If a visit to one of Southern Belle's restaurants feels a lot like coming home, it might have something to do with the hearty family traditions behind the kitchen's down-home breakfast and lunch dishes. “My father was in pancake houses all his life,” says owner Steve Fotos. Today, many of the same recipes used by Steve's father help populate a menu of hearty comfort foods that includes a poached-egg and sausage benedict smothered in country gravy and french toast stuffed with cinnamon apples, strawberries and pecans, or blueberries and bananas. But while the country-fried-steak or smoked-sausage skillets are tempting, the expansive menu offers options for diets of all kind, pairing fluffy egg whites with strawberries, granola, and multigrain toast and swapping out regular maple syrup for bottles that are low-calorie, sugar-free, or simply sealed shut. Photos of farms and pastoral images smile down upon diners as they dig in and gently remind them to inquire about the restaurant's seasonal specials, which range from summertime salads with sun-ripened veggies to bowls of homemade wintertime chili.
The team at NuVibe Juice & Java fills vacant cups with free-trade, air-roasted coffee drinks and more than 30 flavors of smoothies. As they blend pieces of nutritious fresh fruit, 100% juice, and creamy yogurt or sherbet, staffers eschew the use of high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and forced smiles. Power smoothies contain 25 grams of whey protein to fuel working muscles, and the menu caters to low-carb and kid-sized diets.
The shop procures its coffee from The Roasterie, a nationally renowned company that uses a convection-air method to roast beans purchased from small specialty farmers. The smooth-tasting results comprise concoctions such as creamy caramel lattes and chocolate peanut-butter blended ice coffees, and both pair well with free WiFi and a hot pretzel or muffin.
In 1988, Auntie Anne's founders Anne and Jonas Beiler purchased a Pennsylvania farmers'-market stand, where they experimented with dough until they created a pretzel that seemed to strike the perfect chord with their customers. Today, at their more than 1,350 locations worldwide, the pretzel makers still hand roll the original recipe but have added to the menu with inventive options such as the eight signature dipping sauces. The team constantly explores new uses for the pretzel dough, such as wrapping it around hot dogs and slicing it into bite-size nuggets. To transform the snack into a meal, they accompany it with specialty drinks, including frozen-lemonade desserts.
When not twisting dough, Auntie Anne's team partners with the national charitable organization Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, which raises funds to fight childhood cancer. Auntie Anne's also reaches out to the community through fundraising opportunities.
When Debbi Fields opened the first Mrs. Fields in 1977, it wasn’t all sunshine and cookies. Between her lack of business experience and the unorthodox business model—selling only cookies—not many people believed in her. More than 30 years and a global franchise later, it’s safe to say the doubters are eating their words, at least when they're not busy stuffing their faces with one of Debbi's signature semisweet chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin and walnut cookies.
The wild popularity of Mrs. Fields's cookies can be attributed to the richness of their basic ingredients: real butter, whole eggs, and special blends of chocolate. Classic flavors include chewy fudge, peanut butter, and white chocolate macadamia, and seasonal flavors complement the lineup throughout the year. Select varieties can also be made into cookie cakes of various sizes and shapes that add a delicious twist to any celebration or milk-truck spill.
Cold Stone's ice cream, made fresh in stores every day, inhabits a quantum flux between soft-serve and traditional ice cream, with a rich, creamy texture. The ice cream lovingly embraces dozens of toppings in its velvety arms, from treats as traditional as crumbled cookies and chopped nuts to quirky delights such as granola and black licorice. Choose your favorite ice cream from a variety of silky flavors, such as irish cream and cake batter, and then make certain no one will try and steal a taste by topping it protectively with brownies, gumballs, and cherry pie filling ($4.84/Love It signature creation, $2.29/kids' creation). Whatever Frankencream you create, it'll be scooped cold off the grill into a freshly made waffle cone or bowl, or blended into a tongue-pleasing shake ($4.89/Gotta Have It).
Paradise Smoothie's blender blades chew up fresh fruits and nutritious additions for a menu that showcases healthful, flavorful smoothies as well as a cascade of blended coffee drinks. Regular fruit-mix smoothies ($3.95) make appealing cocktails of a produce section’s worth of goodies, including pineapple, strawberry, and banana, with inventive additions such as lychee and avocado.
When Carrie Staub was laid off from her 20-year career as a corporate travel agent, she tried her hand at baking as a way to stay productive while staying at home with her kids. Her first attempts at truffles weren't fancy, but as friends and family steadily devoured her creations, she gradually refined their look and taste until they were ready to go public.
Today, she hand-rolls, hand-dips, and hand-details cake pops for a growing fan base. "You'll never find any two that are exactly the same," she says, turning out a steady stream of intricate specialty designs and an assortment of classic flavors.
Carrie says the pops are especially popular as favors, and she's gotten orders for birthday parties, holidays, baby showers, and even a wedding. She carries a sketchbook to jot down ideas, though inspiration can strike with each individual order—such as her beer mug and cheeseburger pops, which are available at The Garage Bar & Sandwiches on Chicago's North Side.
The busier Cake Pop Charm gets, the more passionate Carrie is about her business. And her freedom from the traditional workday brings another benefit: She gets to see a lot more of her 4-year-old twins.
"I feel like I can have my cake pop and eat it, too," she says.