This Much Loved Local Café Serves Delicious Food with a Purpose
By Anne Wolf Postic >> photos Jay Browne
When Chefs Sarah Simmons and Aaron Hoskins moved to Columbia from New York City in 2017, they were trying to figure out what their next steps would be. Their restaurant in New York, the largely successful Birds and Bubbles, had closed after extensive water damage and a battle for fair compensation with an uncooperative landlord.
New York’s loss was Columbia’s gain. That summer, as they dealt with the cleanup in New York, they learned a lot about what this city wanted and needed. First opening and operating a small cafe on Harden Street, then another cafe in Richland Library’s main branch, the couple got to know people in the community, building a loyal following of locals who helped them find their place here.
“We started to uncover issues that were holding Columbia back from being a great city – two of them being the food access crisis and the highest rate of poverty among 18 to 24 year olds. We felt called to help address these issues and decided to go all in on working to make Columbia a great city for everyone,” says Simmons. Five years later, they’ve gone “all in” and beyond. They now own three restaurants, SmallSUGAR, the Wine Bar at CITY GRIT, and il Focolare, as well as the CITY GRIT market, a specialty culinary shop which includes a case of prepared foods for Columbians on the go who crave fresh and flavorful sustenance.
Perhaps the most well known, smallSUGAR is a bustling cafe in the heart of the Vista, serving lunch and breakfast every day from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. On any given morning, visitors to the cafe will find a diverse group. Eager diners include friends catching up over coffee and exceptional freshly made pastries, Columbia movers and shakers conducting meetings over creative and energizing breakfast bowls, and solo diners looking to start the day right. The cafe has a big city feel, with all the warmth of a southern hot spot. Lunch brings them back for more. (A certain writer’s husband has been known to go twice in one day, and grab some fresh-baked bread and flaky croissants to share later with his appreciative family.)
The menu changes regularly, because Simmons and Hoskins are committed to providing fresh, flavorful dishes. “That sums up my approach to food. I always want to use the very best ingredients to make the very best version of every dish I create,” explains Simmons. She credits husband and partner Hoskins with most of the current offerings in their three restaurants, while she has shifted focus to the prepared foods available to go at CITY GRIT market.
The unparalleled pastry and bread selection at smallSUGAR, whether consumed on site or purchased to enjoy at home, is not to be missed. Buttery croissants, whole grain loaves, and a variety of pastries fill the glass case, a visual feast that, along with that fresh baked smell wafting in the air, makes the mouth water. Try any one of the daily delights, like a chai bun, a sweet cinnamon roll, or a cherry bostock (a hybrid French pastry somewhere between French toast and a croissant).
Breakfast bowls are a popular choice, providing as much energy as they do flavor. A recent offering included a soft-boiled egg, green tehina, ricotta, herb salad, avocado, seasonal vegetables, and fresh whole-wheat flatbread. Back at smallSUGAR for lunch, how about a roasted sweet potato bowl, served with roasted red onion, crème fraîche, chopped greens, sunflower seeds, herbs, and ginger-soy vinaigrette? Sandwiches like al pastor-marinated pork loin with cabbage, avocado, and spicy mayo served on country loaf are also memorable.
Speaking of that bread, like any bakery, smallSUGAR can’t be completely safe for people who must avoid wheat and gluten entirely because of the flour that may linger in the air and the possibility of cross contamination. Simmons and Hoskins try to be accommodating, though, and have been able to do that in many cases. She explains, “I will say we’ve encountered a lot of guests who have gluten sensitivity but can eat the breads at smallSUGAR and the pizza at il Focolare, because we use whole grains and no stabilizers. Those stabilizers are actually what make a lot of people sick when they eat processed foods containing gluten.”
People who live with food allergies and sensitivities know that level of care isn’t easy to find. A lot of restaurants offer gluten-free options, but don’t think twice about what it might mean to make something on the same counter where a glutinous dish has been prepared. Or they claim that a dish is shellfish free, but fail to mention the dish is prepared in the same fryer with shrimp. To that end, the kitchen at CITY GRIT includes a separate fryer that is only used for gluten free items, so guests with Celiac or gluten sensitivity can enjoy treats like the addictive “patatas bravas” without fear.
In addition to their focus on serving only the best food to their much-loved community, Hoskins and Simmons are also driven by their desire to help people in need. That passion led them to create Feed the City, a 501 c(3)nonprofit with a three tiered mission: feeding the community, feeding the city, and feeding the economy. To that end, they hire people who will receive training and a living wage, they work with local schools and food pantries to address hunger, and they endeavor to spend locally and help employees secure their financial futures. Customers may be surprised to see that gratuities are not allowed in any of their restaurants. They support their employees through fair pay, ensuring they aren’t dependent on tips to survive. Their values are as refreshing as the food they prepare daily.
The Vista’s smallSUGAR is a pleasure any day of the week. But happy guests won’t want to miss out on the other restaurants, either. The Wine Bar at CITY GRIT is the perfect neighborhood spot for a glass of wine and a few delightful small dishes with a friend, a sophisticated snack before a show at nearby Trustus Theatre, or an impromptu dinner date. Il Focolare in historic Cottontown offers tasty snacks and scrumptious pizza, all made to order in their wood-fired oven. Whatever your pleasure, Simmons and Hoskins aim to please. The chefs have become a meaningful part of the Columbia community very quickly, and they deserve all the love and more. A visit to any one of their restaurants or CITY MARKET is more than a spectacular culinary experience. It’s an exercise in community building. Here’s to local diners choosing to support the people who care about them – and who show that love and compassion by providing exquisite food for any occasion.