When Michaella Perez realized she can’t find a food place in town accommodating her son’s dietary needs, she decided to open one. Her business Stir It Up offers gluten-free, keto, vegetarian and vegan options, serving Fairbanks residents with various preferences a tasty meal.
“I really love it that people from all dietary walks — whether that lifestyle chose them because of their body, or they are choosing to eat healthier — everyone can sit down at these tables, and they are getting a meal they actually enjoy,” Perez said.
Right as Perez speaks, a family of three is enjoying their meal at the nearby table at Cafe de Stir It Up.
“Just like them for example,” Perez said. “They came in, everybody needed something different for dietary stuff, and the whole family got to sit down. “
Perez explained that some families don’t eat out for years, unable to find a place that will serve safe options for them. Besides, people with dietary restrictions often struggle to find a meal they actually want to eat.
“With allergies or dietary needs you often find yourself ordering a lettuce-wrapped burger and a side salad, and you are just like, ‘Ugh, I don’t even wanna go out eat,” she said. “We have families who have celiac or egg and dairy allergies, and they can come in here and they are not just getting a salad with cucumber. They are able to say, ‘I have a whole wrap with all these veggies, and this sauce doesn’t have dairy or eggs in it so I can eat it!’ That really makes me happy.”
At Stir It Up, breakfast burritos and croissants, subs and bagels, as well as salads and baked goods are all made with the taste in mind. Perez is constantly updating her menu, observing which items become popular, and which can help free the space for something fresh and new.
Another thing that Perez always has on her mind is children and youth. The whole idea behind Stir It Up came to her when she realized it would be a real challenge to find her son a snack “other than a bag of potato chips,” if she happens to forget to pack it.
Determined to fill the need for a healthy and tasty food place, back in 2015 Perez opened the original location of Stir It Up, a coffee stand located on Phillips Fields Road. It was the first hut in Fairbanks to bring gluten-free options, but it was only the beginning. In 2018, Perez opened Cafe de Stir It Up on Old Steese Highway, a sit-down breakfast and lunch place. And in February 2020, she added a coffee stand on Farmers Loop, right before the pandemic hit.
Adjusting to the uncertainty of the economic environment, Perez closed the latest addition on Farmers Loop for the winter, but this wasn’t the hardest decision she needed to make.
“One of the hardest things for me was deciding whom I was going to cut for staff and how I was going to do that,” she said. “I lost a lot of sleep deciding that.”
Luckily, two of her employees who have partners or spouses stepped up to support the staff with less financial security.
“They said, ‘Hey we are just gonna take this time off. Keep these people working,’” Perez said.
And so the great team Perez has grew smaller. Of course, the line of visitors at Cafe de Stir It Up shrank as well.
“It’s been hard, it’s been really difficult because there is nothing more that I love than this dining room full of chatter at lunch or breakfast time,” she said.
The shortages of the pandemic also made it harder for Perez to find all the staple supplies she needed, and with less staff, she had to put more workload on the remaining employees.
“It has been lots of long hours and lots of hard work, but you know, we are here,” she said.
They are not alone. Stir It Up was one of the first businesses providing healthy food options in town, but quite a few others followed the lead.
“Now I am so thankful to see that there are so many places in town that are encompassing gluten-free, keto, vegetarian, vegan,” Perez said. “That was really awesome that it cascaded. I didn’t go into that with that intention. And I’m really happy that we could pioneer that movement here in Fairbanks.”
Continuing to lead two locations of her small business through the pandemic, in her personal life Perez is also raising her son as a single mom. When asked how she manages it all, she answers that she finds support in family and friends.
“Also, lots of coffee,” she chuckles. “Coffee, chocolate and hope.”
Contact staff writer Alena Naiden at 459-7587. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMlocal.