The welcome sign outside the remote Nebraska farm town of Imperial reads “Population: 1,760.” To achieve that tally, Marcy Nesbitt thinks “they probably had to count the dogs.”
But small town doesn’t mean small-minded when it comes to food. For those in the market for organic, aluminum-free fresh baked goods as well as natural groceries, this tiny outpost wedged between the Colorado and Kansas borders is the place to come.
“I am in the only place for 100 miles around that would carry this kind of stuff,” says Nesbitt, 56, who opened M&M’s Natural Jaz bakery, sandwich shop and market in 1994 to offer an alternative for rural residents with food sensitivities and other health issues. “Being out here in the middle of nowhere, it is really hard for them to find food to eat.”
Nesbitt should know. Raised on a farm in Imperial, she grew up eating a typical Midwestern diet, heavy on dairy and baked goods. Known as “the cake lady,” she baked and decorated sweets out of her home for years, as she raised her three kids. But in 1990, she fell severely ill. After being diagnosed with chronic candida and a host of food sensitivities, including sugar and yeast, she cleaned up her diet, went off dairy and yeast and “got my life back,” she says. “I discovered there were things out there in the natural food world that people could eat to feel so much better. I wanted to give people [in Imperial] options.”
She took out a loan, found a vacant former bar on the town’s main street, remodeled it and hung out a shingle for M&M’s Natural Jaz (named after Marcy, husband Mike and kids Jeremy, Alicia and Zachary). Seventeen years later, the place is thriving, with a bustling sandwich shop and bakery as its epicenter (constituting roughly 75 percent of sales), and a growing natural grocery and supplements business that draws people with allergies, diabetes, heart conditions and other health issues from miles around.
“I started with absolutely nothing, but it has taken on a life of its own and now I can’t keep up,” Nesbitt says.
Bending the rules
In the beginning, Nesbitt approached the business as a purist. It would be a true health food store, free of sugary drinks and artificial ingredients. She intended the sandwich bar to be a minor component.
But reality set in. “People were scared of the place at first,” she says. “I learned really early on that you cannot save people from themselves, and that everyone’s idea of health is different. I had to start slow and feel out the public to see what they wanted.”
As it turned out, her signature sticky-bottom cinnamon rolls—made fresh each morning—and her scrumptious but healthy sandwiches built her customer base. Little did they know they were eating baked goods made with organic flour, sea salt, rice oil and nonirradiated spices, and sandwiches made with fat-free meats and natural cheeses.
They were simply enticed by the aroma. “In the summer, I open the front door and it lures people in,” says Nesbitt, who opens for business at 9 a.m., often to a crowd of regulars who come for coffee and baked goods. “It smells like grandma’s house.”
When people balked at her natural beverage selection and started bringing in their own sodas to go with her sandwiches, she bent and put in a soda fountain. When they asked for sticky buns, she obliged (using only pure maple sugar and aluminum-free baking powder). “You have to meet the people where they are,” she says. She did, however, draw the line and say no when they asked for french fries.
Secrets to success
In the end, Nesbitt’s methods have worked. From a glassless window between her kitchen and the shop, which includes a 25-seat dining area, she visits with her customers daily as she bakes or makes sandwiches, often turning them on to healthy food options. “If I hear someone mention they have an allergy, I point them toward our gluten-free products. If I hear they aren’t feeling well, I point them toward our supplements,” she says. Over the years, word has gotten around, and Nesbitt has become a go-to source for people from nearby farm towns, who come to load up on lactose- and gluten-free products, flaxseed meal and advice.
For the bakery, Nesbitt keeps up on trends in the broader food industry (cupcakes and muffins are all the rage right now, she says), and she frequently introduces new seasonal products (pumpkin bars and chocolate and white cupcakes in October). She also runs a thriving custom bakery, providing pies and cakes for holiday parties.
But most importantly, she says, quoting her store’s longtime motto: “It’s all about the love.
“If you put love into what you do, work hard and pay attention to your customers, people keep coming back.”