Written by Karyn Knecht
Photos by Jay Farris
As soon as you walk into The Treehouse, you know you’ve found somewhere special. Under soft lighting, local art hangs from exposed brick walls, while indie-rock melodies serenade customers enjoying coffee and artisan sandwiches. Tucked away at the end of Main Street in Hazard, Kentucky, the story of Treehouse Café and Bakery shows how a young entrepreneur is working to creatively revitalize her hometown. Born and raised in Hazard, restaurant owner Jennifer Noble was 24 when she had the choice to go to New York to pursue a painting career, or to move back home.
“New York didn’t need another artist, but I felt Hazard needed something different,” she said. Noble had seen photos of downtown taken during the coal boom of the 60’s, when the streets were full of cars and people, and business was good. She wanted to see Main Street come back to life.
“I just imagined having a business, a storefront, on Main Street,” she said. “Something that would bring people joy.”
The menu at Treehouse boasts healthy, all natural choices, and nothing is fried. “At first, my parents and everybody I knew said, ‘nobody is going to eat that stuff. Nobody here eats hummus.’” Given the opportunity, Noble believed people would enjoy those options. “So I did it anyway,” she explained.
In the beginning, Noble was focused on supporting local artists, inviting them to display and sell their work in the restaurant. It wasn’t until she was invited to speak on a panel at Growing Appalachia (an annual conference focused on the role of local foods in Eastern Kentucky’s economic transition), that Noble decided to start buying ingredients from local farmers.
“I got to sit on a panel with these farmers, and I got to hear their stories of how difficult it is for them and how they needed restaurants and local people to buy their produce and their meats. Hearing their story firsthand really opened my eyes that it is an option and something I needed to do,” said Noble. After that, Noble began ordering produce from Maggie Bowling, who had just started a vegetable CSA at Old Homeplace Farm in Clay County. Expanding on the local mission, Treehouse now offers eight different beers brewed in Kentucky. They also sell goats milk soaps, lotions, and lip balm produced by N&S Farm in Letcher County. “That is hugely successful here. I’d say they [N&S Farm] are doing wonderful, and that makes me very happy,” said Noble.
Noble has also found that buying from local farmers matters to her customers. One time a customer asked if the lettuce and tomato used that day were grown locally. “I said no, and she ordered something else. She didn’t want it if it wasn’t local,” remembered Noble. “I think we do have more people come in when we advertise that we use local ingredients… I think everyone appreciates that we’re keeping the money local,” she continued.
Now in her third year of business, Noble is still surprised by how important her restaurant has become to her community. “It just unfolded that way, where people started coming here to have meetings and to talk about improving the community and Main Street,” she said. “Then I got to get involved with those things, representing Treehouse and making a difference.”
Although starting a restaurant is hard work, Noble remains excited about her work. “I still don’t have a place to live,” said Noble. She and her two sons are currently living with her parents. “I’ve got about two and a half years to go before I make it to that 5 year point, when they say that you’ll start to make money.”
It’s the little things that keep her going. Like the story of her friend John Kolesar. Seventy-eight year old Kolesar would walk from his apartment down the street every morning to visit Treehouse as soon as they opened. “I later found out that he had bone cancer in his hip, and he would walk down here anyways. And every day he would bring something that we could put in here or hang on the wall,” Noble said. After he passed away, John’s VA burial flag was placed on display at Treehouse along with his many other gifts.
Passionate about her hometown, Noble serves on the steering committee for InVision Hazard, a group working towards economic development and Main Street revitalization in Hazard. “A lot of people have approached me asking for advice on starting their own business. They want to know how difficult it is, or if it’s worth it. I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes to what could be done in Hazard,” said Noble. She advises hopeful entrepreneurs to learn about the resources available to them, like MACED, an organization that provides financial support and training to small business owners and entrepreneurs in Central Appalachia. “I still need help and training and advice,” she explained.
Community plays a big role in the Treehouse Café. From the monthly Poets’ Series to political events to punk shows, the energy of the place and its people are a constant inspiration to Noble. And she wants to help that energy grow across the region. “I always try to inspire young people to get involved… I want them to want to be involved and to help make it a better place, because it’s where their children are going to grow up, where my children are going to grow up. We need to make it better for them.”