Urban café with restorative roots

• Video: The Olive Branch

The Olive Branch, located at 215 South Second St., sells breakfast and lunch entrees along with several restaurante-specific coffee blends for patrons. In the evenings, the café caters events.Jed Dean | Lariat Photo Editor
Lynne Gackle, an associate professor in the School of Music, and graduate student John Lassitter talk over lunch at The Olive Branch.Jed Dean | Lariat Photo Editor

The Olive Branch balances business with charity while adding to the ongoing restoration of downtown

By Nick Dean
Editor in chief

It’s 9:01 a.m.

Two men leave after sitting and talking over a cup of the downtown blend and the plantation blend — dressed ready for work. They are headed in for the 9-to-5 day.

Four women sit around a center table, Norah Jones’ smooth voice audible but not blaring. Laughter and smiles ebb and flow throughout the women’s conversation. Juxtaposed behind them on an olive green wall in a white, heavy serif font is the mission of this place: The Olive Branch is to me a symbol of the promise of restoration and of things to come. Leah Stewart, owner of The Olive Branch restaurant, wrote that at the start of her business. And now, after two moves, she has resettled in downtown Waco, a location in need of her restorative dreams.

Stewart’s bakery and café [Video] originated in August 2003 at the corner of Sixth Street and Franklin Avenue. After five years at that location, Jonathan Garza, a stakeholder of The Olive Branch and founder of Red Cap Consulting, said the restaurant was asked by the Waco Town Square project to move downtown.

“[Stewart] wanted to be one of the first businesses to help that. She has been huge for downtown and wanting to get this place revitalized,” Garza said. “So she went out on a limb, moved her business to the Waco Town Square project, which didn’t get finished in time and that caused her to be shut down for eight months.”

A delay in the town square project closed the restaurant for eight months — though Garza said the restaurant retained most, if not all, of its customers despite the major lapse before it moved to Austin Avenue and Fourth Street. The Olive Branch outgrew that space after only 13 months and found its current location — a 5,200-square-foot space nestled below the Shops at River Center.

The new location allows The Olive Branch to keep all of its operations on one level for the first time.

The restaurant’s new kitchen is the largest The Olive Branch has ever had. The large space gives Stewart and her crew plenty of space to work and Stewart said the extra space allows her to keep raw and cooked food preparation separate. On the second level are offices and a balcony.

Garza said the restaurant’s long-term goals include adding additional seating space on the second level once the number of customers calls for that extra space. Currently, half of the first floor space is used as the retail restaurant — with round and square tables adorned with fresh flowers filling the space in between the brick and Sheetrock walls that stretch upward in the warehouse-like shop.

What happens at those tables, such as eating and conversing, is what matters most to Stewart.

Meant to cook

Stewart, a Baylor alumna, took to food as a major form of entertainment in college. She preferred putting together dinner parties to the traditional dinner and a movie. Perhaps an earlier sign of food being a major part of Stewart’s life is when her grandfather was in the hospital when she was in high school. Stewart, stressed throughout her grandfather’s hospital stay, found relief in cooking. Her mother — returning home from visiting with Stewart’s grandfather — found Stewart in the kitchen surrounded by a three-layer cake, four dozen cupcakes, decorated cookies and a pan of brownies.

“Cooking and baking was soothing for me,” Stewart said. “I enjoyed it. And we ended up giving all that food to the nurses.”

The Olive Branch specializes in breakfast and lunch and offers a variety of simplistic food combinations, which to Stewart are not “fancy,” offer wholesome portions and healthy ingredients.

“It is really important for me that this be a place for all people from different walks of life, belief systems, to feel like this is home,” Stewart said. “I want them to sit down, eat some good food that they know what is in it.”

College kids: A generation of foodies?

Stewart doesn’t believe the misnomers of college students as Ramen noodle-only eaters or as a population of drive-thru-loving haphazard eaters.

