As Redbird Cafe owner Kim Nolen has adapted to a changing business environment, she has added more healthy foods and beverages. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
Local News

Pandemic pivot turns permanent at Redbird Cafe

Before March 2020, Redbird Cafe was a full-service restaurant where people would linger at decorative tables with a mug of coffee and a breakfast or lunch served on ceramic dishes. 

Then suddenly, “everything changed,” said owner Kim Nolen. 

“In the week or so prior to businesses and public spaces being closed down, I had customer-facing staff that were expressing discomfort with their roles due to the news reports regarding the virus,” she said.

Owner Kim Nolen behind the counter at Redbird Cafe in 2019. (Provided photo)
Owner Kim Nolen behind the counter at Redbird Cafe in 2019. (Provided photo)

“I made the difficult decision to close my dining room to diners days before the governor did so for all restaurants. We moved immediately to a ‘takeout only’ model for both food and beverages, and all events were suspended, indefinitely.”

Advertisement

Now, more than two years after COVID changed the world, many of those operational changes at the popular downtown Homewood cafe have remained. Redbird is no longer a full-service, sit-down restaurant but has transitioned to being a marketplace for local food items.

The birth of a market

“Safety and community-support became the focus,” said Nolen. “Observing the tremendous shifts to everyone’s day-to-day lives, from work and school taking place under one roof (home) to daily essentials becoming difficult to find, and our previously ‘normal’ means of interacting and conducting business were gone.”

The shift was more of an evolution than a quick switch from cafe to market. After going to carryout-only meals, she added family meals for up to six people. During the summer of 2020, she partnered with Goodspeed Cycles to offer bicycle delivery within Homewood and Flossmoor.

As Redbird Cafe owner Kim Nolen has adapted to a changing business environment, she has added more healthy foods and beverages. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
As Redbird Cafe owner Kim Nolen has adapted to a changing business environment, she has added more healthy foods and beverages. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

During this time, Nolen said that supply-chain issues and hesitance to venture out to large markets caused her to provide some of her inventory to the public. 

“This period also gave birth to our market. Coming into Redbird allowed a person to get some of the things needed for home from a safe, controlled space when coming to pick up food or coffee, or both,” she said.

The market began to grow. She added fresh produce from local farmers who found themselves without a market to get their food to consumers while area farmers markets were shut down.

“Our egg farmer lost better than half of his business when restaurants closed. Eggs also became one of those food items that were hard to find in stores,” Nolen said. Selling eggs meant she could continue to help the farmer by ordering the same number of eggs, even though her kitchen’s needs had dropped.

Continuing the vision

Although the business today looks much different than when it initially opened in 2017, Nolen said that it still aligns completely with the original vision. 

“Redbird Cafe and the market compliment one another as a means of connecting local growers and eaters,” said Nolen. “That is the shared mission and purpose.”

The Redbird Cafe market has a table just inside the door where a changing variety of fresh produce is displayed. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)
The Redbird Cafe market has a table just inside the door where a changing variety of fresh produce is displayed. (Eric Crump/H-F Chronicle)

The market continues to carry fresh produce, an array of coffees and teas, flours, grains and eggs. The selection of craft beverages has expanded, too, now including kombucha, juices, sparkling water, sparkling teas and non-alcoholic beer. 

There’s also olive oils, balsamic vinegars, honey, pickled veggies, jams and olives, pastas, soup mixes, and wood-fired oven baked sourdough breads. 

Also on the shelves are a variety of unique spices and seasonal, fresh cut flowers from a couple of local growers.

Catering to a growing community

The timing of redbird’s business transition comes as new growth is on the horizon in downtown Homewood. With construction of a mixed-use building happening a block away and two more builtings planned, Redbird is right in the middle of an area that will see an increased population. 

“Urban dwellers in a suburban downtown will want easy access to many of the conveniences they are accustomed to, within walking distance, so certainly going forward I would anticipate an increase in demand for the foods we make and carry,” Nolen said. “I think we have an opportunity to be developing our own new version of a Whole Foods-like market right here. The beginnings are in place. It is about community in the end — doing for one another as we care for ourselves.”

Nolen said adapting the business helps her serve her life’s purpose — to connect feeders with eaters.

“If we can truly understand the importance of sustainable living, of eating locally sourced foods, knowing where our food is coming from (and) understand what the economic impact is of making a commitment to stay local with our dollars, these things can have a tremendous impact on individuals and on communities.”

News by email

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Name

Free weekly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Name
Most read stories this week