“There’s something that is true in this town: Collaboration wins over competition every time,” says Jennifer Ryan, owner of BLUEROOT Co. “And the people who figure that out sooner, understand Birmingham.”
Ryan, from Southern California by way of New York City, figured this out pretty quickly when she came to the Magic City six years ago with her husband for his job. Then she took that understanding and became part of this city’s culinary community—fueling it with healthy and convenient foods at her fast-casual BLUEROOT café at Pepper Place; stocking items from local female makers in that retail space; and partnering with other women entrepreneurs in the food industry to create new businesses and move forward alongside them.
Ryan is a problem solver who is not afraid to take risks.
When she saw that Birmingham’s impressive culinary scene didn’t have a place for foods that are nutrition-dense; made with fresh, local ingredients; and are quick and convenient, she created a place for that.
She came up with the idea for BLUEROOT, hired James Beard Award-winning chef (and Birmingham native) Robin Bashinsky and, in the spring of 2019, they opened a pop-up at The Market at Pepper Place, serving a small menu of quick, clean foods using fresh produce and proteins from the farmers selling next to her.
It was both lab and incubator.
“Not only were we able to speak directly with the community, because these were people who cared about local—they were showing up to the farmers’ markets on the weekends—we also were able to sit side-by-side with farmers, purveyors, people who are in the agricultural scene and talk to them and understand their practices and what they cared about. And being able to sell our products next to the very farmer that was supplying our goods was not only meaningful but also impactful for the community. They got to see that chain of events in action. That synergy was really what powered us to take the next step.”
Ryan was planning to build a brick-and-mortar space and expand her menu when Covid-19 hit. When the situation was most bleak, she received a $5,000 grant from the Birmingham Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, a philanthropic organization of local women leaders in food and hospitality, that allowed Ryan to keep her people on payroll during the shutdown. Then she moved forward with what she calls “a Hail Mary pass.” In July of 2020, she turned a closet in a Mountain Brook shop into a walk-up window for her foods. She called it the Outpost. “It was Covid-friendly, and it really enabled people to continue to access healthy food,” she says. “It was a way we could keep supporting the farmers and we could keep people on the payroll.”
Fast-forward to now, and Ryan has a bright, beautiful flagship BLUEROOT café back where she started—at Pepper Place. Open since August of 2021, it’s an airy space with lots of natural light, high ceilings and a living wall of plants from Caitlin Hastings of Botanica. Elsewhere, crisp white walls showcase (for free) paintings from local artists. Right now, that artist is Chip Ghigna, and his soothing landscapes and organic abstracts fit right in. Each piece has a QR code. If you want to buy something, just contact the artist directly. Carrie Pittman Hill will be the next featured artist.
If you eat inside, you’ll sit at tables made by Manufacture Good (formerly Magic City Woodworks). There’s seating outside under umbrellas on the patio—especially nice during the farmers’ market. A fast-moving line for orders makes grab-and-go quick and easy.
The BLUEROOT menu features salads, bowls, burgers, soups, protein boxes and superfood snacks. The Santa Fe bowl is, by far, the best seller. It’s a colorful combination of black beans, quinoa, spring mix, smoky chipotle chicken with spiced sweet potatoes, cumin pumpkin seeds, goat cheese and a spicy chipotle vinaigrette. “If you’ve never eaten at BLUEROOT and you’re looking for an entry point into eating healthy, it’s hearty and wonderful,” Ryan says.
“The Farmstand—the salad that’s been on the menu from the beginning—is the classic for a reason,” she says. “It’s a showstopper of seasonal goods. Right now, we’ve got beets and carrots and cucumbers and cherry tomatoes dressed with that beautiful house-made creamy dill dressing, house-made spiced pecans, grilled chicken. It screams everything that BLUEROOT is about.”
The BLUEROOT burger, the one they started with when the plant-based burgers were only available on Fridays (now there are five on the regular menu with more to come soon), is another popular choice with its creamy dill, pickled onions, arugula and goat cheese. The Spicy Pacific burger with mango slaw, tomato jam and basil is something you won’t find anywhere else.
Even the most inventive dishes are prepared simply here. Olive oil. Salt. Pepper.
“I think that’s been a real joy for people to find that simply prepared foods can taste amazing,” Ryan says. “I think we do simple best. Less is more for us. We found beautiful combinations because Robin’s brain fires in such a creative way that he’s able to pull from all of his experiences and lean on the local goods and craft something beautiful. But at the end of the day, it’s simply prepared goods that have a little twist.” There’s even a rice krispy treat that’s good for you.
“The experience at BLUEROOT is meant to fuel you,” Ryan says. “It’s meant to encourage you to feel good about yourself. Choosing healthy foods is just a piece of the puzzle here. I want people to walk in and feel welcomed. I want people to walk out and feel ready to go.”
She sources seasonally from farmers like Ireland Farms , Owls Hollow Farm and BDA Farm. She also made space in her shop for local goods from women-run businesses like Nancey Legg’s Better Kombucha and Harvest Roots, owned by Lindsay Whiteaker. She has a local female coffee purveyor coming on soon, too.
This openness to collaboration has led to two new businesses for Ryan and other female entrepreneurs.
Ryan realized there was an opportunity to use the Outpost, which had served its purpose, to support other women in the culinary space. So, about six months ago, the Outpost became Teenie’s Take-Home Market, owned by Tina Liollio.
“Tina has taken her brain power and acumen and experience and launched Teenie’s Take-Home Market, which is Mediterranean meals—things that people have been asking BLUEROOT for, but it wasn’t what we did and we knew someone out there did. Well, turns out, Tina, who’s incredible, does that,” Ryan says.
