BAR HARBOR — She’s taught at the circus and led a theater camp, started a successful water bottle company and lived in Shanghai. These days, Jordan Mercer can be found cooking something healthy in the Bar Harbor village of Town Hill. Her aim is to nourish children through nutritious lunches that she prepares.
Gather, located on Route 102 in the building formerly occupied by Town Hill Takeout, officially opened over Memorial Day weekend. In the front, Mercer sells breakfast, baked goods and bottomless coffee beginning at 6 a.m.; in the back, she prepares boxed lunches and family dinners, which are both sold at the shop and distributed across the island.
For the 27-year-old, inspiration struck when she was working with children in Crested Butte, Colo., where she organized a theater camp and taught ski school, among other jobs. She noticed the bare-bones, nutritiously poor packed lunches that children brought with them.
“The business was inspired by working with kids and seeing what they bring to lunch every day,” Mercer said. “Like a hot dog or a bag of chips. I’ve seen it all across the board.”
As a teacher, she observed that students often acted tired or grumpy when they were hungry. When she and her partner moved to Maine a year and a half ago, she channeled her passion for kids and her love of cooking into the business of making healthy lunches for other people’s children.
Initially, Mercer cooked in a borrowed kitchen at the Community School on Mount Desert Island. She had worked there for a little while as a substitute teacher before pitching her concept. The school agreed to let her use its facilities at no charge. She began to buy groceries, make lunches, and receive a bit of income.
Since then, she has expanded the operation furnishing prepared lunches to two daycares and four schools on Mount Desert Island, as well as several summer camps.
In addition to lunches, she now offers a menu of six takeout family dinners and — most recently — healthy breakfast options. The business remains a one-woman operation, although she receives distribution help from a few community members in exchange for a free coffee and baked good each morning.
Mercer wasn’t always a healthy eater. Growing up in Ozawkie, Kan., she learned to cook from her mother and grandmother, who owned a wedding cake company.
“I grew up eating bags of chips and cosmic brownies. Boxed macaroni and cheese,” she said.
She credits her travels for improving some of her eating habits. One of her first jobs was with the Ringling Bros. Circus, where she taught the school-age children who traveled and performed. Her neighbors on the circus train were a group of Shaolin monks, who instilled her with a love of authentic Chinese food and made her think about the limitations of the traditional American diet.
In Crested Butte, a town “epically known for being healthy,” she started cooking with friends and attending farmers markets. “I wanted to experience health,” she said.
These days, she uses locally sourced produce whenever possible, only organic animal products, and avoids white sugar. In kids’ lunches, she rotates grains each day — always rice on Mondays, followed by barley, millet, rye and oats. She includes a market fruit and vegetable in every lunch, and mixes in touted superfoods such as flaxseed and açaí berry.
Gather isn’t the Kansas native’s first business venture. While living in Crested Butte, she and a friend co-founded Nada Bottle, which makes eco-friendly collapsible water bottles. At the time, she moved to Shanghai to coordinate production, but has since left the company, preferring to focus her energies on cooking.
As her new business grows, a key concern for Mercer is affordability. A single-day kid’s lunch costs between $6 and $8.60, depending on the child’s age, a figure that she recognizes is out of reach for some families.
“The lunches should be free for kids who need them,” she said.
To begin to address the issue, she has partnered with the Harbor House, a nonprofit community organization in Southwest Harbor. The group set up a fund that allows donors to pay for a summer Gather lunch for students who receive free or reduced lunches from local schools during the rest of the year.
Mercer is still contemplating how to distribute the lunches to needy kids who don’t attend summer camps or the Harbor House’s community center. It’s something she thinks about when she gets up at 4:30 a.m. to start the steamed rice — and make a pot of coffee.
“The deeper part of this business is providing lunches to kids that need them,” she said. “That’s why I’m doing it, and it’s what I’m really passionate about.”