Oct. 17 2007 12:00 AM
Mama Bear's owner and executive chef Cecilia Garcia presents her lentil stew with herbed dumplings. (Joe Torok/City Pulse)

Because of temporal restraints — organic food is not only less readily available but also has a shorter shelf life without the layers of pesticides and preservatives — many of the specials at her “conscious café” rotate depending on her ability to procure ingredients.

Sometimes that could be a problem, like if a customer wants a slice of tomato on their sandwich in January. But the trade off is well worth it, Garcia says, pointing to both nutritional and environmental benefits.

A big part of Garcia's mission is to prepare food as naturally as possible. Where some restaurants might chuck a handful of breaded-something-or-other into smoldering oil until it's golden brown and sapped of any nutritional value, at Mama Bear's foods are prepared with close attention to retaining vital vitamins, minerals and nutrients. {mosimage}

“It's definitely a lot healthier and it tastes better,” Garcia says of the way she prepares food, going on to explain the environmental benefits of going organic.

For food to be certified organic, it must meet some standards when it comes to growth, handling and processing. Synthetic fertilizers, most pesticides and iodizing radiation are prohibited. Organic farm animals are never given antibiotics or growth hormones, and every link in the chain — from the farmers to those who handle, prepare or process the food — must be certified organic by the USDA.

Garcia also attempts to buy locally whenever possible. When she first opened Mama Bear's last month, 40 percent of her food was purchased from local farmers and farmers markets. That number has since risen to 60 percent. “There are a lot of great farmers around here,” she says, while she explains the importance of keeping money in the local community.

Garcia says about 80 percent of the food she buys is certified organic, and she hopes to be 100 percent organic or local within two years. For now some products are either unavailable or, despite many attempts, just won't cook right. 

Garcia says this becomes an issue, especially when it comes to pastries. She says some organic foods, like cream cheese, can only be purchased in small containers and not in bulk. That's a problem because the packaging waste, in addition to the tediousness of preparation, would negate the benefits of buying organic when the task of the day is to make half dozen cheesecakes.

Chocolate is another tricky organic food. Because of its temperamental and delicate nature, Garcia says organic chocolate just does not have the utility of non-organic. But that doesn't stop her sticking to her convictions.

Garcia also supports fair trade products, notably coffee and chocolate, whenever possible. She makes sure that if she absolutely must comprise on the food she prepares, she'll make up for it in some other way.

Mama Bear's offerings include sandwiches, daily specials and soups, gourmet salads, breakfast specials and an extensive pastry menu. The lentil stew with herbed dumplings tastes like someone's grandmother could have spent all day preparing just one dish. Bits of carrot, celery and onion are mixed in with a generous helping of tender lentils. The sage and other herbs in the thick, hearty dumplings compliment the warm earthiness of the stew, making the dish a must-have as the temperature chills into the brisk days of autumn.

The potato soup alone is worth a trip. A straightforward mixture of flavors without an over-saturation of sodium, it's served complete with pieces of the peel mixed in.

And the éclairs, with their rich, silky filling of vanilla speckled cream, are difficult treats to resist.

Garcia, who sits on the Old Town Commercial Association's board of directors, says opening her shop in Old Town's communal environment was important to her. In the first month of operation, Garcia says she has already garnered a stream of regulars.

Someday she hopes to add a convenience cooler to stock cartons of organic eggs, milk and other sundries. She also envisions organic and natural food cooking classes.

For now, Garcia sees her café as an alternative to fast food chains, and making a quick meal with wholesome food for busy people is her primary focus.

“I just want to make a really good meal for people to enjoy,” she says.


Mama Bear's

1224 Turner St., Lansing

Mon – Fri: 7 a.m. - 8 p.m.

Sat & Sun: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.

(517) 485-6262