When Little Light Bread & Soup Co. opened last spring in a forlorn strip mall in northeast Greensboro, the city seemed to shrug.
“We’ve been completely ignored,” chef and owner Caitlin Ryan said.
But it turns out that’s been a blessing in disguise.
“It’s incredible, actually,” Caitlin said. “It’s been great because I’ve really needed this time to figure out what we’re doing.”
Little Light is a modest, LGBTQ- and woman-owned hidden gem cranking out high quality food. Ryan has spent most of her adult life working in restaurants, but planned to leave the industry after pursuing a master’s in environmental management. When the pandemic hit, she knew a lot of people who were struggling to feed themselves, so she started making pots of soup and baking loaves of bread at home to bring to people in need. It caught on, and Ryan seized the opportunity to open her own restaurant.
She decided to offer a pay-what-you-can portion of the menu, making Little Light one of the few restaurants in the state using that system.
“It has always been our model that if you are hungry, you can eat,” Caitlin said. Donations from supporters cover the cost of the free or reduced-price meals.
Since the city has routinely been ranked among the hardest hit by food insecurity, it’s not an abstract issue for Little Light.
“I am in recovery from substance abuse,” Ryan said. “I’ve been hungry and in the cold. The people that helped me and did so without any expectation — that really got me through sometimes. I’m not going to solve Greensboro’s homeless problem by giving out bowls of soup, but maybe I can help them.”
There’s a gap in Greensboro’s dining scene between the pricier, acclaimed restaurants mostly clustered in downtown and the more accessible joints sprinkled around the city. The Yanceyville Street neighborhood that Little Light inhabits offers limited options, though there are a few standouts including neighboring San Miguel Mexican restaurant and market.
“I don’t think there are many restaurants trying to fill the space we’re trying to fill,” Ryan said, serving “pretty magical but pretty affordable” food made from scratch. “It’s an underdog story, man. We don’t have any money. We’re a bunch of freakin’ scrappy addicts and felons who are running a kitchen and trying to make the best food we can.”
But Little Light is succeeding. Brian Clarey, publisher of the local Triad City Beat newspaper and a nearby resident, championed Little Light in a column soon after it opened.
“Chef Caitlin Ryan’s food is incredible, the sort that only comes from patience and technique. The osso bucco is outstanding,” he wrote. “She’s making her own gnocchi, which takes all day, but the mushroom ragout she serves it with is another showstopper.”
Mayor Nancy Vaughan is also a fan, hailing their “high quality dining choices.”
“I appreciate that they invested in a shopping center that isn’t normally associated with dine-in options,” Vaughan said. “What I liked most of all is that they offer a ‘pay what you can’ option for a portion of their menu. It allows them to build their business and support the community at the same time.”
It’s more than a little miraculous the restaurant survived its first calendar year, especially given its off-the-radar location and the ongoing pandemic. A faithful few have become regulars, returning for items like a plum and lavender ice cream last summer, a more recent coconut dulce de leche gelato, and a beloved pistachio pesto fettuccine.
Still, demand hasn’t been high for the restaurant’s primarily provincial Italian fare. Little Light has struggled to attract customers, in part because the menu missed the mark for what neighborhood residents wanted to eat. In early 2022, the restaurant will overhaul its menu to focus more on American classics. Patrons have been pressuring Ryan — a Philly area native — to roll out a cheesesteak. “I’ve spent a lot of time with a bandana tied around my head chopping cheese,” she laughed.
But while she doesn’t dream of returning to her cheesesteak days, she likely has little choice. Without filling, comfort food-type options and a more casual, all-day concept, Little Light would likely go under before its first birthday. The restaurant needs to be able to draw in individuals looking for a quick lunch, not just the occasional romantic night out with a partner. Shifting the menu is the most effective way to do that. There will be holdovers from their existing menu, including fresh brioche doughnuts and fried chicken tenders they currently only offer for brunch. The endlessly popular seasonal gnocchi —served with a creamy gorgonzola sauce — will likely stick around, as will the fettucine. She’s not scrapping Italian altogether, just the menu items that don’t move, or dishes like lasagna that take far too long to prepare.
“I need to do a couple fewer things, a few less complicated things,” Ryan said. “I used to make fresh crepes to order, and that was an absolutely terrible idea. There’s stuff we can’t do because there are only three of us, including our dishwasher.”
By shifting to a more practical, customer-driven menu and leaning towards more of a cafe vibe, Little Light can hopefully become the sort of neighborhood diner that’s bustling from open to close with accessible options for everybody. “The goal of our restaurant is to figure out what hospitality is and do it the best we can,” said Ryan.
Little Light recently received nonprofit status, which will allow it to lean more into the community-oriented approach Ryan always envisioned. That could include a community fridge, among other options, she said. Ryan is still ironing out details and needs health department approval on a new menu, but fortunately Little Light is now ready to handle a higher volume of customers.
Light Bread & Soup Co. will officially reopen on February 16.
• Little Light Bread & Soup Co. [Official]
• Greensboro, High Point Top Nationwide Hunger List [News & Record]
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