ASHEBORO — Katherine Stroud learned the joy of food service from her grandmother, so she’s naming her new business Nannie Mae’s Cafe & Bakery.
Stroud opened to the public on Nov. 19 at her location at 108 Sunset Ave.
Nannie Mae Hardy lived to 100 and took care of herself until the end. But during her long life, she thrived on providing food for others.
“It’s how she showed love,” Stroud said. “Her favorite spot in the house was a little chair in a corner of the kitchen where she did her peeling, shelling, snapping and shucking. She was always the last to eat after everybody else was taken care of.
“That was Grandma. She loved listening to people laugh and carry on.”
Stroud said that for as long as she can remember, her grandmother lived with her and her mother in the New Bern area. “She had the biggest sweet tooth but she would hide good things in baked items, like fresh produce. It was very much home cooking.”
It was Nannie Mae who taught Stroud how to cook, especially baked goods.
“When I was 5 or 6, I had a little red wagon,” she said. “Grandma ‘helped’ me make items to sell from the wagon. I took it around to neighbors. It was so much fun.”
Nannie Mae “was very intelligent, very humble,” Stroud said. “She would write letters to the president at the time with her concern for things. She was invited to the White House by Bush Sr. and maybe Bush II.
“But she didn’t want the recognition and she never went. She didn’t want to be the center of attention, but would just write down her thoughts. I didn’t get her political side but I did get the cooking.”
Nannie Mae’s Cafe & Bakery will “start with the bakery and anything sweet — cakes, cookies, brownies, anything from Grandma’s kitchen,” Stroud said.
She hopes to add soups, salads and sandwiches next year.
The problem with cooking Nannie Mae’s recipes is that “she never measured anything. She’d put ingredients in her hand and dump them in. Her biscuits were the best ever. Nobody in the family can replicate her biscuits or dumplings.”
Sunday dinner with Grandma was, according to Stroud, “biscuits or cornbread, fried chicken, vegetables in season, and the dessert always changed. There were cakes, pies, cheesecakes, pudding. Pumpkin was her favorite pie.
“Grandma was Southern through and through,” Stroud said. “She threw away nothing,” putting leftovers in the freezer. When there were enough ziplock bags stored away, she’d pull them out and make soup.
Nannie Mae was a slight woman, never more than 100 pounds. But she always had some kind of cake or pie or brownies in a glass-covered cake stand on the kitchen table. “She was the main one to eat it,” devouring a piece or two every day.
Stroud said her grandma never had a driver’s license, taking the bus to get places. “Grandma took the bus to an assisted living home to visit with the ‘old people,’ even though she was older than most of them. She let them know she was up the road if they needed anything. She looked out after everybody. She wanted to take care of people.”
Stroud said her father, Bill Dittman, had multiple ailments, including congestive heart failure, but never stopped working. He also volunteered at church and suggested to the pastor that it would be good to serve supper before Wednesday night services, since members often didn’t have time to eat beforehand. The pastor agreed and told him, “Great idea — go!”
“He and Grandma would check for weekly specials and prepare the food,” Stroud said. “People would come in for dinner and then church. They served hundreds of meals.
“I grew up in that world, seeing the joy in helping people. It stuck.”
She took her first job at the age of 14, washing dishes and icing cakes. That job continued through high school and some of college. When the owner was retiring, Stroud was offered the business.
“I was 21 and had got married really young,” she said. That business was what she calls her “trial run.” When she had to close, it “felt like the worst thing. But looking back, it was one of the biggest blessings. It allowed me time to care for Dad his last couple of years.”
She later took a job as a coffee barista, baking scones and muffins. She asked the owner about offering breakfast and lunch and was given the green light. That grew into catering and a wine bar on Friday nights with live music as well as Sunday brunch.
Stroud said that was a learning experience for her. The big lesson is “you can’t trust everybody. The owner was a single mom” who didn’t always pay Stroud.
She moved on to the Carolina Colours Golf Club, where she opened a cafe and held special events and fund-raisers.
“I loved it and the people,” Stroud said. “It was a great experience. But I knew I wanted my own place again and to be involved in the community.”
She and her husband Jason began “looking for the right place to move. Jason was tired of hurricanes and I don’t want much snow. We were figuring the right fit.”
One day they drove to Asheboro and parked almost in front of 108 Sunset. “It felt like home,” she said. “We walked around all day. We were at peace. We liked the small-town feel and the Southern hospitality.
“Everybody we’ve been in contact with has been wonderful, welcoming, warm and friendly,” Stroud said. “We were worried about being new kids on the block, but everyone has been genuinely excited about having us here.”
This is the type of job that reflects the philosophy of Nannie Mae.
Stroud said, “I can’t imagine doing anything else, the amount of joy it brings to people, like a comforting hug.”