes it more meaningful, and it gives people an opportunity … to eat and support all in one place.”

This isn’t necessarily the easy way to do things for a small café, but they are committed to it. “Playing our part in the sustainability of people, the environment and our local economy is worth it,” Michelle says.

So, sandwiches like the PBLT (pimento cheese BLT) and the toasts (avocado, caprese, mushroom pesto, and salmon and cream cheese) are made with bread from Birmingham Breadworks. The Cajun Cleaver’s tri-tip steak pairs with housemade horseradish sauce on the new and popular beef dip sandwich; turkey from the family-owned butcher shop just up the road in Hoover is layered with cranberries, cream cheese, spinach and sweet peppers on the turkey and cranberry sandwich.

You can get it on the piled-high club, too. The fresh-fruit smoothies (pineapple-ginger-carrot, peanut butter and banana, berry blend, opti-greens or “build your own” from a variety of ingredients) are sweetened with honey from Eastaboga Bee Co. The strawberries come from Smitherman Farms in Clanton. The popular tomato-basil soup and the smoked mushroom soup feature veggies from Hamm Farms. Tender, mixed salad greens are fresh in the winter from Southern Organics, where they grow them using aquaponics.

At Taproot, they serve Benito’s roasted garlic and spicy hummus alongside fresh pita from Birmingham’s landmark Joujou’s Pita Bakery. Nancey Legg’s award-winning Better Kombucha is available. They serve fresh lemonade from Just Good Flavor Company, and there’s artesian water from Eleven86.

They offer cookies from Secret Bake Shop. The red-pepper aioli for the vegetable-laden farmer’s grill sandwich; the warm bacon vinaigrette for the spinach salad; and the fresh basil pesto, which goes on several dishes, are all made in house.

Reggie says Taproot Café started as an idea on a dream board. “We thought it was important to have something that grounded us, and then we would make all of our decisions from there.”

So, he and Michelle asked themselves, how did they want customers to feel when they walked in? How did they want them to feel when they walked out? Those questions, Reggie says, “were the starting line” and soon the answers covered an entire wall. “Eventually, we said, ‘That’s too much; let’s narrow it down.’ So, what was left? It was something really simple and really clean but true and powerful.”

Love people. Feed people. Connect people.

“When you walk in, we want you to feel loved,” Reggie says. And Michelle elaborates: “We want people to have an experience when they come in here – to feel like they have been thought about through the options we provide and by just getting some kindness.”

Reggie continues: “The second thing we do is feed people, right? … We have simple things, but … we use the best ingredients we can find.” We sell sandwiches, he adds, “but it’ll be the best sandwich ever. … That is our goal, and a lot of it revolves around the hard work of the people who are creating these products … whether it’s people making the sandwiches or the lemonade or growing the fruits and vegetables.”

Finally, he says, “You want people to feel connected, right? And that is connected to each other, connected to our staff, connected to this place.” The goal, he says, is to “build a relationship with them. Whether they are working here, whether they are a supplier of ours, a partner of ours, or whether they are a customer of ours coming in and having lunch.”

The name of the café is just as significant.

Michelle says, “We had a couple of names out there that we might go with, but what Taproot provided was the most meaningful for us. … So, a taproot grows vertically in the ground,” she explains. “It is the main root, but what it does is it creates space for the other roots to grow from it. And those roots go out and get the necessary resources. We wanted to be that for our community.” To that end, she and Reggie seek out tasty, nutritious products from Alabama makers and farmers, “bring them to Hoover and, hopefully, it’ll allow other people to connect with these good resources.”

From the beginning, it was a family effort. “I am most proud of my family,” Michelle says. “We worked really hard together. Even before it opened up. My boys (they have three) were over here putting up the backdrop and helping to paint. My husband had a great vision. He is the cook in our house, right? He is the one who can put these things together … and then I taste them, and they’re wonderful. … It really does feel like a family project – that we’ve been able to have all hands on deck and really create something meaningful.”

This idea of teamwork making the dream work, is something Reggie certainly knows firsthand. No one, he says, becomes successful on their own. “Anyone you’ve ever seen who’s successful – anyone – they’ve had help.”

So, when he was asked to join a group of seasoned Alabama food professionals for a panel discussion at the recent International Association of Culinary Professionals’ annual conference, which drew visitors from all over the world to Birmingham, he felt fortunate and humbled. He was on the stage with Justin Hill of Eastaboga Bee Co., whom he counts as a friend. “I wouldn’t know him if we weren’t going down this journey,” Reggie says, adding that he’s grateful for these new friendships, for being a part of our state’s food community.

“It’s priceless to be in those circles,” he says, “and hear their wins and losses, hear the good, the bad and the ugly. You can get 20 years of knowledge, you know, in a very short amount of time if you’re willing to be quiet and listen.”

These kinds of connections, both personal and within the larger community, go back to the mission statement from the dream board. Reggie says he sees Taproot’s mantra of “love people, feed people, connect people” play out often at the café.

He mentions a recent Saturday. “There was a family in here. They were sitting right there, actually, and their kids were sitting there playing tic-tac-toe. They were like, ‘Why did y’all put these games on the tables?’ Well, because of that, right? That’s why.” Their phones were in their pockets, Reggie continues, and they were playing games together. “They’re laughing, and their dad is laughing. Their mom is laughing, and it’s creating an environment that, I think, is healthier, that is better than a lot of what we get to experience these days. I know it won’t happen without intentionality,” he says.

It’s happy encounters like this that matter – especially right now with the supply chain disruptions and staffing issues and pandemic-related problems that all restaurant owners are experiencing, Reggie says. “I try to let those things not overshadow all the blessings that we experience here. You still have this mindset that this is a blessing and you’re sharing it. That remains. It’s not going away.”

Follow Taproot Café on Instagram and on Facebook.

Susan Swagler has written about food and restaurants for more than three decades. She shares food, books, travel and more at www.savor.blog. Susan is a founding member of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of women leaders in food, wine and hospitality.

(Courtesy of Alabama Newscenter)

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