Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

A Place at the Table: The faces behind Harrisburg’s women-owned food businesses

Photo by Hartman Benzon Media

They’re newbies, seasoned veterans and family members continuing a culinary legacy. These women happily find themselves part of a boom of female-owned food businesses in Harrisburg.

For a long time, Harrisburg didn’t have much of a dining scene.

Then, in the early 2000s, a few pioneers took a risk, mostly downtown, and, over the past few years, another wave of restaurants opened. But one thing was different this time around—many, perhaps most, were owned and operated by women.

A few women said they entered the business to continue a family legacy. Others said they wanted to work for themselves. Then there are those who, like many business owners before them, simply had a dream to do it.

They pull long workweeks, doing everything from preparing meals to washing the dishes to managing the finances.

“I’m under the sink with a wrench,” said Kristin Messner-Baker of the Vegetable Hunter, a vegetarian restaurant downtown. “It’s not glamorous.”

Some said they’ve encountered sexism on the job, from customers or in a business setting.

“I go into a place, and I have to spend the first 15 minutes to half hour convincing people that I’m worth listening to,” said Andrea Grove of Elementary Coffee, adding that customers sometimes think her male employees run her popular stand in the Broad Street Market.

Though their jobs are stressful, challenging and risky, these owners and co-owners said they wouldn’t have it any other way. In the following pages, we briefly introduce several of the women shaking up Harrisburg’s food scene.

Staci Basore, Elide Hower and Qui Qui Musarra: Rubicon, Mangia Qui and Suba

Though in charge of five menus, four kitchens and three restaurants, the owners of Mangia Qui, Rubicon and Suba still find time for afternoon adventures.

“We like to go biking, kayaking, play golf,” Staci Basore said. “If we can squeeze an hour in between lunch and dinner service, we’ll do that and come back.”   

These seasoned restaurateurs thrive in the freedom that comes with self-employment.

“We answer to each other,” Qui Qui Musarra said.

They chuckle at romanticized visions of running a restaurant. Each woman clocks in 60 to 70 hours per week. Plus, working weekends “comes with the territory,” Basore said.

The trio opened Mangia Qui nearly two decades ago. They credit consistency in a quality product for sustaining a supportive customer base, “vital members to our families,” Basore said.

Each woman came to Harrisburg with professional restaurant experience from across the country and world. Their three restaurants’ internationally inspired menus and drinks reflect this.  

They stay abreast of food trends, adapting as needed. Unceasingly, they stay true to themselves.

“It has to come from within,” Musarra said. “What Staci does, what I do, what Elide does—it’s all based on who we are.”

And that’s another reward to running an independent restaurant.

Andrea Grove: Elementary Coffee

Running a lemonade stand with her brother at 8 years old taught Andrea Grove her first business lesson.

“You can’t drink the lemonade because that’s drinking profits,” she said.

Since starting Elementary Coffee at the Broad Street Market in 2014, the former English major has learned a few more.  

“When it comes to how to run a successful business, it comes down to meeting people and connecting with them,” she said.

Her shop partners with local businesses such as Calicutts Spice Co. in Lemoyne and Frederic Loraschi Chocolate in Colonial Park. These relationships extend internationally, too. Grove is developing a partnership to bring in ethically sourced coffee from Ugandan farmers.

She wants her specialty coffee shop to connect with all members of the community.

“Coffee shouldn’t exclude anyone,” she said. “You can almost leave people behind, based on price point or … based on atmosphere,” she said.

A small cup of specialty coffee costs $2, with creative espresso drinks a buck or two more. The market location attracts folks from all walks of life.

Though she initially hesitated to open in the Broad Street Market, seen as risky before its remarkable renaissance, the community has embraced Elementary Coffee, she said.

“I feel like this is such a self-supporting community,” she said. “I feel like, in general, people are warm and really willing to help.”

Leena Shenoy: Passage to India

Leena Shenoy likes to share a story that shows just how much Passage to India has become an essential part of the Harrisburg community.

For decades, one special guest celebrated his birthday at the Shipoke restaurant. Ten years ago, after marking his 90th, he told Shenoy, “I don’t know if I’ll see you next year.”

This past April, the day of his 100th birthday, he said the same thing after Shenoy brought his favorite dishes to a birthday celebration at his senior living facility.   

“He was so happy to see us,” she said. “To do something like that was the best thing I’ve ever felt in my life.”

Over the course of the restaurant’s 24 years, she’s met some guests as newborns, and, now, they’re married. The restaurant has also hosted countless Indian wedding ceremonies with “nothing less than 300 people,” she said. Meeting guests and learning their stories keep the restaurant business fun.

“That’s what puts me back into my shoes,” she said.

