Whether you're a longtime fan of the Community Mercantile Co-op, 901 Iowa, or you've only recently discovered its charms, you're bound to like the changes taking place there these days.
If you go to the back of the store, browsing amid the deli, bakery and foods-to-go area, you're likely to notice things seem different somehow. Fresher. Tidier. More artfully presented.
But that's nothing compared to some of the new tastes being offered.
For instance, there's the saki-marinated roasted salmon in a sweet soy glaze -- gorgeous, plump slices of fish that are meltingly soft.
And a roasted corn and green chile bisque with chipotle peppers, a creamy soup with a hidden heat that will warm you to the soles of your feet.
Everywhere you look, there is subtle evidence of a practiced hand at work.
It's the hand of Sula Teller, the Merc's new food service manager, in charge of kitchen production and all of the prepared foods-to-go.
Her name should sound familiar to anyone in Lawrence who appreciates good cooking.
Before joining the Merc Jan. 28, Teller had already built a substantial following in recent years through her work in the kitchens of several establishments: Java Dive (now Z's Divine Espresso, 10 E. Ninth St.), Milton's Coffee & Wine, 920 Mass., and PrairieFire: An American Bistro, 724 Mass., now closed.
"Even before she started here, people would stop me downtown and say, 'Is it true? Is Sula coming to the Merc?'" says Jeanie Wells, the co-op's general manager.
It is true. And Teller -- no connection to Teller's, the Italian restaurant at 746 Mass. -- has an agenda.
"I want the deli (and the co-op's prepared foods) to be a destination point. I want people to talk about it. I want it to be food that matches the rest of the store, representing the beauty and integrity of the Merc," she says.
Grew up in restaurants
Though she has taken a few career detours over the years, it was likely predestined that Teller would end up in the food business.
Her father, Nick Niforos, came to the United States from Greece in 1942, and later owned a series of small diners in Chicago.
"My father was a restaurateur. He would wake me up when I was 4 years old -- 'Sula, come on, time to go to work.' And we'd go to the restaurant. My mother, my father, my grandmother and my aunts, they all cooked in the business," Teller says.
Sounds a lot like the story in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," the recent hit movie about a close-knit, Greek family that owns a diner in Chicago.
"They were a little more upper-class than we were," she says of the characters in the film. "But it was true, and it was honest."
Teller learned a lot about cooking -- and a lot about life -- from her mother, Helen Niforos, and her grandmother, Athanasia "Mary" Stasinopoulos.
"I learned to be a hard worker. It's that immigrant work mentality. They gave me a reverence and a joy for life," she says.
"I knew the difference between things that tasted good and what tasted bad. I knew how to chop things."
Teller came to Lawrence in 1993 to work on her doctorate at Kansas University's Dole Human Development Center, a premier place for her to study applied behavior analysis, an intervention technique used for autism.
Before moving to Kansas, Teller worked with autistic children for 20 years, including a stint at the Princeton Child Development Institute in Princeton, N.J.
In 1996, she decided to take some time off from her studies and do something different. She took a job as a barista at Java Dive, and soon started making salads, sandwiches, cookies and cakes.
Teller's relationship with the owners of Java Dive, David and Jean Lewis, continued when the couple opened Milton's in 1997.
She served as the restaurant's chef for several years before deciding to go down the street to join PrairieFire as pastry chef. She stayed at the bistro until it closed in December 2001.
Along the way, Teller taught herself as much as she could about cooking.
"You read and read a lot. You go home and make something new every night. I'd say to my husband, 'You have to eat this.' He has a good palette," she says.
After PrairieFire closed, Teller took another detour.
She became a flower gardener, working at Shadow Glen Golf Course, the centerpiece of Cedar Creek, an upscale, master-planned community in Olathe.
She worked there for about a year, until December 2002, when Wells, the Merc's general manager, contacted her about the position of food service manager. Teller started at the Merc shortly afterward.
"I'm excited to have her here. She's the most passionate person about fresh food that I've ever met. She shows people how fabulous food can be, even something relatively simple," Wells says.
"I think she brings a new level of professionalism that is really welcome here. She's going to take us to the next level. Sula is an incredibly humble and patient person who wants people to be excited about food. There's no one that I'd rather have in that position than her."
Teller brings to the Merc a simple philosophy of the kitchen.
"I tell the guys here, 'You have to love each other, love the equipment and love the food,'" she says.
"If you've got good food, you don't need to do much to it. You let it speak for itself."