‘The banana bread is still warm” are the welcoming words at Lula Jane’s, where everything wonderful and delicious is served with Southern hospitality. Conversation and community are the main ingredients.

“The goal for me is that this is a gathering place for East Waco,” said Nancy Grayson, owner, chief baker and hostess extraordinaire of the eatery that opened on Oct. 31. “People are coming here, and that has been the most heart-warming for me.”

The dream of such a place “bringing good people together around good food” is born of her long passion for the Elm Avenue neighborhood.

Grayson founded Rapoport Academy in 1998 on the deserted Paul Quinn Campus just down the street to serve as a charter school for low-income minority students. The school defied the odds and grew to have classes from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, receive exemplary ratings and earn national awards.

And she was just honored as the Texas Charter Champion for 2012 by the Texas Charter School Association.

She served as Rapoport Academy’s director until 2011, trading in her role as educator for her new one as businesswoman, both professions with the common denominator as a community advocate.

“Both jobs are equally demanding,” she said. “At the bakery, I’m concerned that everyone is happy. At the school I was concerned about the children’s well-being and ability to be successful. It’s a different level of responsibility certainly, but the work required to do either is comparable. We’re enthusiastic, and we’re exhausted and we’re oftentimes here until 1 a.m. prepping for the next day.”

She doesn’t pretend to know all the ins and outs of running a restaurant, but took on the challenge to create a place where people can feel at home.

“It’s important that people feel this is a comfortable space, and the word on the street is that this is a place to be, and I’m so happy about that,” she said. “We love that we’re on Elm, people are coming and cars are parked here.”

Grayson and her team work hard to keep their customers coming back by encouraging their input on the baked goods that grace their counter.

“We do a great deal of listening so that we are a place that doesn’t disappoint people,” she said.

That’s unlikely considering Lula Jane’s menu is full of the fruits of Grayson’s oven — made-from-scratch pies, cakes, cookies, scones, biscuits and sweet rolls.

“Being a Deep Southern girl, you have to be able to make a fabulous pound cake and a fabulous buttermilk pie,” Grayson said. “My pound cake has won at the fair here several times.”

Also among her delightful concoctions are a “best-ever” peanut butter crunch pie, bacon cheddar scone and chocolate “dirty” cake.

“The pies are ‘knock your socks off,’ ” she said. She sells a slice for $3 and most varieties whole for $22.

“Our recipes are all original,” she said. “We make a Pumpkin Streusel Pie that I would walk a mile for. We make our crust and everything from scratch, even the lemon curd that is layered in our Luscious Lemon Cake.”

Cakes cost about $4 a slice and from $25 to $45.

Lula Jane’s is filling a niche in Waco for bakery-style fare, she said.

“We don’t make kolaches, doughnuts or cupcakes because other people are already doing that,” Grayson said. “Some of the comments we are getting are ‘You can’t get these kinds of baked goods anywhere else.’ ”

Steel-cut oats are served every morning along with breakfast cookies, blueberry bread and sweet rolls made the old-fashioned way.

A cup of coffee starts at the throwback price of 50 cents.

“We are very plain-spoken about our coffee,” Grayson said. “We have big coffee and we have little coffee. We have cheap coffee and we have fine coffee.”

The beverages menu also offers macchiatos, Americanos, cappuccinos, lattes and teas.

A meatless lunch dish is prepared daily using farm-fresh ingredients and vegetables and herbs from the bakery’s garden.

Focaccia with garlic and rosemary or parmesan polenta with fresh tomato sauce and roasted veggies are samples of lunch plates guests might find.

“We want to be able to guarantee consistency so we use the highest quality and finest ingredients,” Grayson said. “Our chocolate comes from Belgium, for example.”

Lula Jane’s went through 90 pounds of butter in the first four days of operation, she said.

Creating community

Lula Jane’s is in a new building at 406 Elm Ave. that is pleasant and bright on the inside and historically accurate on the exterior with an adjacent pocket park. Indoor and outdoor seating can accommodate just fewer than 100 guests.

The bakery is attracting a sampling of the community, including students and faculty from Baylor University, McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College Waco; residents from the surrounding neighborhood; and downtown professionals.

“People are coming and getting food to take to meetings, and we are seeing lots of meetings here,” Grayson said. “They are saying ‘Let’s meet at Lula Jane’s.’ “

People are coming from all over town, fulfilling Grayson’s dream of “if we build it, they will come.”

A healthy mix of local residents talk about the history of the area, Grayson said. “While standing in line, they talk to people they otherwise might not know.”

Monday is Domino Day with free coffee served to customers while they play. “We want to give retired people a reason to come in and add to our mix of customers,” Grayson said.

“We’re making it Macaroni Monday, too, as a comfort food on our menu. We’re trying different things to pull all segments of the population together.”

Besides the traditional games of dominos and cards, and chalkboards for the children, Lula Jane’s also offers the modern convenience of free Wi-Fi for customers who want to work or study.

“We want people who reside in the loft living nearby to know they can walk four blocks across the river and be here,” Grayson said.

Lula Jane’s is the newest establishment on the culinary landscape of East Waco joining Tony DeMaria’s Barbecue and McDowell’s Café, both on Elm, and Lula Mae’s on Taylor Street that Grayson said “serves the best soul food in town.”

People who have not come to East Waco in a while may be surprised by what they see, she said.

Environmentally friendly

“We are extraordinarily green,” Grayson said. “We serve everything on real plates and cups. We charge 25 cents for a to-go cup, but we encourage our customers to bring in their own to-go mugs.”

A huge attic exhaust is used early in the mornings to pump out hot air that has risen to the upper areas of the building during the night.

The business composts waste and has a water collection tank to irrigate the gardens of vegetables, herbs and flowers.

“Our gardens are examples of what anyone can do. They are not fancy, and we don’t have raised beds. We use the ground dirt instead of packaged potting soil, and we use the city’s mulch and compost,” Grayson said. “It’s something I think everyone should do whether in a clay pot or on a plot of land.”

The gardens are composted in layers to “cook” over the winter in preparation for spring planting.

“We are working on our pocket park by planting trees and an 18-bicycle bike rack so cyclists can come in and relax after they cycle early in the morning,” she said.

Family ties

Grayson credits her grandparents for instilling in her the work ethic and “stick-to-it-iveness” required to run a business.

“My grandfather was an extraordinary gardener. I learned a lot of my gardening from him,” Grayson said. “And my grandmother was quite accomplished in her own right as a nurse in the late 1800s. A lot of the spunk for taking risks comes from my family.”

She said her father invented the technology used by major name brands such as Frito Lay to package potato chips without breaking them.

“Thinking creatively and efficiently is something that I grew up with,” she said.

The namesake for Lula Jane’s is her grandmother, a woman who shunned social conventions of her day and cut her hair into a bob, a bold move in rural Mississippi where women traditionally wore longer locks.

It was also this woman who knew how to turn yeast and butter and fresh ingredients into delightful food baking in the oven — releasing wonderful aromas that evoke memories of love and tradition. It’s those sorts of feel-good senses that Grayson considers her gift to the community.

“When I look around, I see a student studying, a businessman working, a family gathered around a table and a serious discussion between two women on the front porch,” she said. “It’s just perfect.”

Lula Jane’s

406 Elm Ave.

Monday-Friday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

254-366-0862