Coming Home to The Juice Jar
Owner Heidi Lutz' green oasis serves up homemade food, a warm smile, and a bit of nutritional education.
The air smells clean, with a hint of something vegetal. The light is natural and bright; the wood and muted colors peaceful. If not for the mechanical whirring – a buzzing far too loud to be merely bees or other insects – and glass cooler facing the entrance, one could easily step into The Juice Jar on a sunny day and not be entirely aware that he or she had moved indoors. It could be a garden. It could be a homey kitchen. And both of these things are part of owner Heidi Lutz's vision for this healthy, organic eatery and juice bar.
She aims to enable visitors to "feel like they're coming home, to receive a warm welcome." She jokes, "I'm doing my best to learn and remember everyone's names because The Juice Jar is rapidly becoming a community 'Cheers'!"
Comfort is key at The Juice Jar. Lutz hopes patrons are relaxed in the space: "I want people to feel like they feel at home and are comfortable sitting on the couch," even going as far to start knitting, just like one customer she described. She also hopes that people feel welcome to explore potentially unfamiliar foods, dietary options, and ingredients.
Those who are new to The Juice Jar may be seeing "vegan" or "kale juice" for the first time. Lutz explains that she doesn't want the food to seem "weird" and stereotypically crunchy-granola, but accessible to all. "We have healthy brownies [made with black beans], we have things you wouldn't know are healthy by the taste. And if someone just likes orange juice, well, they can always come by and just try a fresh-squeezed orange juice, to see the different textures, the different tastes."
She easily empathizes with those initially encountering organic and sustainable foods, as she did not always follow this kind of diet.
She tells me her story as we are sitting comfortably at a large, wooden dining table. "Nine years ago, I was diagnosed with Crohn's disease. At that time, I was following Weight Watchers, but I didn't like to cook. So I was eating a lot of frozen meals, Smart Ones, Healthy Choice."
And then she learned of her condition. "After a few years of medications, struggling with side effects," and generally feeling miserable, Lutz continues, "I started educating myself about nutritional healing. I started juicing at home. I started using organic foods. I started eliminating toxins and chemicals from the house."
Today, Lutz is glowing, and it's not just from the Mason jar lights hanging above us. "Two years ago, I went off my medications. And I'm healthier than I've ever been."
It was education that led Lutz to alternative ways to live with Crohn's and to feel better. So, feeling excited and inspired, she had what she called a "midlife enlightenment" at age 45. "I decided that I needed to steer this [way of eating and living] into the community."
Lutz has traveled extensively and spent 10 years living in Colorado. While she is open and eager to try new things, she understood that in a smaller place like Erie, unlike larger, more cosmopolitan areas, many in the community may not independently discover nutritional healing methods, sustainable foods, and the ensuing health benefits in the same way she did. So Lutz decided that The Juice Jar would be a place to encourage this lifestyle in Erie.
"I always wanted a business," she explains, "And I decided it was time. I wanted to spend the second half of my life being healthy myself and making it easier for other people to live healthier lives. That's why the main goal of my store is education."
When Lutz mentions "education," she doesn't expect people to come in and simply sit in on classes. Lutz intends for the learning to be very active, and probably with a lot of sampling, too, because she wants to teach people about "sustainability of body and planet." The food is organic and made from scratch, the bath and body products are toxin-free, and home products are chemical-free. All store items minimize waste and include reused and repurposed items. Just look inside that aforementioned glass case, and see salads arranged in rainbow colors filling up Mason jars.
Lutz waves toward an impressive plant in the front window. It's a hydroponic food tower that will eventually be a teaching tool. This, along with a planned sustainable tiny house demo and other hydroponic gardens, will round out the The Juice Jar as an education center heavily focused on engaging youth.
"It really struck me when I heard the childhood obesity rate in Erie had doubled," she explains. "Our demographic is elementary students to people in their 80s. Some kids bring their parents, too. One kid every day comes in after school and gets a kale and berry smoothie." Clearly, kids are excited by her products, and she wants to help them learn more about what they are eating, drinking, and generally putting in their bodies, as well as how they can make the planet a better place.
As it stands, the space is welcoming to all ages; there's a scavenger hunt around the store that she developed with her son, plenty of no-frills decorations, and big, sturdy furniture with an accessible couch and low coffee table in proximity to the front counter and register. It's simple and straightforward, just like her vision.
Yet Lutz knows there is work to do, and she will do everything she can to refrain from complicating things. "Nepal was my favorite place to visit," she explains "Because I have a huge love for the mountains, and for the people, the peacefulness, the simple way of living."
She indicates the pictures on the mantel, positioned so she can see them from the register, where the majority of her day is spent. "Next to the picture of my son up there are pictures of my overseas travels. One is of me on the top of a mountain in New Zealand, and I have it so I can see it, with my son. It reminds me that when I'm overwhelmed, especially with the big picture [for The Juice Jar] I got to the top of the mountain one step at a time." She pauses. "One step at a time, I can make it [all] happen."
A line is forming at the counter. People look up at the board, debate which smoothie to try.
Others step back, waiting for their order. A mother and daughter look into the display case, hanging back, pondering choices, looking at foods, learning about new ingredients. Lutz moves back behind the counter, beaming at her guests, greeting some by name, showing people new ways to be healthy one step and one organic ingredient at a time.
Miriam Lamey can be contacted at Miriam@eriereader.com.