Activism drives cafe

By Sarah Wojcik

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People call her Nana. In many languages, it means grandma.

Carol Kaplan, the first person to graduate from Oakland University’s biology program, is truly a grandmotherly figure. She is the driving force behind the enterprise known as Nana’s Gourmet Comfort World Co.

Located merely minutes from campus, Nana’s Gourmet Comfort World Co. sits on the corner of Squirrel and Auburn roads.

The interior of the café is welcoming and colorful.

Kaplan is also interested in showcasing the artwork of Oakland students.

“I decided what people want is comfort,” Kaplan said. “Because of all the horrors that are happening in the world, we need a place where we can go and mingle with each other where we know peace and love exists.”

The mission behind the company is spreading multiethnic faith.

“Our whole point is multiethnic education, particularly peace in the Middle East by bringing Jews and Muslims and Christians together because there is a lot of Islamophobia since 9/11,” Kaplan said.

The café is unique in that it celebrates the holidays of many faiths  — Ramadan, Hanukkah, Christmas, Easter and Passover — and Kaplan is gearing up for a very special Chinese New Year (Feb. 3) and Valentine’s Day.

Among the many causes and campaigns the café supports is Pennies for Peace. They are trying to raise $50,000 to build a school for girls in north Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Pennies for Peace was established by Greg Martinson, the author of “Three Cups of Tea,” after he was saved from a remote mountain in north Pakistan by villagers.

So far, he has built 136 schools, mainly by collecting pennies from schools.

“The Taliban does not allow girls to go to school. They have to have secret schools,” Kaplan said.

Kaplan also spearheads Nana’s Planet, a nonprofit organization.

The café features a Muslim prayer area – one of the very few places, including Dearborn, that does – and call to prayer five times a day.

Nana’s Gourmet Comfort World Co. is halal and kosher certified by more than one worldwide-certified organization and is the largest producer of halal and kosher marshmallows in the world.

“We’re under the strict rabbinical supervision of the CRC (Chicago Rabbinical Council). Our supervisor is from Michigan State and he comes every two week to inspect us,” Kaplan said. “We are also inspected by Islamic Services of America. We follow Malaysian halal standards, which are the strictest.”

Kaplan invented the Pillowmallow herself because she tried other products available and saw a void in the market.  They are now being sold nationally and internationally.

“I did all of the invention work during treatment for cancer,” Kaplan said. “I literally propped myself up with pillows around me, because I could barely sit up, so Pillowmallow.”

In 2007, Kaplan was diagnosed with lymphoma, most likely caused by exposure to radioactive isotopes and other carcinogens during her career as technical director for pediatric research immunology at researcher at Wayne State University School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics.

“My dog saved my life,” Kaplan said. “I said (to him), ‘I think you’re a pet scan, a literal PET scan.'”

Kaplan had been seeing doctors, who said that she was fine, but Bosco kept sniffing and crying at her abdomen. After two weeks, she had a PET scan and found out she had a tumor.

Bankrupt from cancer with her idea, long-time friend and current business partner Ken Young came to Kaplan’s rescue.

Young, a business professor for 30 years, with a MBA from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Purdue in economics, liked the concept of Pillowmallows, and the two launched the company.

“I started out just to help her get through the radiation, but then I got involved with the company,” he said. “One of the things that has been a continual surprise is the new products (Nana) comes up with.”

Nana’s Gourmet Comfort World Co. offers over 40 flavors of Pillowmallows and counting as well as a variety of halal and kosher bark, vegan cupcakes, homemade Paninis, soups and salads and organic coffees and teas.

All of the products are available at surprisingly affordable prices.

“I love the idea of the company, I love the mission, the coffee is amazing,” said Christine Burns, one of the managers.

The café is located on 3395 West Auburn road and is open Tuesday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., Saturday from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed Monday.