Imagine stopping into a small cafe for lunch. The first thing you see when you walk in the door is a buffet bearing tureens of soup, big bowls of salad, platters of fresh sandwiches, and trays of cookies. Many of the choices are meatless, and everything is made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients. You load up your plate with exactly as much as you want of each dish, and when you get to the checkout, you decide exactly how much you’re willing to pay for the meal.
This isn’t just a dream – it’s a reality in eateries all over the country known as “community cafes.” There are more than 40 community cafes nationwide working to make healthy, sustainable food affordable for everyone.
The community cafe model is starting to attract attention from people in high places, including celebrities and business owners. Rock musician Jon Bon Jovi has opened a community restaurant called JBJ Soul Kitchen in his home state of New Jersey, and the restaurant chain Panera Bread has started a mini-chain of community cafes called Panera Cares. Businesses like these are helping to spread the community cafe movement across the country.
How a Community Cafe Works
The community cafe movement began in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2003, when Denise Cerreta, the owner of the One World Cafe, decided to change her business model. Instead of charging a set amount for a set portion, she started inviting her customers to pay what they could and what they thought the meal was worth.
As crazy as this sounded to many people, it was a success, and within a few years Cerreta was getting requests for advice from people in other states who wanted to start community cafes of their own. Cerreta eventually started a foundation called One World Everybody Eats (OWEE) and dedicated herself full-time to spreading the community cafe movement across the country.
There are several differences between a community cafe and a regular restaurant. For starters, most community cafes are run as nonprofit organizations, which means they can afford to offer their food at lower prices. They generally rely heavily on volunteer labor, but if they have any paid staff, they make a point of paying them a living wage.
One major difference for customers is the ability to choose portion size. At regular restaurants, portions have grown steadily larger over the past several decades. Since it isn’t always possible to take home your leftovers, this leaves many customers with the choice between wasting food or eating more food than they really need. By contrast, at a community cafe, you never need to eat more than you want.
Another big difference between community cafes and other restaurants is the pay-what-you-can pricing. Most community cafes have a “suggested price” for each dish, but you can choose to pay less or more depending on the size of your serving – or your wallet. If you can’t spare any cash at all, many community cafes let you pay for your meal in barter by helping out for an hour or two in the kitchen.
Goals of Community Cafes
For customers, the obvious benefit of eating in a community cafe is the ability to decide just how much food to buy and how much to pay for it. What’s less obvious is what the owners get out of running their businesses this way. Having no set portion sizes makes it harder to figure out how many customers they can serve, and having no fixed prices makes it harder to determine how much money they can make from each customer.
The answer, for most community cafe owners, is that they care less about making money than they do about helping society. A community cafe does many things much better than a regular restaurant, such as:
- Fighting Hunger. With their pay-what-you-can pricing, community cafes make healthy food available to people who couldn’t afford to eat at a regular restaurant. No matter how little money you have, you can always find a meal at a community cafe. Unlike soup kitchens, which simply give away food to the poor, community cafes give people a chance to work in exchange for a meal, so they don’t feel like they’re taking charity. As a bonus, they get a chance to learn kitchen skills that can help them if they ever want to seek work in a restaurant.
- Reducing Food Waste. The goals of fighting hunger and reducing food waste go hand in hand. As Cerreta observes in an interview with Earth911, the amount of food that gets thrown away in a typical restaurant “could likely feed the same number of people that ordered it.” Since customers in a community cafe can choose their own portions, they’re less likely to have leftover food to discard. Cerreta says that in a typical day at One World Cafe, her “trash can” – a five-gallon white bucket used for food scraps – would be no more than half-full at the end of a busy day with around 120 customers.
- Encouraging Healthy Eating. Letting the customers control portion sizes doesn’t just reduce waste – it also prevents overeating. Cerreta says many customers at One World Cafe told her they had lost weight after they started eating lunch there regularly. In addition to the smaller portions, most community cafes focus on healthy food, particularly fresh, seasonal produce.
- Supporting Local Farmers. Community cafes get as much of their food as possible from local farmers. They focus particularly on foods that are sustainably produced, from organic foods to free-range meats and Fair Trade coffee.
