When Letha Pugh was growing up in North Dakota and deciding to go into the medical field, she couldn’t have predicted her background would have perfectly set her up to own several restaurants and a nonprofit in Columbus—but that’s precisely what happened. Now, thanks to her and the careful collaborators she chose for her projects, Columbus has beloved staples like the gluten-free treat shop Bake Me Happy, the gluten-friendly burger and chicken finger joint Preston’s, the social good and workforce development restaurant Cafe Overlook, the Black LGBTQ+ nonprofit Black, Out, and Proud, and more.


Letha Pugh and Wendy Miller Pugh, Bake Me Happy

Letha Pugh and Wendy Miller Pugh of Bake Me Happy. Image Source.


Yes, and more because Letha's unwavering dedication to making Columbus a better place keeps her constantly engaged in giving back to the community.  

Letha moved to Columbus in 2000 and hit the ground running with a job in the medical field.

“I have a bachelor’s in nursing and a master’s in informatics, so I’d go into a hospital system and take them from a paper chart to an electronic medical record. From there, I started moonlighting for home care in the evenings and fell in love with going into these old people’s homes and helping them get it together,” she says. “I got a lot of satisfaction out of it, so I started a home care agency. When I decided to sell it, the funds from that are what we started Bake Me Happy with.” 


Bake Me Happy Display Case

The display counter at Bake Me Happy at the South Side location. Image Source.


Bake Me Happy was born out of passion and necessity. Letha’s wife, Wendy Pugh, discovered she had a gluten intolerance and couldn’t eat many of the foods she previously loved. There’s a stereotype about gluten-free foods—especially baked goods—that they taste “off,” so Wendy started experimenting in their home kitchen, working to create recipes that were not only gluten-free for those who needed it but delicious for everyone. Wendy landed on several of what would become Bake Me Happy signature treats and began baking privately for people. 

Meanwhile, Letha was looking for her next business, and just as they had fallen in love, they realized that a partnership was the perfect next step. 


Zebra Cakes - Bake Me Happy

Bake Me Happy's gluten-free Zebra Cakes. Image Source.


“I did some research and realized that for a town as big as this is, there was only one or two gluten-free bakeries at the time, so I thought it had a pretty good chance. That was 2013, and we’ve been going ever since,” Letha said. 

Try one of Bake Me Happy’s treats and you’ll see why they’ve been in business for over a decade. Their spins on nostalgic classics like oatmeal cream pies, peanut butter cookies, zebra cakes, rice krispie treats, brownies, blondies, and tiny bundt cakes are better than their famous counterparts. 

But if there’s one thing the couple knows, you can’t live on treats alone (even as much as we’d all like to!), so having a gluten-friendly restaurant where you can get an entire meal is important, too. That’s where Preston’s comes in. 


Preston's Burger

Preston's: A Burger Joint. Image Source.


It’s a spin on the classic burger joint, with juicy patties, chicken tenders, mac and cheese, fries with potato skin on (the best kind, in this author’s opinion), and chocolate and banana pudding. In addition to the iconic diner fare, there are some surprises, like the crispy pimiento cheese dumplings. 

“Preston’s came out of COVID. I’d just finished the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program where we discussed collaboration and utilizing your existing business's ideas into something new. So, I wanted a mainstream, non-gluten-free business with a large gluten-free emphasis. That way, everybody can go and eat together,” Letha says. 

While Bake Me Happy is certified gluten-free, Preston’s has some gluten options on the menu but is also dedicated to meeting the needs of gluten-free diners. Many options can be modified upon request, and the kitchen has a dedicated space where gluten-free items are made.

“We’re trying to normalize that people have food allergies, and they don’t want to be ostracized or isolated for that. If you make a good enough product for everyone, everyone will come,” Letha says. 

For Preston’s, Letha partnered with another local food expert, Matthew Heaggans, who owns The Rossi, an upscale Italian American restaurant with craft cocktails. Their partnership has been so successful that the pair joined forces with yet another Columbus restaurant powerhouse, Sangeeta Lakhani—who helped expand the beloved local pizza restaurant Hounddog’s into the must-eat it is today—to create Cafe Overlook. 

“Cafe Overlook is a workforce development project. We work with returning citizens (people who have been incarcerated or have otherwise been impacted by the carceral system) who have an interest in food. We provide wraparound services, including housing, transportation, food, mental health, and childcare. If those are issues that keep them from being fully engaged in work, we tackle that by working with social services agencies,” Letha explains. 

When Cafe Overlook employees have worked there for about six months, Letha, Matt, and Sang place them in restaurant jobs throughout the community.  

“It helps them get on their feet and is the answer to restaurant employee shortages. Send them to us, and we’ll get them up to speed, then place them back in the community to work,” Letha adds. 


Chicken Sandwich - Cafe Overlook

The Chicken Sandwich from Cafe Overlook. Image Source.


Cafe Overlook is a scratch kitchen, so the workers aren’t cooking out of bags but gaining valuable skills to help them find meaningful work. It’s going so well that Letha teased another project: the Purple Door Cafe at Zora’s House. Named in honor of trailblazing Black author Zora Neale Hurston, Zora’s House is a coffee shop by and for women of color to come together and make change happen. 

Letha’s dedication to making Columbus a better place, especially for Black and LGBTQ+ people, is unparalleled, and perhaps the project closest to her heart is her nonprofit, Black, Out, and Proud

“The organization has existed since 2017 because we were trying to fill a void for the Black LGBTQ+ community in that 21+ age group. We do quality programming, including our health and wellness summit, and events called Blackouts where we get together and fellowship,” Letha says. 

Their next event is just around the corner: The 5th Annual Heroes Among Us Art & Fashion Pride Showcase, which will be held on Saturday, June 29th, from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Wells Barn, nestled among the beautiful botanicals of Franklin Park Conservatory. Tickets are still available. 

“We take a lot of pride and put a lot of energy and effort into the events we do so they’re meaningful, not just to the Black LGBTQ+ community, but to the Black and LGBTQ+ community,” Letha adds. “We’re trying to erase folks’ barriers or struggles with the dual identity. Folks can come and be themselves. We have some folks who aren’t publicly out, and we help those folks be comfortable in their skin.”  

Though Letha’s projects may be varied, they all have a unified philosophy and mission.

“I take a lot of pride in being out, not just in the LGBTQ+ community but also in the Black community. I want Black LGBTQ+ youth to see themselves and their future potential selves in the people around them. I want Black kids to see doctors, attorneys, and teachers,” she says. “This city has been very supportive of all of my businesses and me as a person. Yes, I’m Black and a lesbian, but there’s a whole lot of layers to me. I believe in the inherent goodness of the world, so as long as I can put good out there, I’ll keep doing it.”