It is not every day that I get the chance to park on a giant carrot. Arriving at Wooster’s Local Roots Market & Café for the first time, I discovered each space in their ample parking lot painted with its own carsized, hand-painted carrot, complete with leafy green top. Exiting my car, I had to wonder—what sort of place offers that kind of welcome?
Local Roots is a market, café, community gathering space, producer/consumer cooperative, and shareduse kitchen. While the notion of being all of these things may seem overly ambitious, the tone at Local Roots is not harried or overachieving, but welcoming and optimistic instead. Founded in 2009 by a group of volunteer farmers, growers, bakers, and residents, Local Roots was built to fill a gap in the community.
“We saw that there was a different way to eat,” says founding member and assistant market manager Jessica Eikleberry. “People all over were making and growing the foods I wanted to eat and driving it to larger markets. I was a shopper locally who couldn’t buy it.”
Contrary to common practice of planning for perfection before taking a first step, the founders of Local Roots didn’t allow lack of precedent to deter their efforts. Beginning first as a market cooperative that was open when there was someone available to staff it, Local Roots has evolved into the multifaceted endeavor it is today. While the market and café are open to the public, its 1,500 members enjoy a loyalty program, select merchandise discounts, and the opportunity to volunteer, serve on the board of directors, and vote in annual elections.
“There is nothing we can do that’s enough to show what our members mean to us,” says Eikleberry. Membership to Local Roots is paid for either in cash or volunteer time, such as working in the café, completing market projects, or decorating parking spaces.
Local Roots prides itself on being truly local not only geographically, but also in forging connections between consumers and the stories behind the products. About 150 Ohio vendors partner with Local Roots, offering an ever-changing inventory according to seasonality and the circumstances of the growers.
“Food has a story, and we can tell you a story about each product,” says Eikleberry. “We don’t know what we’re going to have until it walks in the door.”
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that discarded food is the largest contributor to landfills and incinerators in the United States. Local Roots founders recognized this problem as well as a deficiency in the number of consumers who know how to cook with the ingredients they purchase. The Café at Local Roots was established to address these issues, aiming to reduce waste while introducing customers to meals made simply.
Each day, café staff members prepare dishes from scratch using in-house seasonal products that are either in excess or may be imperfect and might otherwise go to waste. The ever-changing menu offers staples, such as salad, sandwiches, and pizza, as well as vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options. Eikleberry and café/commercial kitchen manager Jamie Smetzer often see customers whose first visit to Local Roots follows a disconcerting doctor’s appointment or exposure to a food-related documentary. Not knowing where to begin, these customers are welcomed into an environment that supports healthy choices.
“Here, we offer the conversation,” Smetzer says.
Local Roots has evolved in synchronicity with its community. As time passed, staff and volunteers began to see a need to process and preserve their bounty of locally grown foods, while members interested in starting their own food-based businesses needed a starting point. After obtaining a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant in 2011, work began to create a shared-use kitchen at Local Roots, with the facility opening in 2014.
Smetzer has been involved in this process from both sides of the counter—as both staff and part of the first team—to see a product through from concept to the potential for nationwide distribution. Smetzer and her husband, Joshua Sheets, created their original Ol’ Dirty Sheets Hot Sauce with the support of Local Roots and its kitchen, and now assist other Local Roots members interested in creating their own products.
“It’s a great support system for small businesses that need a place to start,” Smetzer says. “Until you start, you don’t know what needs to change.”
The Local Roots kitchen has generated businesses offering bagels, hummus, international foods, and has even launched a food truck. While working for Frito Lay in Wooster, resident Adam Schwieterman found himself inspired by local entrepreneurs to pursue his own business via the Local Roots kitchen. With a bit of seed money and a small business loan, Schwieterman developed a handful of quality menu items in the communal kitchen. He launched Umami Bites, an Asian-fusion street food trailer. He now travels the music festival circuit offering spring rolls, pot stickers, and wonton tacos to fellow music lovers across the nation.
“They are phenomenally delicious,” says music aficionado and Umami Bites fan Alyssa Moody of Washington, D.C.
Schwieterman gives credit to Local Roots for its contributions to his success.
“When you go there, you find a stronger sense of community and support than anywhere else I’ve been. I don’t know if we’d be where we are today without Local Roots,” he says.
An Open Kitchen event will be held October 8, noon–2pm to enable prospective kitchen users to meet producers who began their businesses at Local Roots. Foodies can shop the Local Roots Market Monday–Friday, 10am–6pm and Saturday, 10am–5pm and eat at the Café Tuesday–Saturday, 11am–2pm. LocalRootsWooster.com.
Want to learn more about the local food scene in Wooster? Book a culinary adventure with Wooster Food Tours. Find details at WoosterFoodTours.com.