By Christiana Roussel
Photos by Mary Fehr
“If you build it, they will come.”
We’re all familiar with that famous line from the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams, referring to the baseball diamond he constructs, smack dab in the middle of his Iowa corn fields. Jennifer Ryan can readily identify with the emotions that drive a person to create something, where that thing they are seeking does not already exist. For Kevin Costner’s character, it was a place to play ball with his father. For Jennifer, The BLUEROOT Company was founded and exists to serve a community—nutritionally and beyond.
The menu at BLUEROOT evolves seasonally but always features salads and bowls teeming with flavor and texture like the Moroccan Delight or Kale Caesar; soups and sides loaded with naturally derived probiotics; protein boxes for clean snacking; and sweet treats such as dark chocolate tahini brownies or cashew butter cookies. To be clear, this is not twigs-and-nuts food – this is visually arresting, simply elegant cuisine that fuels body, mind and soul.
A California native, Jennifer and her husband moved to the Magic City when he accepted a position with Andrews Sports Medicine. Birmingham’s legendary food scene was already on her radar, and the couple relished dining out at all the city’s culinary hot spots. And yet, Jennifer saw a void here in the availability of nutrient-dense, ethically and locally sourced, delicious grab-and-go food. So, she scratched out her version of that proverbial baseball field, in a pop-up sort of space at Pepper Place Market. Joining forces with James Beard award-winning chef Robin Bashinsky (see sidebar), she found connection with her new-found community here in Birmingham, gaining loyal fans and willing ambassadors for her concept all along the way.
One of BLUEROOT’s mightiest coups came in late 2019 in the form of winning The Big Pitch, sponsored by REV Birmingham. No one could have guessed at the time that the funds garnered from that entrepreneurial competition, would be such a balm in an era of pandemic, in addition to serving as a launchpad for the next chapter of BLUEROOT. Jennifer had a desire to take her concept beyond the Pepper Place Market location and longed for greater exposure. Enter Patina shop owner Melanie Pounds, whom Jennifer credits with the vision of carving her 180-square-foot, double-Dutch-door storefront in Mountain Brook Village, out of a former storage closet, for an Outpost.
But the collaboration did not stop there.
Jennifer is effusive in extolling the benefits of living and working in a town of our size – meaning both Birmingham and more specifically, Mountain Brook. “You know, I’ve lived in New York City and I’m from Los Angeles, and those big cities just don’t have the same almost proverbial ‘hug’ for the entrepreneur,” she says. “And here in Birmingham, it is possible–the scale, the focus on entrepreneurialism and the size of the town makes it more accessible. All of those things helped us launch but then The Big Pitch really took us to the next level—by allowing us speak to a new group of people and tap into the community, broader than just the little bubbles we were in, which is really important.” Taking the idea of the storefront location to Mountain Brook Mayor Stewart Welch and to the Mountain Brook Chamber’s Suzan Doidge, Jennifer and her team were met with a very atypical government response: “How can we help make this happen?” And they meant it.
That is the spirit of community that underpins the BLUEROOT ethos, one that emanates from Jennifer’s tiny level-one, operational take-out space that meets all of the city fire, water and health requirements. As we met for this interview, Jennifer continued to serve walk-up clients until closing time and beyond. She loves that her adopted home is a place where “people who are walking by or riding their bikes will just stop and poke their heads in and say, “Hey, I’m not familiar with who you are or what you do. Tell me more!” And then they would take three minutes to hear our story.”
One of those customers, BLUEROOT regular and Mountain Brook resident Lanier Isom stopped by for her pick-up while we were chatting. What does she appreciate? “It is so easy to pop in and get what I want for dinner,” Lanier says. “Just amazing food, amazing people and I can’t get enough of it! Honestly, I would love for Jennifer to have a whole restaurant with her food!”
Jennifer’s eyes are naturally bright, but they twinkle when Lanier mentions the restaurant notion, knowing that she has plans to have her own brick-and-mortar location in 2021 back at Pepper Place. “When we open our restaurant, we will have had the luxury that most restaurants don’t have of six to eight months of experimentation and training staff, working on the menu, developing operations to be faster and smarter,” she says. “This is our preamble.”
BLUEROOT’s Mountain Brook Village Outpost pick-up window at 2822 Petticoat Lane is open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Find their menu and more at bluerootco.com and follow updates @bluerootco on Instagram and Facebook.
BLUEROOT’s Quick + Simple Lemon Vinaigrette
This twist on a kitchen staple leverages citrus and fresh herbs for a versatile, fail-safe option to drizzle on salads, grilled meats or roasted veggies.
- 6 tablespoons minced shallot
- 6 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 ½ tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 1 ½ tablespoons honey
- 1 tablespoon chopped thyme
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- ¾ cup olive oil
Whisk everything EXCEPT olive oil together in a bowl. Let mixture stand for 10 minutes. Slowly drizzle in oil while whisking constantly.
WHO IS ROBIN BASHINSKY?
Jennifer Ryan is one of those rare leaders who is selfish in accepting blame and generous in sharing the credit for work well-done. Spend just a few minutes with this woman, with a background in finance and technology, and she is quick to call out the chef whom she credits with so much of the execution of her vision, Robin Bashinsky.
Robin has a background in fine dining and worked locally at both daniel george and Hot & Hot Fish Club. He also spent time developing and testing recipes at Cooking Light Magazine, before it shuttered in the Meredith Corporation acquisition. But beyond what his resume says, Jennifer is effusive in the other qualities he brings to BLUEROOT: “His fingerprints are all over everything that is beautiful in this business. When I come to him with crazy menu ideas, he might roll his eyes in secret, but he always comes back with something wild and creative. It is a combination of his creativity, his appreciation for the food and the sourcing and his general belief in promoting a healthier society, through food and mental health. I have not seen that trifecta in anyone else in this business. His sense of compassion, leadership and self-awareness are not traits I encounter a lot in this business.”
FUELING OUR COMMUNITY
More than just a tagline, this is a phrase that Jennifer Ryan and her team put into action whenever and wherever possible. In 2020, that was no small undertaking but as part of their mission, the work continues in these ways:
- Wise Words from Women I Love—In this Instagram-based miniseries, Jennifer speaks with women who have shaped or inspired her in various ways. Many of these subjects are local, and given Jennifer’s predilection for finding inspiration at every turn, the series will definitely have life in 2021 and beyond.
- Sunday Supper Club – Jennifer and Robin shared healthy recipes with Instagram followers to highlight the farmers from which they source their ingredients. ‘Grammers were encouraged to source from the same purveyors and cook along with the duo in the 15-minute segments.
- Supporting the YWCA – BLUEROOT teamed up with other local business sponsors to feed the guests of the YWCA of Central Alabama, the women and children displaced from their homes due to abuse and domestic violence.