Chef Melanie Abu-Nameh, 44, and baker Holly Ervin, 45, first met at a tennis margarita league event, as best friends do, and quickly bonded over family and food. While Abu-Nameh has worked in the restaurant industry her whole career (from line cook to culinary instructor to executive chef), Ervin regarded baking as a side passion.
In October, the two combined their talents to open a breakfast, sandwich and pastry joint called Feedwell Kitchen & Bakery in Cedar Rapids. During the pandemic, they say they’ve found comfort in working together to feed people well.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did Feedwell’s concept come to be?
Melanie Abu-Nameh: We wanted to have baked goods and make sandwiches on homemade bread. Originally, we weren’t going to be a coffee shop — but if you have pastries, you have to have coffee. We wanted to have light options with grab-and-go stuff.
Holly Ervin: We compare ourselves to Panera but with a choice. We’re not tied to any one thing, and that really was a fun idea.
Can you describe the restaurant in three words?
HE: Community, approachable and fresh. I mean, we don’t want to have cuisine that’s too scary, but we want it to be enough that people are going out of their bounds to try something.
What challenges have you faced, and what’s surprised you about opening a restaurant during a pandemic?
HE: The format of our restaurant has always been super high-quality food and baked goods but on a quick-serve basis. The seating capacity is 99, and we never wanted to have a full-service environment — we want to know our customers. And from the very start we wanted to do a lot of to-go. So that part of [COVID-19] didn’t scare us. But other than that, it scared the hell out of me.
MA: Initially when we opened up [in October], we were so busy we couldn’t even keep up. We were only open for two weeks before we had to close. We were tripping over each other, and we were like, “This is not good for COVID-19 or anything.” It was just like: Slow it down. Figure it out.
How do you play to each other’s strengths?
HE: Recently, for one of our Monday Meals, we had tarte Tatin. I’d never done dry caramel, and Melanie does it all the time when she makes flan. It’s great to share [our knowledge]. We’ve always said if one of us wanted to learn something, they’d be able to do that.
MA: There’s certainly a collaborative spirit. For the Monday Meals, I’ll say, “I’m making this, so what’s going to go well with it?” And then we come up with a menu.
HE: Or, “There’s a new sandwich we’d like to try. What bread would be best with it?” Melanie has been in the industry a lot longer than I have, so she’s got things down from a business perspective. I’d be lost without her.
How would you each describe your cooking and baking style?
MA: There’s nothing better than sitting around a table with people that you know and having fresh food. I’m half Cuban, so I love cooking Cuban food. And my husband is Palestinian, so I love learning all the Middle Eastern stuff — fusing things that you didn’t even think would go together.
HE: The part of baking I like the best is just occasionally looking out to the lobby and seeing someone take a bite of something, and they’re like, “Oh, my god.” I’ve always baked for other people. Yes, I want things to be beautiful, but I don’t want it to feel like it’s a machine.
Where do you find inspiration for the food you make?
HE: For me, my mom decorated cakes when we were kids, and we were always in the kitchen with her. I was in awe. It’s just that sense of family and doing things for people you love. As much as I enjoy doing it, I really enjoy the gifting of it.
MA: The traveling I’ve done with my students, my family.
Melanie, what’s your favorite place you’ve been?
MA: Probably Cuba. I loved Italy; I love France. I guess you just find inspiration wherever you go. I mean, I grew up here [in Iowa], right? So I like doing stuff I grew up cooking, but maybe putting a spin on it.
What’s your favorite thing on your menu right now?
HE: Favorite sandwich, 100 times over, is the Medianoche. It’s a Cuban [a sandwich with roast pork, ham, mustard, Swiss cheese and pickles], but it’s on sweet bread.
MA: I grew up eating medianoches because I loved the bread, and the bakers just perfected it. But personally right now I think it’s the Kale and Brussels Sprout Bobb.
What are your upcoming plans for Feedwell?
HE: There are a couple things in our business plan we had to push off [because of COVID-19], and it would be great to bring those in, like more catering.
MA: I would love to do cooking classes, even if it’s just starting small.
What’s the best part about owning a restaurant with your friend?
MA: Probably that we get to see each other every day. There’s something to be said for friends who become family. It’s nice to be able to come here and know that someone has your back. It’s a little bit of peace.
HE: The things I would have anxiety about with someone else, I don’t have that. It’s comfortable while being scary, because the venture itself is big. But having comfort and knowing you can lean on somebody, and they can lean on you, makes it so much better.
Bryce Jones was born and raised in Cedar Rapids and is currently pursuing her master’s in journalism at Northwestern University. When she’s not studying or writing, she enjoys watching British reality TV and exploring local bookstores. Feel free to hire her after she graduates in September! (Please.) This article was originally published in Little Village issue 293.