Mix together a cup of grandmotherly inspiration, a spoonful of Jewish tradition, two bubbly cousins, a distinct neighborly vibe—oh, and perhaps some flour and sugar. Toss it (gently) into the oven, and out comes Grassroots Gourmet, all warm, friendly and ready to devour.
In a bright, airy space on Rhode Island Avenue, this open-kitchen bakery is all of the above and more. The women who run Grassroots, Sara Fatell and Jamilyah Smith-Kanze, are cousins, co-owners, neighbors and community members, and act just as much like family as businesswomen.
Like many small businesses, this one grew out of hard work, basements and cramped borrowed spaces. Back in 2009, Sara had a (buttercream) dream. Working in the very-DC world of progressive politics, she’d often bake as stress relief. Once she became that person whose skills were requested for every coworker’s birthday party, she realized it might be time for a career switch.
Enter familial inspiration and assistance. In 2010, as Sara was baking up a continuously bigger storm, cousin Jamilyah stepped in. (It helps that their grandmothers, who are sisters, still live a few floors apart in the same building in Philadelphia.) With this reinforcement, they knew they had to find a real brick-and-mortar space. Downtown wouldn’t do; they wanted a spot where they could get to know each customer. Being Bloomingdale residents, when a space opened right on Rhode Island Avenue, NW, they jumped at the sweet opportunity. And a day before Thanksgiving 2012, cakes and pies at the ready, they opened their doors.
Grassroots is foremost a family-oriented space. Pictures of relatives dot the walls; Mom’s cake stand from a recent trip graces the front counter and everyone has a special item. Sara’s mom, for example, loves the rugelach. Apple Bundt cake is named for beloved Aunt Nat, and Kathy’s cookies are named for Aunt Kathy, with proceeds going to a charity in her memory. Grandma’s inspiration (and Sara’s childhood favorite) gave birth to the chocolate peanut butter cookies—although the recipe needed some translation from the original “preheat oven, mix ingredients, bake until the house smells like cookies.”
Speaking of rugelach, Sara has created her own special recipe for the poppy seed flavor, adding lemon and its zest for a pop of citrus to combat overt sweetness. Other flavors include cranberry ginger, apricot raisin, raspberry chocolate, Bubbe’s (cinnamon walnut chocolate) and the less-traditional-but-just-as-popular Nutella. There’s even blackberry in the summer.
Grassroots ensures that its offerings are seasonal and sourced as sustainably as possible. You won’t find blueberries in the winter or pumpkin in the spring. They work with local companies for purchases and are developing relationships with area farmers, even hosting a CSA.
They also look to partner with other local, similarly minded businesses. For example, they source honey from Capital Honey Co., which was founded by a fellow Bloomingdale resident with hives near the arboretum—and who actually used this very bakery to extract his honey. What could be more local than that?
With so many baked goods, Sara says it’s only natural for them to be serious about coffee, too. Grassroots serves coffee from M.E. Swing, a DC-area institution, founded in 1918, which hand roasts in small batches in Arlington.
In the end, Grassroots Gourmet is more than a store. “It’s important to us to be part of the community,” Sara explains. “Neighbors come in with their kids, have a cookie, and chat.” Strong Jewish values of family and community working together, struggling and celebrating: this is the backbone of the bakery. “When our family is here,” Sara says, “they go right to work. And then people come in to bring sweets home to their sweeties.”
Grassroots Gourmet, (202) 629-2040, 104 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC. Summer hours: Thursday – Friday, 8 am-7 pm; Saturday, 9 am-5 pm; Sunday, 10 am-4 pm.
Photos courtesy of Grassroots Gourmet.