It’s airy. The whole building. A quiet hum of the HVAC system catches my attention but overall the entire place is quiet. The air conditioning is working well. The first day it’s hit 80 degrees in Minnesota for 2016 and all systems are in prime form. I feel a bit of a tingle on my arms, trying to get used to the contrast from the sweatiness of outside to the the clean and comfortable building I’ve just walked into.
I’d never been in here. Driven past it dozens of times, always thinking to myself, what is this place? A big red building, modern with storm siding and tall sparkling windows with beautiful landscaping and a big sign on the side of it that says “The Good Acre.” Truthfully, I was captivated by the logo. Simple, navy and white, perfectly symmetrical and a star against the red siding it rests on.
Much like anything else in my life, I decided I had to find out more about it. Like the time I was called to live overseas or to try sea urchin for the first time, I felt a similar pull from a building with a perfectly symmetrical logo. Navy and white. Simple.
What was simply a few dozen drives past the building, turned into bit of an obsession. The digging commenced on what exactly The Good Acre does and before long, I was fascinated with the whole story.
What particularly caught my eye beyond their mission–to enhance how food is grown and shared in the Twin Cities region, to improve marketplace opportunities for diverse independent farmers, and to increase access for all consumers to healthy, locally-grown fresh produce–was the story of Emily Paul. A staff member at The Good Acre, Emily is the Director of Kitchen Operations, one of their three main programs, and her journey on how she ended up in the building with the red siding was enthralling.
With Emily it’s all about the food. It’s guided her entire life. Growing up in Chicago, she attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to pursue a degree in International Relations. After getting her B.A., while also minoring in Spanish, she headed out to our nation’s capital to do some work in the import/export business, helping small businesses get on their feet through international trade.
She began traveling for work extensively, spending time in both Turkey and Afghanistan for a couple of years. When she wasn’t helping fundraise for a university or building institutional partnerships, she was delving into the food scene of each place she visited as often as she could.
“I was always in my work but any opportunity I had, no pun intended, I’d eat up all of this culture around me with these different places in the world. All the time I spent not working was learning about food and cooking with their ingredients.”
She goes on to tell me that no matter how much she just wanted to work with food full time, there wasn’t a viable option at that moment and “I had to pay the bills,” she jokes.
However, ill fortune soon struck as the nonprofit she was working for was seeing their funding shrink and after a few months, she was let go.
“The first person to go [in a nonprofit] is the fundraiser,” she tells me, “so I did some soul searching.”
Through this time it was never too far from her mind that a career in food was out there. Perhaps it was a sign, fate or some accident that she had been let go from her career in international relations but “I ate a lot in 5 months,” she says, “and I decided I was going to culinary school.”
She finally made the decision, which surprisingly wasn’t an easy one. She wrestled with the idea of getting her MBA for some time but ultimately made the decision to jump into L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, MD.
In the food scene full force, Emily worked on a food truck, worked at one restaurant and then another and stood over prep stations, flat tops and the like on her way to getting her culinary degree in a few years.
While the restaurant business was a possibility, it wasn’t necessarily the full cloak that Emily wanted her career to be covered in.
“I started on with a start up company that does similar things to The Good Acre,” she says as she leads me into the kitchen. It’s brand new, all stainless steel ranges and hoods. On the back wall there are utensils ubiquitous with that of a commercial kitchen and there are heavy refrigerators on the side wall.
“I then became a volunteer at a soup kitchen,” she continues with one hand in her pocket while the other expressively enhances each sentence. “Then I walked in one morning [and said to the manager Steve] ‘Hey Steve, you know this is my dream, I’m going to take your job one day and I’m going to work here.’” And a week later she was asked to work full time at the soup kitchen. Her last year in D.C. she ended up fulfilling her word and taking the position of manager in the soup kitchen that successfully prepared over 85,000 meals last year.
She had never felt so full. It was her dream job and one she conducted with precision and care, establishing food partnerships and organizing over 2,500 annual volunteers.
Emily and her husband, who is from Duluth, decided they would come back to the state he called home and soon after she arrived, she met Rhys Williams, the Director of The Good Acre, over coffee.
As she places both hands in her back pockets she mentions, “He told me about the place and I was like ‘awesome.’ And he mentioned the kitchen and cooking classes and I told him, ‘I can run that kitchen.’”
Soon she was on the staff and it has been a position she’s nurtured into a sustainable and educational one–augmented by Minnesota’s cultural heritage.
When Emily arrived at The Good Acre kitchen, nothing was there besides the hoods and ranges. She’s since outfitted the entire kitchen, put a calendar on the website highlighting the cooking classes (of which they will have conducted 30 by the end of July), oriented 62 volunteers on the 17 page instructor handbook that she helped create and built the class attendance to more than 100.
The goal of cooking classes are simple. “Everything we do here in this kitchen is meant to better the grower and I want to make sure every option involved here is somehow benefiting our growers,” she mentions, “and to make sure content is on mission with what we’re doing in Minnesota. We wouldn’t teach a pineapple upside down cake class because pineapple isn’t grown here.
“We want to extend the mission of the Good Acre. We always joke that we’re Switzerland because we’re not really in any one jurisdiction. We’re just out here in Falcon Heights trying to touch both cities and the surrounding areas.”
“So what is the main motivator for you personally?” I ask her.
“I want to make people feel full. Whether that is intellectually or physically, whether through experience, through knowledge or sustenance,” she responds.
“The ability to feed people in some capacity is something I always wanted to do. It’s always been my guiding light to help people personally and professionally in relation to food and an opportunity to teach the community. Whether I’m teaching the class or bringing in a chef who is an expert at kimchi making or in natural fermentation of starters for bread, I want to bring people in who have a similar mindset and create the community around food. Making them more aware of growers.”
Consistently smiling as she explains this all to me, she continues.
“I want to make sure we’re reaching everyone in the community who wants to learn about food because food is good for our health. Food is good for our community, it’s good for our families, for our bodies and for the environment.”
In short, Emily Paul wants to be the conduit in helping grow people in every facet using food as the vehicle.
It’s clear, at this point in the conversation, The Good Acre and its mission is the brainchild of a collective group of minds that all believe in the same thing. It’s what drives Emily and all of the other staff here.
The airy building I walked into is more and more appearing like a safe haven for Emily and people like her.
“My heart’s always been in food. My goal was to somehow make it part of my career, so that’s how I got into all of this. It’s interesting to build something like this. I didn’t want to lose the ability to teach people about food when I moved here and didn’t want to lose the ability to feed people in some way. I’m no longer running a soup kitchen but hopefully I’m feeding a different part of the community in a different way.”
It’s the perfect summary of how her life’s journey has brought her here. To Minnesota, to The Good Acre and to the area affected from the core belief that the community benefits from more accessibility to its local farmers.
After thanking her for her time, I walk outside to look at the building with the red siding, with the navy and white logo, with the tall sparkling windows and I see something different than I did before.
I see care and nourishment. Pride and excitement.
What I see, is a bright future.