Her husband, Vishnu, ran the business until his sudden passing in 2011. She said he emphasized treating guests as if they were royalty. Now, as the owner, she carries forward this vision.

“Every guest is like god, and you have to treat them like a god,” she said. “That’s what we believe in our customs. That’s what I believe.”

That’s what keeps customers coming back.

Nora Proctor: P&R Bakery

Nora Proctor’s mother always prepared her southern sweet potato pie from memory, never considering this dessert to be special. But to Proctor, her husband Ed and customers at P&R Bakery, the pie was an instant favorite.  

Eager to replicate the dessert, she watched her mother closely. Then, she spent a whole day in the kitchen figuring out the recipe. “I think I got it!” she told Ed when he came home that evening.

“He blew my bubble,” she said, smiling. “He said, ‘You don’t know if you got it until I taste it.’”

He confirmed it. She had discovered her mother’s recipe.

Since then, this recipe has been a mainstay in their decades of selling homemade pies, cookies and other baked goods.

P&R Bakery sustains her mother’s legacy in more ways than just the pie. After her mother passed away, the couple took a “leap of faith,” as Ed called it. In 2006, they opened in the Broad Street Market. Six years later, they moved to Midtown Scholar Bookstore.

The consistent quality keeps customers coming back, she said.

“We use the old-fashioned ingredients,” she said. “Real butter, eggs.”

Plus, the sweet potato pie hasn’t changed significantly since the moment Proctor put the recipe to paper.

Elodia and Ana Saenz: Mexico Lindo

To sisters Ana and Elodia Saenz, preparing tacos from authentic recipes keeps family traditions alive.  

The co-owners of Mexico Lindo, the taco truck parked at 15th and Market streets, serve cuisine derived from the region their father Eloy calls home. After two decades of serving the people of Harrisburg, he retired to his native Michoacán four years ago.

That’s when the sisters stepped up to run the family business.

They use fresh ingredients to prepare tacos from scratch, “because that is the Latino way,” Elodia said.

Customers appreciate the authenticity. Many find the truck through word of mouth. Some have eaten Saenz family tacos since 1990, when Eloy opened shop.

“They’re like part of the family,” Elodia said.

Knowing they’re continuing a family business motivates the sisters to each work about 70 hours per week. Ana’s daughter and Elodia’s son work weekends to “make some money and eat,” Elodia said.

A third generation may take over the shop. Elodia’s son studies hospitality management at Penn State, after being inspired by his grandfather and the family business.

“Because my father began this, I don’t want this to die,” Elodia said. “I can pass it on to my family.”

Mihye Pak: Yami Korean Food

Mihye Pak runs her stand at the Broad Street Market “the hard way,” she said.

She starts each week driving to Baltimore to purchase ingredients at a Korean market. Then she and her four employees hand-cut all the vegetables (because there’s more crunch and flavor than machine-cut, she said) and prepare fresh sauces (“So I know what’s in there.”).

She does all this work so that, when the market is open, Thursday to Saturday, she is able to serve authentic, home-style Korean food.

“When you make things the easy way, you’re not going to last long,” she said. “Customers, they know.”

She’s owned Yami for four years, after the previous owner reached out to her. Though scared, she said she would try it.

When Pak took over the shop, she swapped the old recipes—prepared with shortcuts and unhealthy MSG—with a new menu of dishes cooked as the customer ordered it.  

She’s picky, she said. Her employees know this, too.

“I tell employees, ‘If you don’t want to eat it, don’t give it to the customers,’” she said.

Though, she admitted, if she cut corners, she could work less.

“I’m the last one to leave [the market’s stone building],” she said. “I never shut down unless the market shuts down.”

Kristin Messner-Baker: The Vegetable Hunter

Adaptability serves Kristin Messner-Baker well.

She studied creative writing, practiced law and entered motherhood, all while nurturing a dream to open a café.

Then, in June 2014, she and her husband John seized an opportunity to open a vegetarian restaurant called Crave & Co. on N. 2nd Street.

As the co-owner, she does everything from manage employees to fix what needs fixing.

Most importantly, she stays flexible.

Over time, the café evolved into the Vegetable Hunter, the name better reflecting its focus on vegetarian and vegan dishes. It even recently started selling its own craft beer. Messner-Baker plans to roll out a new menu, too.

“If you are stubborn and stick to one vision, and it doesn’t work, you are out of business,” she said.

Crave & Co., she believes, sounded too generic. The new name positions the businesses well for its future, she said.

The Vegetable Hunter feeds a hungry niche of veggie lovers in the Harrisburg area. Throughout the changes, the friendly atmosphere and quality food have remained the same.

“I love creating this atmosphere of a happy home,” she said. “[I love] meeting different people. Everyone’s friendly.”

Author: Danielle Roth

Continue Reading