Soulsville

Pay-what-you-can juice bar fuels South Memphis

Memphis Rox isn’t just a rock climbing gym. With the addition of Juice Almighty, a juice bar and cafe, it is also a healthy eating destination in South Memphis, considered a food desert.

Memphis Rox is a state-of-the-art indoor climbing facility, located at 879 E. McLemore Avenue directly across the street from the STAX Museum of American Soul Music. The nonprofit facility opened in March 2018. It offers monthly memberships that start at $20 a month for youth, $55 for an individual and $100 for a family. No one is turned away for inability to pay those fees.

The juice bar is tucked away inside the rock climbing gym. It has a commercial kitchen for preparing their fresh daily fare along with picnic-style seating.  There is also a takeaway area for Ugly Mug coffee and healthy snacks like raw veggies.

“We’re in a food desert here in [ZIP] 38106, on the cusp of 38126. This [Juice Almighty] is imperative for the community. Everything here that they use  – all the ingredients – is fresh. They use organic chicken. Everything is prepared fresh daily,” said Tiffany Greer, director of acquisitions and cultivation for nonprofit One Family Memphis, parent organization of Memphis Rox and Juice Almighty.

In addition to a variety of juices and smoothies, the cafe features healthy takes on popular favorites like buffalo wraps and chicken sandwiches. There are also faux-patty melts and salads to choose from.

Related: "The making of Memphis Rox: South Memphis' massive rock climbing gym
 

“They are my recipes. When I created them, I thought about what I ate as a child and what a lot of kids bring into the juice bar. I look at what they do and put a healthy twist on it,” said Aster Demekech, Juice Almighty kitchen manager and director.

She found that many of the kids who frequent Memphis Rox brought in items from stores or restaurants in the area. Chips, sugary sodas and fried foods are common. For many in South Memphis, it is typical fare, but lately, that has begun to change as the gym and juice bar become more popular to neighborhood kids and their parents.

“It’s been received really well. We have a few kids on the weekends who know that they are going to be here all day. We give them three meals a day on the weekend. We have kids that come here after school and stay all night. They may not get dinner because their mom is at work,” said Demekech.

“A lot of the kids are very respectful. They empty the trash for us. They help us out in any kind of way just as a thank you.”

The juice bar is operated by the same nonprofit as the gym. It also follows the pay as you can model so it never beyond the means of the people it is meant to serve.

“After welcoming the customer they [employees] tell the customer the menu price on the item, which is $5, but they can pay what they can afford. They also ask it they will be making a donation. A lot of our customers actually donate more because they know they are helping feed a lot of the kids and families that come into the gym,” said Demekech.

There is also a free box with premade items that visitors can help themselves to.

“They are items that are already accounted for. People just grab them if they might feel embarrassed by letting us know they don’t have any money,” said Demekech.

In 2012, Demekech left Memphis to work as a teacher’s aide in New Orleans for three years followed by a year's service in the Americorps City Year program in California. She found work in a kitchen on campus at the University of California, Berkeley. Her love of cooking and natural talent soon became apparent to the chef she worked under.

“He said, ‘I am going to train you because you’re really good.’ He pretty much taught me everything I needed to know to pursue a career as a chef without going to school for it,” said Demekech.

Bouldering walls at Memphis Rox climbing gym. (Brandon Dahlberg)

After six years of being away from home, the now 27-year-old started to miss Memphis. Wherever she went — New Orleans, the Bay Area — she found the same intractable problems.

“No matter what city you are going to the same issues are there. You can’t run away from that. It is just the same everywhere. It’s not a Memphis problem. It's a problem,” emphasized Demekech.

Soon after returning, she was looking to re-engage and make a contribution to her hometown. A convert to rock climbing since her time in the Golden State, she found out about the newly opened Memphis Rox. She sent an email expressing interest in volunteer work. After meeting the team, she was hired on as a staff member in February 2018. She joined as kitchen manager in August of that year. 

“It’s fresh. I know the folks who are preparing it. They prepare it with love. It’s nutritious and great quality ingredients. I usually come over everyday or every other day and at least get a juice. I mean where else can you get beet and ginger and pear and carrot juice at your job. It’s great,” said Greer.

By the end of March, the organization will add a free weekly class that will alternate between courses in basic cooking and nutrition. With the help of volunteers, Demekech will open the cafe's commercial kitchen to residents and teach them how to prepare fresh recipes from whole ingredients while sticking to a budget. 

“There is a new generation so we can possibly change that cycle of unhealthy eating,” added Demekech.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 

 

Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.

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