On New Year’s Eve 1996, Leigh Lockhart got a call from a friend telling her Lakota coffee shop had an empty food service counter available.
The next day, Lockhart made a batch of juice and drove it to the owner of Lakota and convinced him to let her open Columbia’s first juice bar in his coffee shop .
“Ambition got the best of me,” Lockhart recalled. “I decided to open a restaurant.”
Main Squeeze opened in 1997 not far from Lakota on Ninth Street. It is a juice bar and cafe with a completely plant-based menu. Most of the ingredients used for the menu items are locally or organically sourced.
Everything on the menu is simple and accessible because Lockhart doesn’t want clean eating to be difficult or intimidating.
The menu also changes weekly, and is revamped every few months in order to stay fresh for customers. Lockhart’s favorite menu item is The Ruby, a sandwich with marinated organic tempeh, cheese, organic sauerkraut, lettuce, tomatoes and onion on rye.
Menu items like these are available with completely vegan and gluten-free ingredient substitutions. Soups, salads, sandwiches, bowls, breakfasts and juices are categories that can be found on the menu at any time.
Main Squeeze focuses on dine-in services, but it also offers a grab-and-go option . Because she wants to share her food philosophy of a whole-food diet that avoids processed ingredients, a clean-eating cookbook of menu favorites is in the works.
Philanthropy and food equity have become a big part of the Main Squeeze mission. The restaurant doesn’t just provide fresh food to its customers but also to the homeless and the Food Bank for Central and Northeast Missouri.
The cafe donates money to gardens in Columbia that deliver to the local food bank, and the cafe cooks and packs meals to be delivered to homeless communities in town.
Lockhart said she spends a lot of time in the cafe throughout the week helping her staff of 20 in the kitchen and at the counter.
Main Squeeze employee Deandra Butler said working at the restaurant doesn’t even feel like work. Butler said Lockhart looks out for everyone and is an advocate for those who need help in Columbia, such as the homeless community.
When she’s not directly serving customers or managing the business, Lockhart comes up with new menu items, works on other projects or maintains the garden at her home in Hartsburg.
She also spends time promoting social causes and uses her platform as a business owner and her highly visible storefront windows on Ninth Street to promote causes she is passionate about, such as Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ equality and animal rights.
Friend and long-time customer Lynn Rossy said Main Squeeze is a place to go to “feed their bodies and feed their souls.” Rossy said she has been a loyal customer of the café since it opened.
Both Rossy and Lockhart share the philosophy that food is an experience to be enjoyed and planned. They also both work to educate people about food, such as where it comes from, how your body uses it, and how you can better enjoy meals.
The inspiration to open a juice bar/clean-eating-cafe came while Lockhart was traveling. In the late 1980s, the St. Louis native found herself at a juice bar in California and knew she had enough experience in the food service industry to build a business based on juice and plant-based eating.
The business has survived with the help of loyal customers and has grown to serve a broad spectrum of food preferences in Columbia, never catering to a specific market.
“Everyone should be able to eat good food,” Lockhart said.