Outside, Minneapolis was cold and covered in grubby gray snow, slowly shifting to slush. The potholed streets looked more like Oreos than asphalt.
But step through the doors of Lutunji Abram's bakery and there's warmth and laughter; coffee and cobbler and community. Community, best of all.
Tamuno Imbu almost didn't make it there last Saturday. He's so glad he did.
"Let me tell you, I woke up today and I had a flat tire. My energy was low. I didn't know if I was going to get here," said Imbu, a community organizer and wellness coach who came to the bakery to introduce a group of plant-curious neighbors to some sweet vegan treats.
Lutunji's Palate has been brightening the corner of Park Avenue and E Grant, just south of downtown, for the better part of a year.
The shop was crowded and cheerful last Saturday. Regulars from nearby Elliot Park condos and apartments ordered their usual peach lattes, sandwiches and pound cake. Plant-curious newcomers were meeting Imbu and the nonprofit Compassionate Action for Animals to give vegan peach cobbler a try.
"When I walked through that door and I saw all these people here," Imbu said, "it elevated me. It changed me. It brought me to where I needed to be."
Sociologists say we all need a "third place" — somewhere that's not home or work. Someplace we can strike up a friendly conversation with a stranger. Someplace that reminds us we're part of a greater community.
If you're lucky, you find a place like that.
If you're Lutunji Abram, you build a place like that.
"We are a social enterprise, after all," she said with a smile, offering a sample of this month's herbal infusion — a refreshing purple potion of blue pea power, hibiscus, rosemary and citrus that tastes like springtime in a cup.
For years, she practiced and perfected her recipes, selling cobbler out of booths at farmers markets and dreaming of the day she'd be able to welcome everyone over to a place of her own.
It was never going to be just a bakery.
Every second Tuesday is open mic night at Lutunji's Palate, drawing poets, musicians and storytellers to the space. A crayon thank-you note posted on the wall behind the cash register is a reminder of a recent children's baking class she hosted.
On that Saturday, chairs were pulled away from the tables and lined up in rows for the audience that had turned out to hear Davetta Hammond talk about her new spiritual memoir, "Reflections of Me."
In addition to the bakery and café, Abram runs a catering business and sells her cobbler at a growing number of local grocery stores — look for her signature Mason jars of cobbler at Hy-Vee.
"I'm exhausted for good reason," she said with a smile.
Launching a business is a challenge in the best of times. The past three years have not been the best of times.
Burglars smashed their way into Abram's shop on opening weekend last year. An opening weekend that is still one of her favorite memories, just because of the hundreds of people who came out to celebrate and support Lutunji's Palate.
In the kitchen, a crew of talented workers are learning their way around a peach cobbler — and all the other big jobs that go into running a small business.
"She's not going to tell us all the recipes," said Elroy Lindsey, 19, who joined the team with his 18-year-old brother, Rey. Working with them on Saturday were Merrick Woods and Peyton Rogers, both 17, and Ellie Faris, 19.
Abram might not share the full secret cobbler recipe, but she is showing them the ropes. They've worked on the recipes, step by painstaking step; they've packaged cobbler, they've worked catering events in gleaming downtown office towers.
All of it, Lindsey hopes, will help him start a sweet business of his own someday.
"I'm interested in the dessert business," he said. Specifically, "a food truck for desserts — all homemade desserts."
For now, this job and this workplace, he said: "It's honestly perfect. I've got a great employer, great co-workers."
Bakers know what it takes to rise and Abram hopes to lift as she rises. She hopes Minneapolis will uplift her too.
"Tell them I'm here," she said. "The ambience, the love, is waiting for them."