Leslie Needleman and Mary Kathryn Bass are disco soul sisters. They were born the same year, exactly a week apart. They both grew up in small towns in Texas and Georgia. They had a Studio 54-themed party for their 50th birthdays, deemed “Studio 50,” where they matched in gold sequined outfits and danced to “The Hustle” and KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight.”
“Disco never died in our book,” Needleman says.
They became friends in 2007 when their kids attended the Lamplighter School and grew closer as years progressed, especially after Needleman was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. At that time, Needleman became determined to regain and maintain her health by eating clean, nutritious foods. After her treatments were complete, Needleman thought about getting into nutrition counseling, wanting to call her business Diamonds on Your Inside.
“What if you had a little juice bar in the front,” Bass asked Needleman.
“Great, do it with me,” Needleman responded.
And that’s how they started.
The word “gem” came to Needleman one day while she was running, pondering variations of “diamond.” She and Bass used it in the name of their new business, The GEM Organic Food & Juice Bar, which opened in Preston Center in February 2012. For the first few months, most of the customers were friends. Now, the Preston Center and Preston Forest locations have become neighborhood favorites, where employees know the names and orders of regular customers.
“You know people here. Everyone feels welcome,” Bass says. “It’s approachable.”
The GEM’s earliest menu was small, but all the original items have stood the test of time. Needleman and Bass, who both love to cook, develop the recipes themselves. The Green Glow, made with kale, cucumber, lemon, apple and ginger, is the most popular juice and was dreamed up by Needleman while she was sick. Other offerings, like the lentil soup and hummus, are home recipes the co-owners made out of a desire for organic, plant-based, clean foods.
A visit to The GEM isn’t unique just because of the brightly colored walls, upbeat music and disco ball hanging from the ceiling. Many of the ingredients, such as the cashew milk, hemp milk and elderberry syrup, are made in house.
“Customers trust us,” Bass says. “They know we’re making it. They see us. It’s not out of a box, out of the refrigerator. It’s authentic.”
Bass and Needleman used last year to perfect recipes, make their business more efficient and train employees. They also focused on immunity and encouraged customers to take care of themselves by consuming healthy foods and drinks, just as Needleman set out to do throughout her cancer diagnosis and recovery.
But the women faced challenges before last year. In the early days, Bass and Needleman struggled to find a supplier who could provide organic ingredients in the quantities they needed. They finally found one in Chef’s Produce, and they’ve been with the Houston-based company ever since.
“Organic is still hard to find, but we now have it a little easier,” Bass says.
Bass had a career in product development and marketing, but neither she nor Needleman had experience owning their own company. They sought advice from local small-business owners, and now, nearly 10 years later, they’re planning to open a third location.
“Ninety percent of it is showing up,” Needleman says. “When you set those goals and intentions, things will come around for you. You just keep surrounding yourself with good people and asking questions.”
The GEM Organic Food & Juice Bar, 6030 Luther Lane, 214-750-2929; 5915 Forest Lane, 214-792-9928