A few years back, when the Barnes & Noble on State Street closed, and relocated, a little piece of me died. I had often spent hours upon myriad hours haunting the aisles of sumptuous literary goodness, as I basked in the healthy, aural glow of the classical music pumped in to make my stay more enjoyable.
When I heard that the Rockford Public Library would be utilizing the building as an annex, I was elated, as well as skeptical. It turns out that my skepticism was ill-founded.
Later, I was made aware, by a friend of a friend, that a small, book-friendly cafe had opted to utilize the remaining space in the facility. This piqued my interest. Then, something else happened, and my eight-second attention span moved on to – Oh! Look! A squirrel!
At about the time that sales of my first book had waxed and waned (way more waning, than waxing, truth be told) I was seeking marketing ideas to develop more exposure for the work. On a lark, I contacted the woman who owned the place, called The Bookworm Bakery & Café, and asked if she might be open to my doing a book signing on-premises. What blew me away was not only her assenting to this but, her true desire for me to succeed.
And, so, on Black Friday of 2011, I arrived there at the wholesome hour of 3:00 AM for a nine-hour signing and meet-and-greet engagement. It was an abysmal failure, as experiments go, but a resounding success in the forging of a friendship.
And so, folks, this leads to me to the latest installment in the ‘Rockford’s Own’ series. I’d like to introduce you all to Rhiannon Stanuch, proprietress extraordinaire of The Bookworm Bakery & Café, friend, and Rockford activist.
Tell us a little bit about The Bookworm Bakery & Café. What makes it unique? Special? Different?
The Bookworm Bakery & Café is Rockford’s only all-inclusive restaurant. This means that we specialize in traditional foods, as well as allergen friendly, and alternative-lifestyle foods. Everything at the bakery is made from scratch – from the pastries to the soup. We also source many of our ingredients locally, as often we may.
Aside from the things listed above, Bookworm is unique in several other ways. We strive to be a community hub. We achieve this by providing a variety of free events, designed to give something of value back to the community that supports us. This ranges from, Open Mics, Comedy Shows, Poetry Slams, Writing and Book Groups, a Fresh & Local Class that I teach for the library, and charitable giving.
Additionally, when something says ‘gluten free‘ or ‘vegan’ on our menu, we not only know precisely what that means, we also know what is involved in the preparation process, and can break a dish or product down to singular ingredients – and can give you the origin of it. That level of food preparation education is required for all staff members in our employ. You will know that, no matter who waits on you, your order will be appropriately prepared for your specific needs.
We make everything from scratch and, a good majority of our products are made to order. This means that nothing is sitting around, languishing, pre-made, waiting to be served. If you order a chicken salad, we start with a chicken breast that we poach ourselves, and mix into it anything that you desire. This is done right in front of you. We like to say that it’s fresh food, not fast food.
Moreover, we really do genuinely care about our customers, and their lives. We will greet you with a smile, by name, remembering your preferences, and always with a willingness to celebrate the successes of your life with you. Everyone on my staff knows that they owe their employment to the great people that come in and purchase at our establishment. We will never forget, nor lose sight, of that. Not even the owner: I am here every day and am so grateful for my wonderful and amazing customers.
What prompted you to consider developing such a business in the Rockford Area?
Honestly? I am a transplant to Rockford. My husband works for Chrysler and, we were moved here due to his employment. It was great for me, since my parents live in Machesney Park. When I first moved here, all I could find was a part-time job at a place that didn’t treat its staff – or customers – well. When I struggled to find an alternative employment venue, I also sat down and introspectively considered whether opening my own venue might be a better solution; whether it was what I ultimately wanted to do.
The very next day, the Rockford Public Library listed the location for rent at the East Branch Location. I took it as a sign to jump and started writing my business plan, as well as a proposal to submit to the library. I thought that this was an ideal location that would really work for what I wanted to offer and accomplish. And Rockford was, I felt, ready – and in need – of a place that could cater to everyone, no matter what their food needs may be.
After approaching ten banks (who would not even look at my business plan, since it was a restaurant), I walked into Rockford Bank & Trust. They sat down, heard me out and, by the time we had finished our meeting, they were sold on the idea. The same day, the library also voted – unanimously – to approve me for the location.
To this day, the way I was treated at that part-time, corporate job, colors the way that I design my staff; my team. Everyone is paid a fair wage, treated kindly, and I work around their schedules whenever I may. Even when staff members leave me to pursue their passions, I continue to offer support to them however I may.
