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November 11, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Leigh Lockhart likes to get dirty. Gardening (dirty), helping with the dishes at her restaurant, Main Squeeze (dirtier), and composting the restaurant’s trash in her backyard (dirtiest) makes getting dirty easy. What hasn’t been easy for Lockhart and Main Squeeze is staying open for business.
It is hard to believe that in a town as granola as Columbia, Main Squeeze is one of the only all-natural restaurants. But maybe that’s why it’s special to so many of its customers.
Every November for the past two years, a group of Main Squeeze supporters has rallied around Lockhart. The power of the group’s aggressive e-mail campaigning has provided hope and financial support to Lockhart — enough to keep Main Squeeze up and running.
Having customers sustain Main Squeeze is only one part of the sustainable business model that Lockhart uses. This is where some of the dirt comes in. For Lockhart, this also means composting all food waste, recycling, providing earth-friendly packaging, purchasing mostly organic and locally grown Missouri products and displaying local art. Lockhart has kept this model up for the past 12 years. It hasn’t been without struggles, but it has been doable.
Sustainable or not, the restaurant business in Columbia has faced tough times.
Richard Walls, owner and general manager of Boone Tavern and president of Columbia’s chapter of the Missouri Restaurant Association, says the economy hasn’t been kind to businesses in Columbia. Walls says that in terms of newer restaurants, growth has slowed in the past couple of years. “About two years ago, 15-20 restaurants closed down,” Walls says.
Main Squeeze has been near closing for two years, but each year the customers have become the cafe’s champion.
In November 2008, Lockhart was feeling the financial squeeze and didn’t see any other way out but to seek help from her customers to stay in business. The financial collapse of the country’s loan providers left businesses like hers in a lurch. “I had tried the loan companies to get advances, but the credit market had completely dried up,” Lockhart says. “I had already tapped my family.”
Twelve years ago was the first time she got a little help from her friends when she initiated a letter-writing fundraiser to launch Main Squeeze. She figured, “Why not try it again?”
“What I did was write a letter to my really good customers that I thought cared enough about my business and cared enough that it stayed in business that they might be willing to loan me some money,” Lockhart says. “I was able to raise about $25,000.” Lockhart is paying interest on those personal loans.
In November 2009, Lockhart again started to feel the pinch.
She had a tough conversation with her accountant about her options. “I called her one day, and I said, ‘When do I call it quits?’” Lockhart says. “‘How would I know how far in debt should I get?’”
Jan Thompson, Lockhart’s accountant, wouldn’t have it. Thompson sent an e-mail to about 20 friends, and she encouraged them to support Main Squeeze. One of those friends was Barbie Reid.
“She has a wonderful business for our community,” Reid says. “She supports our community, and she supports it on multiple layers. She looks at recycling. She looks at how to partner with other local businesses. She really wants to build our health and nutrition knowledge, and she does that through her business.”
Mike Martin, a local blogger, heard about the e-mail campaign and on Dec. 13, 2009, wrote a piece about Main Squeeze on his blog, The Columbia Heart Beat.
“The next three days after his article came out, we were slammed,” Lockhart says. “His article was pretty much: ‘Hey, the little guy is trying to make it; go help her out.’ People just really rallied and that’s … It makes me cry when I think about it … If it really hadn’t been for all that, then who knows what would have happened?”
Collaborating customers might just be the heartbeat of Lockhart’s sustainable business model, but the environment also jazzes up sustainability, and that is the mission Lockhart is so passionate about.
Lockhart and her composting help solve the pesky problem of the restaurant’s leftovers. Repurposing yesterday’s good stuff is what composting is all about. It might be a little more work for Lockhart and her employees, but it is worth it.
“Every day, I have a dishwasher who is scraping all of the waste into the compost bin,” Lockhart says. “For most places, everything just goes into the trash. Once we get it all accumulated once a week, a couple of employees pick it up in my pickup truck, take it back to my house, dump it in the compost pile, mix in carbon materials like leaves, manure and mulch and stuff. Then they bring the bins back, and they have to be rinsed out, so that is extra labor where as most business will just pay someone to walk the trash to the Dumpster. It is a lot more work involved.”
Composting is dirty. To Lockhart, the dirtier the better.
“The composting for us is incredibly valuable because it makes super good dirt and we move that dirt onto the garden every year,” Lockhart says. “So we grow our big garden that produces tomatoes, peppers, basil and zucchini and squash.”
Unfortunately, Lockhart’s garden can’t completely support Main Squeeze’s produce needs. But then again, dependability is just another piece of the sustainable puzzle. Lockhart depends on 16-20 local farms and food manufacturers. For one of these food makers, Share-Life Farms, Main Squeeze has spent eight years with Share-Life Farms. During growing season 30-40 percent of the restaurant’s food budget it spent locally. Share-Life Farms is a family farm in Marshall, an hour west of Columbia. The farm’s owners, Jim and Rose Thomas, sell their produce at the Columbia Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. Main Squeeze depends on Share-Life Farms’ produce to make its dishes fresh and local.
Supplies, food and compost are an important part at the sustainable heap, Main Squeeze includes more for its sustainable model.
“Labor is really my biggest expense,” Lockhart says. “That’s a struggle, too, because I feel like people deserve to earn a living wage, and minimum wage is just not a living wage. Nobody can pay their bills on that, so a real challenge for me is watching these kids work so hard and not being able to reward them in the way I feel like they really deserve.”
Working at Main Squeeze is not about the money. Employee and longtime patron Sean Pollock sees it as more than just earning a paycheck. Pollock’s responsibilities have included food prep, dishwashing, cooking and various odd jobs such as helping Lockhart with her compost pile at her house and a lot of gardening.
“I really enjoy the employee benefits of having good, healthy food,” Pollock says. “Like most restaurant jobs, you get a meal. It is nice to know that it is healthy. I also like the employees, the environment and the ethics of it.”
While the customers and employees continue to help Main Squeeze stay open, Walls makes some suggestions for success.
“Do what you do as well as you possibly can,” Walls says. “Tell as many people as you possibly can about it. Do that over and over again. Just really be responsive to your customers’ needs — finding out what they want and providing that service for them.”
Lockhart has already been doing that. She is in-tune with the community, with her customers, with her employees and with the food she serves.
“I believe that if your intention is good and your heart is in the right place and you work really hard, it will work,” Lockhart says.