Finding Joy in food

Sorelle’s Joy Smith prepares tons of grab-and-go dishes in her new space 

by Stephanie Gibson Lepore
Content Director, Bham Family magazine

Photographs courtesy of Joy Smith

When you ask Joy Smith how long she’s been into cooking and what first piqued her interest, she’ll tell you two things: Always, even going back to pretend play in the kitchen when she was a little girl, and her mom, who cooked everything herself, from baking bread to beautiful pies and all the other dishes in between. “She was a single mom and a huge influence on me,” says Joy. “I learned a lot of things from watching her in the kitchen.” 

Joy’s love for cooking never waned, and she eventually moved on from plastic play food to the real thing. “My first job was in a kitchen,” she says. “Front of the house, back of the house—it just comes natural for me to be there. I do love to cook, but I really love to feed people. When I see somebody eat something and enjoy it, well, I just love to be a part of that.” 

Cheesecakes are one of Sorelle’s signature items.

And she was, working in various restaurants while obtaining a psychology degree from UAB and then falling into teaching. She was at Creative Montessori in Homewood for 10 years, where she continued to work as a server on the side. While at Creative Montessori, Joy had the opportunity to take on the role of food service director, and she took the opportunity to revamp the entire lunch program at the school. “I helped the students plant an organic garden—we planted, picked, and cooked the green beans we grew. We made it fun,” she says. “And then I was able to get fresh fruits, veggies, and a salad bar into the lunch program. And my reward was seeing everyone love the food.” 

Even though she loved her job, she had kept a childhood memory tucked away, and it was starting to nag at her heart. “When I was 7 years old, my mom and I were driving in Michigan [where they lived at the time], and she saw a little shed and said, “Now, wouldn’t that be the cutest little restaurant! You could do pot roast on Thursday, chicken pot pie on Friday…” ,” Joy recalls. “It sounded so fabulous! But my mom was a nurse and it just never happened for her. But the fantasy stayed with me, and I had a burning passion to make it reality.” 

So, exhausted from teaching and wanting to chase her dream, Joy left her job and started feeding people through catering jobs. “I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t have any money,” she says. “But I knew the most important thing was to feed the people. So, I went to the farmers’ market, and I started feeding people.” 

Mouthwatering word spread, and in December 2020, Joy got her famous cheesecake in her first Piggly-Wiggly (River Run location). Her tangy, creamy, smoother-than-butter cheesecakes are now available at six local Pigs. Still, she couldn’t shake the idea of a storefront. “I’ve never done this before, but I love people and I love to feed them,” she says. “I heard if you feed them, they will come, and I’m just winging it.”  

When a space opened up—the old JoJo’s on Broadway adjacent to Gianmarco’s—Joy finally turned her 7-year-old-girl dream into her grown-up reality. 

She hired a chef she’d met while working in a local fine dining restaurant, put together a menu, and prepped for the open house—and four days before she opened, the new chef quit. “I was literally pulling out paper and paint to make the open house sign,” Joy says. Undeterred, she forged ahead, doing everything herself. Almost five months ago, she hired someone new. “He’s never worked in a kitchen, but I taught him everything, and I feel so so blessed to have him.” She also has part-time serving help, a cheesecake apprentice, and—most special of all—her oldest daughter Allise, a student at UAB. “She’s sweet and fabulous and very kknowledgeable about food.” (Joy also has a son, Jacob, who attends North Alabama, and another daughter, Olivia, who is a senior at Homewood High School. She’s married to Gregory, who is the director of Creative Montessori.) 

Though the café is set up for mostly grab-and-go, the space does have some seating—perfect for eating a quick sandwich—and a few armchairs, which are a cozy spot to enjoy Joy’s hot chocolate service. “I wanted it to feel like you’re walking into someone’s house,” says Joy. “We have amazing coffee from a local roaster, Red Bike coffee, and our hot chocolate service is really special.” She can make a batch if you’re willing to wait a minute, but if you call ahead, Joy will prep her rich recipe and serve it to you in a teapot with house-made whipped cream and a tea cup with a teeny ice-cream cone on the side. “It’s the most adorable ice-cream cone you’ve ever seen in your life. Kids love it and so do adults.” 

In the freezer, hungry customers can choose from an abundance of made-from-scratch entrees, soups, sides, salads, and, of course, cheesecake. The top-selling entrée is meatloaf with mashed potatoes, followed by the chicken parmesan and chicken with sage cream sauce. “We make our own stock, then use it as the base for the sauce and add white wine, heavy cream, and sage,” says Joy. “It’s really unique and really good.” 

Popular sides include honey-roasted sweet potatoes and ginger-roasted carrots. “I’ve had quite a few people call and tell me they are the best carrots they’ve ever eaten. Who calls about carrots?” she says, noting that it’s that type of feedback that is why she cooks. “If people are happy [with the food], then I’m happy.”  

People also seem to love the sliders, pesto salad, hot mushroom dip, and roasted red pepper relish. Joy is still doing plenty of boxed lunches for offices, appetizer parties, and full-service catering for weddings and graduation parties. The house chicken—grilled ginger-lime—is served on bread and salads, and the house salad comes with a homemade white-honey balsamic dressing. Oh, and seasonal soups are a big hit, too, like chicken, mushroom, and wild rice and the stuffed pepper soup, which Joy recently ate three times in one week. “I don’t usually do that,” she says, laughing and explaining that her family eats “the scraps.”

Joy says she doesn’t do favorites—”I’m not a favorites person”—food or successes. “I really try to be in the moment and appreciate the small things that add up to a life,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, [well-known food writer] Susan Swagler interviewed me, I’m a member of Les Dames D’Escoffier Birmingham chapter—that’s really exciting. But being able to partner with FeedBHM or having someone come in and tell me their husband just had surgery and they were sick of restaurant food and wanted home cooking but didn’t want to actually cook—that’s the successful stuff for me.” 

“I’m not exactly sure where we are going—I’m just winging it,” she says. “I’d love to get my liquor license and have a little wine and charcuterie for cocktail hour. But I don’t want to be a bar and stay open till midnight. So, we’ll just keep taking one tiny baby step at a time: one meal, one cheesecake, one office catering job at a time. Eventually, we’ll settle and nestle.” 

Sorelle Café is located at 903 Broadway Street in Homewood (map). Hours are 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Monday – Saturday. For more information, visit


Comments are closed.