Lydia Stec describes her first business, Aquarius Star, as a metaphysical retail store: “to support you on your spiritual path no matter what that path might be.” Founded in 2006 on Sycamore Street in Over-the-Rhine, Aquarius Star relocated to a larger space on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton in 2009 and added a café, Om Eco Café.
But Stec soon found out that the neighborhood was a lot more interested in the café’s coffee and “urban garden-to-table” food than in Aquarius Star’s books, crystals, clothing and other items. The café took over the business, Stec says, to the point where Om Eco Café has become a full-fledged restaurant and the store will soon disappear entirely.
With the closing of Keller’s IGA supermarket several years ago, Ludlow Avenue merchants and nearby residents have hoped for a replacement anchor for the district, and Om Eco Café is helping fill that void. It adjoins the recently developed outdoor public space Clifton Plaza, where Stec was instrumental in starting a Monday evening farmers market. The Clifton Business Association asked her to program a summer concert series on weekends and other events in the plaza as well. She also hosts a Jazz brunch every Sunday in the café. Recently, she cooked up a partnership with neighboring Ludlow Wines where patrons who spend a minimum amount at her establishment can win a prize from the wine store.
Stec, a Cincinnati native, earned a degree in women’s studies from the University of Cincinnati and became a community activist with a special interest in environmental sustainability. She was a manager at Kaldi’s Coffee Shop before she opened her own shop and eventually moved into food service, where she gets to live her values, she says.
Those values include growing, preparing and serving food that is “healthy for the body and for the environment.” The staff at Om Eco Café composts, recycles and has a close relationship with local purveyors such as Snowville Creamery, Clifton Natural Foods and Sixteen Bricks Artisan Bakehouse. During the growing season, most of the café’s produce comes from the Enright Ridge Urban Ecovillage, the Price Hill community of 90 households where Stec lives with her family. The ecovillage, one of only a handful in Ohio, describes itself as “a community of people fostering a sustainable urban neighborhood that promotes social and economic well-being while contributing to the preservation of our planet,” according to its website (enrightecovillage.org).
The café’s hours and menu expanded earlier this year and it now serves dinner as well as breakfast and lunch. The original store layout featured retail shelves on the street level with a service counter and a few tables up a short flight of stairs. Stec rearranged everything this spring, adding more tables, several booths and swapping the retail and dining sections. Diners can bring their own beer and wine, which is served by the staff for a small corkage fee.
But even more extensive changes are underway. By the end of summer, Stec says the café will have a spirits license to serve artisan cocktails with herbal-infused liquors, barrel-aged cocktails, kombucha on tap and raw organic juice, all from the soon-to-be-installed “Earth Bar” at the front of the room. She will add a few more booths and a couple of sidewalk tables on Ludlow.
Menu choices range from breakfast items (omelets, quiche, hot oatmeal) and wraps on house-made pita bread to grilled panini on Shadeau multigrain and a selection of salads. There also are a few “specialty items” that can satisfy a heartier appetite, such as Aztec Lasagna or a stew of beans, rice and vegetables.
Among the tastiest dishes I’ve tried are the curried salmon salad (wild-caught Alaskan salmon, garbanzo beans, green peas and vegetables in curry yogurt vinaigrette on organic greens) and the “Mama Zen” wrap (organic family-recipe hummus with chopped veggies and organic greens on the delicious house-made pita). Prices range from $5.95 for some of the breakfast entrées to $10.95 for the salmon salad and a large chef’s salad. Drink options include direct trade, shade-grown coffee, espresso and tea — until the Earth Bar ups the ante.
Stec plans to expand the dinner entrée choices over the summer and add a dessert menu. While the current setup is for customers to order at a counter and wait for staff to bring out their food, the café will offer table service after the dining room renovations are complete.
OM ECO CAFÉ (329 Ludlow Ave., Clifton) is open 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday. More info: 513-381-3436, omecocafe.com.