- Promoting Community. A community cafe is more than just a restaurant – it’s also a gathering place where people from all walks of life can meet and talk over a meal. Many community cafes make a point of providing a single large table where single people or small groups can sit down with others, including people from other social or economic classes who might never cross paths with them anywhere else.
Where to Find Community Cafes
A map on the OWEE website shows more than 40 community cafes spreading from coast to coast across the country. Some are in large cities; others are in smaller communities. Some are run by churches, while others are run as secular nonprofits. What they all have in common is nutritious food, a friendly atmosphere, and prices that you set yourself.
Here’s a quick tour of community cafes in several different states:
- Kentucky. Grace Cafe in Danville, Kentucky, serves lunch from 11am to 2pm, Wednesday through Sunday. The first community cafe in the state, it offers dishes based on fresh, locally sourced food that’s organic whenever possible. There’s no set menu, but each day’s selections include a choice of two or three fresh soups, salads, sandwiches, and entrees, plus desserts from local bakers. Grace Cafe supports local farmers by paying a fair market value for all the food it buys and taking part in community supported agriculture (CSA).
- New Jersey. Jon Bon Jovi’s JBJ Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey, calls itself a “community restaurant” rather than a cafe, since it serves dinner rather than lunch and has tables with servers instead of cafeteria-style service. The restaurant is open for dinner from 5pm to 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday, and for brunch from 11:30am to 2pm on Sunday. You can get a three-course meal – soup or salad, a main course, and dessert – for a donation of $10, or you can pay for your meal by volunteering to prepare food, wait tables, or clean up. A neighboring farm, Laurino Farm in Colts Neck, has set aside an acre of land to provide fresh veggies and herbs for the restaurant, which sends its own workers to tend and harvest the crops.
- North Carolina. A church in Boone, North Carolina, raised the funds to establish the F.A.R.M. Cafe – an acronym for “feed all regardless of means.” From 11am to 2pm, Monday through Friday, it serves ever-changing selections that always include vegetarian, dairy-free, and gluten-free options. Recent selections include local heirloom tomatoes with fresh basil and balsamic glaze, vegan black bean soup, Reuben sandwiches made with local beef and pork, and amberjack fish with brown butter, lemon, and capers.
- Tennessee. The ComeUnity Cafe in Jackson, Tennessee, has the motto “To love, to feed, to dignify.” Open Monday through Friday from 11am to 2:30pm, it offers healthy food to all, regardless of their ability to pay. The food is mostly organic and locally sourced, much of it from the cafe’s own dedicated gardening space in a lot just two doors down. Recent menu offerings include heirloom tomato soup, spinach salad with roasted potato and Colby cheese, and a roasted chicken sandwich with creamy marinara and mozzarella.
- Texas. The Mustard Seed Cafe in El Paso, Texas, was started by three local women who saw it as a religious mission to “create a table where everyone eats.” The cafe’s name reflects a Biblical parable that describes the Kingdom of Heaven as being like a mustard seed: a tiny seed that grows into a huge tree and offers shelter to the birds. Open for lunch from 11am to 2pm, Wednesday through Friday, the cafe serves up healthy dishes such as tortilla soup, vegan chili, and loaded baked potatoes.
If you don’t have a community cafe in your area and would like to start one, OWEE offers help and advice. You can start by downloading and reading their Spirit in Business Guide, which outlines the goals of a community cafe and the steps involved in starting one. You can also contact Cerreta or another member of the OWEE board for personal advice. Also, the OWEE Annual Summit held each January offers a chance to connect with other cafe owners.
When you dine at a community cafe, you get more than a tasty and nutritious meal – you also get a chance to help fight hunger in America. Simply by rounding up your bill – say, paying an even $10 instead of $8.75 – you can pay part of the bill for another customer who might not be able to afford a meal otherwise. And by supporting community cafes in their goal of providing local, sustainably produced food, you’re helping the environment at the same time.
Eating well, helping others, and protecting the planet all with one meal – now that’s a combination that’s worth savoring.
Have you ever eaten at a community cafe?