“I think students are interested in putting their money toward a healthy option. College kids will come in here and order a chicken pesto and they know they are going to pay more for it,” Stewart said. “It is not a Big Mac or Wendy’s drive-thru, but they’ll take half home for dinner. It is definitely healthier and it is a big portion.”

A rarity in comparison to the mega fast food chains that populate Waco, The Olive Branch bakes and prepares all of its food on location. Garza said the restaurant is looking to attract more college students by offering small foods — like bagels and cupcakes — that are affordable.

“College kids can come in here, say from like 1 to 3, after the lunch rush and can have coffee and a bagel and not spend 8 bucks on a meal, but you can get a good and well-prepared snack,” Garza said.

“We want that atmosphere, too. For them to come in during the morning or afternoon and enjoy this space.”

Stewart describes her establishment as a restaurant with a coffee shop feel. Her goal is to have students utilize the free Wi-Fi and large tables before and after the lunch rush, a hybrid she said she hopes to maintain throughout her business’ life.

“I think that downtown is really close and Baylor kids still don’t come to downtown,” Stewart said. “With Baylor expanding, they are going to be forced out of their comfort zone. I think it is really important right now to establish a downtown that attracts college kids.”

A delicate balance

Waco — which holds the fifth-highest homelessness rate in Texas — is a setting that causes restaurant owners to confront the need of the city’s homeless while simultaneously trying to stay profitable.

Stewart, a Christian from a young age, said she has had to seek out plausible ways to help the homeless that stand outside her door.

“Homelessness was something I struggled with a lot in my first location at Sixth and Franklin. It hasn’t been bad here. But as a local business owner, I have a big concern, and not just from a business standpoint but from a heart standpoint, too,” Stewart said.

“I am concerned for those people; I am concerned also for my business. It is hard sometimes to make decisions that encompass both. I can’t give someone a sandwich every day. That is not an applicable thing for me.”

The Olive Branch is in the process of partnering with Project 254, an initiative that works with local businesses in an effort to raise funds for the various needs of the community. Products at the participating businesses — like Stewart’s cookbook that is on sale at The Olive Branch — are listed as part of Project 254 and a percentage of each sale goes toward providing funds for the less fortunate.

“It’s a way to help the people standing outside my door and to help them in their efforts to re-establish life. It is staying in this community,” Stewart said.

“With my heart for the Lord, I have always felt a need to help my community. I am planted. I am involved and help my community. I am excited to help the people that are right here, right outside my door. To be able to choose something that helps this community, I am ecstatic. It is a win-win for me and the people outside my door.”

Stewart said balancing the desires to help the needy in downtown and the paying customers in her restaurant is important and she hopes to aid those that walk in by providing a place to eat, talk and enjoy life.

“I appreciate that aspect of the meal and that is the biggest concept for me here. I just want it to be good. I don’t ever want someone leaving here feeling that they didn’t get enough. I want them to leave happy,” Stewart said.

Noah’s Namesake

The writing on the wall telling the mission of her business begins with the biblical story of Noah, the man charged with building an ark and then journeying through a flood and eventually renewing the earth.

“My favorite part of his story is when his journey is tiresome and seems endless, yet not giving up, his trust compels him to soldier on in seeking the reward promised,” the front wall of the restaurant reads.

“How I wish I could have been there that day when a glimmer of hope showed up in the form of an olive branch, a tangible nudge to keep believing.”

The restaurant’s budding business and Stewart’s pursuit to revitalize downtown Waco mimics that restorative intention.

Seeking to be a tangible peace offering, The Olive Branch extends college students an invite to the burgeoning world of downtown Waco through what Stewart deems “simple food” and a “comfortable atmosphere.”

“I think eating at a table with food that everyone likes levels the playing field in all arenas. I want people to come here and be comfortable. I don’t care what you look like — we are here for you. Opening a restaurant has opened my mind as far as accepting all different kinds of people,” Stewart said.

“You get to know people over food and I really like that concept of being able to bridge the gap between people.”