Joy Smith made a name for herself with her creamy cheesecakes, but her new café offers plenty of savory treats, too.
Smith is the chef-owner of Sorelle Café, tucked into Homewood’s close-knit Edgewood neighborhood. She opened her café in August, and the cozy and comfortable storefront on Broadway (where Lag’s Eatery used to be) is a dream fully and deliciously realized. It’s also the natural progression of a multifaceted business Smith started in 2017 with a single space in the West Homewood Farmers Market.
She quickly built a name and a clientele and moved to the bigger, busier Saturday Market at Pepper Place. She found retail outlets in local Piggly Wiggly stores and at Smiley Brothers Specialty Foods in Pelham. She catered for friends and family.
Smith still has the catering company – offering everything from pick-up and delivery breakfast, lunches and dinners to full-service big events like weddings “with servers and all the bells and whistles” – as well as the retail business. But now she also has a place of her own.
“This whole thing has been a fantasy since I was seven,” she says. “When the space came open, I made the leap. It was a leap of faith, too. It’s definitely not lost on me that I’m on this side of the glass. … It’s a lot of work, but I’m fully aware of the blessings of it and I’m thankful.”
The café has been “very well received,” Smith says. “Walk in; look in the cooler; grab your breakfast, lunch or dinner; and leave happy.” Customers can eat at the café, inside or outside. “People can come and sit at my pie counter and enjoy a salad, sandwich or a slice of cheesecake. I’m working on a good cup of coffee and hopefully, eventually, a glass of wine.”
The café offers grab-and-go meals like grilled ginger-lime chicken with confetti rice and cilantro aioli, tenderloin medallions with creamy polenta and mustard-sage sauce, classic lasagna and a neighborhood favorite – meatloaf muffins and mashed potatoes. “They always say, ‘you can’t, please everyone,’ but I’m going to sure try,” Smith says.
Inventive dishes offer a variety of tastes and textures. Customers can chew on their favorite colors, with a blue salad (baby spinach, blue cheese, blueberries, dried cherries and a cherry vinaigrette), a red salad (mixed greens, roasted red peppers, strawberries, goat cheese, sesame crunchies and sesame-red wine vinaigrette) an orange salad (romaine, carrots, oranges, grapefruit, toasted almonds and a ginger-citrus vinaigrette) and a green salad (baby spinach, cucumber, green grapes, goat cheese, currants, toasted almonds and a basil green goddess dressing).
Vegetarian options range from a veggie pot pie with rutabaga, russet potatoes and cannellini; to mushroom enchiladas with spinach, peppers, onions and avocado cream; to vegetable lasagna with spinach, squash and mushrooms.
Most meals are conveniently packaged for two, four or six people, so families have choices. “Another thing I think sets us apart is some of our dishes can be utilized in more than one way,” Smith says. “Like our roasted veggie pesto pasta is a little side dish that is great with our sliders for lunch. But also, you can heat that dish up. I’m the only one in my family that eats shrimp, so I’ll throw a handful of shrimp in, throw the pasta in, three minutes and you’ve got a beautiful dinner.”
Smith says she tries to buy from local purveyors as much as possible – fresh eggs from Bois d’ Arc Farm (aka BDA Farm) in Uniontown go into her quiches and frittatas. She’s working with Birmingham’s Red Bike Coffee, and she cooks with organic produce and grains.
Her cheesecake deserves a few words.
“It’s been in our family for a long time,” she says. “It’s not a New York-style cheesecake. It’s baked twice in two different layers. It has a sour cream layer and a cream cheese layer. Super light and creamy, not really sweet. It goes great with fresh fruit. It has a graham-cracker crust made with tons of butter and lots of love.”
The café space is inviting. Her pie counter is a beautiful, silky-smooth and huge live-edge piece of cherry wood. You might smell the aroma of homemade stock bubbling on the stove in the kitchen. Refrigerated cases (painted with flowers) hold grab-and-go cheesecakes, casseroles, entrees, sides and salads. Lush plants thrive among the upholstered wingback chairs and antique tables. “I kept saying, ‘I don’t want metal seats. I don’t want cement on the floor. I don’t want hard surfaces.’ … I wanted it to feel cozy – a place where you want to hang out.”
Be sure to take a look at the miniature kitchen diorama Smith’s sister created for her, and marvel at the tiny bowls and pans, the little dishes drying on a rack, the pies, the clock that looks like the clock Smith remembers from her childhood, the miniscule reading glasses scattered here and there.
It’s details like this that make Sorelle special. Even the name of her business is meaningful – Sorelle translates to “sister” in Italian. Smith says she relied upon the good advice of great friends when she was getting started. One friend, especially, would always encourage her to prioritize her goals.
“When I was trying to come up with a logo, I was like, OK, ‘What is the most important thing to me?’ And it’s relationships. It’s your tribe; it’s your sisterhood. It’s family and friends. So, that’s where Sorelle came from. I wanted to build a place where (we) could gather and eat a good meal and have fellowship together.”
She shares her café space with a sister of sorts. Both Smith and Fanolua Gulas are members of the Birmingham chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, which offers mentoring and scholarships and grants to women pursuing culinary careers.
“I’m so excited,” Smith says about Gulas, who owns The Greek Kouzina, which lots of people know from Pepper Place. “She makes the best melt-in-your-mouth baklava and spanakopita – beautiful triangles of spanakopita.”
Smith says, “What matters most in this world is relationships. And I’m going to brag a little bit. Most people say that they’re honored to have one good friend in the world. I am beyond blessed, because I have handfuls of good friends and support. Meeting other women – and we bond so quickly – I love to support other people and other women. I’m so proud that I have a really good, big support system. That’s what it’s all about.”
Smith is self-trained with plenty of restaurant experience – back of the house and front, too.
“My mom was a single mom. … She was a nurse and worked all the time. But she cooked all of our meals – homemade bread, pies, all the good stuff. I just grew up next to her. She would often get dinner started and leave a note, you know, ‘the potatoes are in the water; just boil them and mash them.’ So I’ve been cooking forever.” She started sharing her love of food early, too, inviting friends over after school for a bite of whatever was left over from the night before.
Her first job was in a small-town bar. “I worked one night dishwashing and moved up so fast. They wanted me to be the manager in … three months at 16 years old. It was crazy.”
Until recently, Smith had been operating out of a commercial kitchen (which was hard for her customers to find); these days she makes new friends daily as she carves out her own place in the neighborhood. A water station out front draws runners who often return for lunch or dinner; there are dog biscuits and a water bowl there, too.
She says being in Homewood means a lot to her. “It’s my favorite, favorite thing. I’m so honored to be here and to serve this community. I’ve lived in Homewood for 23 years. … meeting the people walking in the door, and they say, ‘I live right up the street.’ Their kids come in. I have some games stuffed away for the kids. … I’ve had people come in on their lunch break and bring out their computer; a couple people that I know who are writers have used the space.”
When asked what she does best, Smith simply says: “Feed people. Yeah. Mind, body and soul. That’s what I hear. That’s what I feel.
“I love to take care of people. I love to feed people, so I don’t even have to make the beautiful … whatever, if I’m feeding you and you’re saying ‘ummm’ and we’re talking and you’re enjoying your experience, it fills me up.”
Smith says she wants people to know the care she takes preparing their food – whether they get it from a grocery shelf, during a catering event or at her café.
“I want everybody to love the food. I want them to know that it was thoughtfully prepared with intention and love. I hope it’s more than just food, though. I hope it’s a connection because that, to me, is what it’s all about.”
903 Broadway St., Homewood, AL 35209
11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)