“We’re continuing to expand. Leaning on Tina’s experience and ability to run that Outpost now as Teenie’s Take-Home Market to not only share her favorites, her culinary experience with the community but also find space for other women. And she’s made that space, and it’s been really, really incredible to watch.”
So, in addition to the scratch-made, take-and-bake family meals (dishes that reflect Liollio’s Sicilian and Greek heritage), you’ll find delicious Break-Up Cookies from another local women entrepreneur, Emily Neighbors Hall; Praveena Sundarraj’s Dryft Coffee; Kelli Caulfield’s bottled remoulade sauce (her company is NOLA-Ice/Broad Street Peaux Boys) as well as BLUEROOT favorites like soup, protein boxes, chicken salad and sweet treats.
These culinary ventures have been so successful, it’s hard to imagine that Ryan didn’t have any food experience prior to them. Her background is in finance and tech. Facing problems with staffing shortages during the pandemic, she recently put that expertise to work in a collaboration with local chef Lindsey Noto who is the Culinary Specialist for Sysco. The two teamed up to co-found Croux, an app that connects talent with hospitality opportunities.
“When we teamed up with three other people to form Croux a year and a half ago, it was a wild idea,” Ryan says. “Each of us had a day job, but we were all fighting the great resignation while trying to support each other in this really difficult moment. When everybody else in the world thought that the pandemic was over, we were still feeling the hangover effects. And together Lindsey and these three other folks—Kenny Kung, Brett Ables and Stewart Price—and I teamed up to craft Croux. It was Lindsey who was really able to go into the hospitality space and earn the trust of the people working.”
The team effort was key.
“I did not bring 20 years of hospitality experience. I did not bring chef-owner-operator acumen. I did not bring a resume that screamed ‘hospitality industry veteran.’ Lindsey did. And she had the authenticity, the grit, the drive, and the referrals and recommendations across the board around the state and around this region. For me, I had finance under my belt and working at a tech company under my belt, and we brought these two elements together to be able to not only solve a problem but solve it in a new way,” Ryan says.
“We built the app for the talent. People think we built it for the restaurants and the event venues and the catering companies, and we did. It’s mutually beneficial. But at the end of the day, the heartbeat behind everything that we do is for the talent, and that’s where Lindsey’s experience and authenticity really worked to earn the trust of 3,000 talent. That’s how big our community is with Croux.”
And it’s getting bigger.
“We move into Atlanta next month …. We have a strong community of talent ready and willing to work. We have businesses that now they’re afforded the ability to run at top speed; they’re thriving because they have the ability to staff up as they need. We are launched in four markets now and expanding quickly.”
The app not only helps local businesses staff up, but it also impacts communities in important economic ways.
“Croux is supporting traditional restaurants, bars, event venues but also catering companies, golf and country clubs and valet companies,” Ryan says. This provides jobs and keeps businesses running. But Croux also helps staff larger events. “When we support these big-scale events—Sloss Furnace Fest, a festival, a concert—those are massively important events for the communities in which those events operate from a taxpayer perspective, right? So, making sure they’re successful—we’re bringing people in, we’re giving them a good experience—all starts with the people that are behind the scenes. And so, ensuring that those companies, those events are teed up for success, really ensures that tax dollars continue to flow into those communities, which again has a pay-it-forward effect. Great for individuals, great for these businesses, great for these communities.”
It’s all connected, she says. It’s also all about connections.
“The truth is, I’m not from here,” Ryan says. “And so, when my husband and I decided to stay here in Birmingham—where we had no family, no friends, we had just gotten married, didn’t have children yet—we committed to ourselves that we weren’t just gonna exist here. We were really going to live here. We’re gonna throw ourselves into it and build a community, and part of building a community meant we were actually going to go establish relationships that were meaningful. And that took it a step further when we opened BLUEROOT and then Croux.
“I think, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned so specifically that any endeavors are not solo ventures. Any endeavors worth pursuing, any endeavors that have any amount of success, it’s always a collaborative effort.
“Women have been particularly powerful in my own corporate career—women sponsors, women mentors, women colleagues, women who are working for me. … There were more women than I can count who decided to raise a flag for me or to create space for me or to ask my opinion, or to encourage me to take a leap.
“I knew they were here in Birmingham. It was just a matter of finding them. But the thing about Birmingham is: It’s small enough that once, you know one, two or three, these incredible people—women—start to introduce you to the fabric that binds together the community of women here. … From (our) conversations stemmed relationships, from those relationships stemmed ideas, from those ideas stemmed joint ventures,” she says.
“Somebody once told me that Birmingham is a community that cares about community, and it’s true. So, taking the risk wasn’t hard once I recognized where I was taking the risk. People were going to open the doors; people were going to open their hearts and be helpful. … And the thing about Birmingham is I’ve never heard ‘no’ from a woman in this town when I’ve asked for anything small or big. And it’s encouraged me to not only keep asking, but to turn around and give back. Because now I have women asking me for help—and I don’t think I’m in a position to give very much help or advice yet—but I’ve got to pay it forward because so many decided to take a minute and pay it onward to me.”
BLUEROOT Co. at Pepper Place
2829 2nd Avenue S,
Birmingham, AL 35233
Hours: Monday to Friday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. When the farmers’ market is back in full swing beginning in April, the café will be open on Saturday from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
2822 Petticoat Lane,
Mountain Brook, AL 35223
Hours: Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.