Knowing that you hail from Detroit – a city which, like Rockford, used to be among the singular manufacturing jewels in the American crown – what lessons do you feel that Rockford could – or should – learn from Detroit’s unfortunate decline?
Perhaps the best way to exhibit the difference between Rockford and Detroit is to correct this question. While you label the Detroit decline ‘unfortunate’, and people here worry about what to do with regard to Rockford’s decline, Detroiters take a different approach. It is not, in their eyes, an unfortunate decline but, an opportunity to reinvent one’s environment as stronger, better, and happier. Detroiters have a stalwart work ethic, and pride in where they come from, that I haven’t seen a great deal of around these parts. They tend to think locally, and work to achieve the things they want.
I think that Rockford could learn a few things about not leaning on mediocrity as a crutch. Look forward – and stop wishing about the good old days. Work to make the future better in Rockford for this, and for the next, generation.
Finally, Detroit is hugely multi-cultural – opinions and skills vary greatly. Rockford should embrace the things that make us all different – and strong – and work to build a unified & productive place to live and work. Accept outsiders that help to build your community and stop following Rockford natives whose rants, positions, opinions, and actions aren’t helping anyone in a positive way.
I understand that you’re also very actively involved in the Winnebago Buy Local movement. Tell us a little more about that program, and how you became involved.
Winnebago Buy Local is a 100% Not-for-Profit community organization made up of independent, grass-roots, and completely local businesses in Winnebago County.
Winnebago Buy Local‘s mission is to support and cultivate local, independent businesses focused on transforming our local economy toward green jobs, sustainable industries and practices, and buying local first. When people shop at a local business $68 out of every $100 stays in the local community. When you shop at a national chain store, only $36 out of every $100 stays local. By teaching people to shop local first, we help to keep our city unique, prosperous, and community-driven.
I first became involved in Winnebago Buy Local by accident. Right before I opened Bookworm, I was in Culture Shock looking for a cupcake pin for my apron. I overheard the owners talking about this great new group that they were helping to run and develop. I asked what they were talking about and, before I left, I had signed up. Now I am the public relations & media board member for the WBL volunteer board.
What is your fondest memory of Rockford?
My wedding: without a doubt. Alex (my husband) and I got married in front of our families at Blackhawk Park. The park was absolutely beautiful and, then, we went to our favorite local restaurant (when not at my own, of course!), Social for dinner. It was a lovely day. Since then, I always check out a new park in Rockford every few months to see what other gems this city is hiding.
If you could recommend one place/attraction in Rockford for someone to visit, where would it be, and why?
My very favorite place to go is the Farmer’s Market on Wednesday morning at the Edgebrook Shopping Center. They have a great variety of vendors and items but, it is not so big that it overwhelms you. I find all kinds of produce and treats to delight my students, staff, and family. Plus, you can stroll through the shops and have a Farmer’s Market lunch. It’s very relaxing – and not overly expensive.
With all of the negative press that Rockford has received of late, how do you feel about the city?
Truly, the negative national press means less than nothing to me when it comes to the city. I feel that I have better authority to judge and decide things about the City of Rockford than a press article written by people that have never even been here, or who sit and analyze statistical data. The City, as a whole, is a nice place to live, work, and socialize. I certainly feel safe here. I do, occasionally, feel treated like an outsider. I also feel as though judgment is very quick and, sometimes, unfair by some of the people who reside here. Overall, I truly feel as though if Rockford could just get out of its own way, it would be an even more amazing city to live in – and people would, once more, flock here.
If there were one thing that you could change about Rockford, what would it be?
To me, it seems as though there are two Rockfords:
One is a large group of people working to move the city forward – creating, upbeat attitudes, and offering new ideas in business and society.
Then, there is a smaller group that always seems to be tearing it down – full of negativity, misguided reverence for ‘the good ole days’, holding on to ideas and ways of doing things that just don’t work. These individuals offer no new innovation, no solutions, and just drag the others around them down like an anchor.
I believe that the majority of Rockford is a part of this larger, more positive, group. With that being said, however, I think that the smaller, negative, group obtains more focus. And more people tend to want to believe the bad, rather than embracing the good.
So: If I could change one thing, it would be to eliminate the power this negative group seems to wield, so that we could – as a unified whole – progress toward a brighter future, as the city that we all know that we should be.