No one knows how many community cafés are operating in the U.S. today. The model is just now gaining momentum. The movement’s de facto trade association, One World Everybody Eats, is affiliated with 50 cafés across the country and expects another 20 to open within the next 18 months. Its oldest member, SAME (So All May Eat) Café in Denver, is eight years old. One of the newest, FoCo (Feeding Our Community Ourselves) Café in Fort Collins, Colorado, is just six months into operation.
Both are part of a national network of experienced and inexperienced restaurateurs operating cafés as nonprofits with the goal of ending hunger and food insecurity in their communities. As affiliates of One World Everybody Eats, they operate on a business model based on One World’s “7 Core Values of a Community Café,” which establish models for pricing (pay what you can), food waste (guests choose portions), sourcing (healthy, seasonal food), staffing (meals for labor), community engagement (volunteer recruitment), staff pay (living wages of $12–$15 per hour), and restaurant layout (community table at the core).
The restaurants are intended to act as beacons in their communities. Their mission is to provide nutritious meals and job training, while also encouraging volunteerism in neighborhoods in need of revival. They are the first wave of economic recovery in many of the communities where they are located.
“We don’t make money, but in the last few years, we’ve served people who needed it,” says Libby Birky, cofounder of Denver’s SAME Café.
The day begins at 5 a.m. at SAME. That is when prep begins for lunch, the only daypart that the café is open. From 5 to 6 a.m., a mixed team of staffers and volunteers prepare the day’s menu from scratch.
“We call it the Power Hour,” Birky says.
Lunch service begins at 11 a.m. and ends at 2 p.m. Sometimes the kitchen runs out of food, but the goal is to serve everyone who walks through the doors. On any given day
the café serves between 50 and 60 guests. Most pay something for the meal. Others pay nothing at all.
Birky estimates that she and her husband, Brad (who is also the head chef), work 75-hour workweeks to keep SAME afloat. One part-time and three full-time staffers, plus volunteers—some of whom work in exchange for meals—support them. There is no budget for advertising or marketing. Word gets out about the café and its mission, though. Social media helps.
Margins are tight. Keeping them positive requires carefully managing plate costs and limiting food costs. The menu’s small size—soup, salads, and pizzas—and reliance on seasonal and local produce makes it possible to keep average plate costs to $1.30. Cooking in small batches keeps food waste to a minimum.
“It’s a gamble every day,” Birky says. “We have to be smart about managing the flow of the day. We only cook what we think people will eat. Come 1:15 [p.m.], we put a brake on everything.”
Lunch service is followed by prep for the next day’s meal and administrative tasks. The Birkys eat at the café every single day—usually leftovers.
“Even though it’s hard—trying and challenging at times—watching someone gain some self-worth and get back on his feet is magical,” Birky says.
The organized community café movement has its roots in Salt Lake City, where Denise Cerreta changed her restaurant, One World Café, to a “pay what you can” model in 2003. Cerreta in turn helped the Birkys open SAME three years later under the same pricing model, traveling to Colorado to assist in the early days. A second One World Café opened in Spokane, Washington, in 2008. Restaurants following the One World model opened in Arlington, Texas, and Highland Park, New Jersey, soon after.
One World Everybody Eats, the consulting arm for Cerreta’s work, was incorporated in 2005. Its services and reach have grown since then. Today, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit provides a mix of in-person and online mentoring and resources to would-be café operators. In January, the organization held a summit in Florida, and a new online training program launches this spring. The movement is beginning to gain traction; Food Network personality Chef Amadeus signed on as official spokesman in January.
“We are seeing existing cafés convert to the community café pay-what-you-want model—the 100th Monkey [Café & Books] in Chico, [California,] for example,” says Bob Pearson, chairman of One World Everybody Eats’ eight-person board. “We’re definitely getting contacts from different groups interested in what we’re doing.”
One World’s partners are not exclusively independent operators. Panera Bread reached out before launching its nonprofit community café concept, Panera Cares, in 2010. Panera Cares provides a list of suggested prices based on the retail price of its meals. Sixty percent of guests leave the suggested donation, Panera reports. The rest are evenly split between those who pay more and those who pay less or nothing at all. The five Panera Cares units—operating in Clayton, Missouri; Chicago; Boston; Portland, Oregon; and Dearborn, Michigan—collectively serve 1 million guests a year, according to Panera. Panera Cares is run by the Panera Bread Foundation.
Jon Bon Jovi’s JBJ Soul Kitchen, another high-profile community café concept that worked with One World, is also operated by a foundation. It’s a model Pearson suggests other for-profit companies explore if they are interested in running a community café. Doing so allows the cafés to be self-sustainable by supplementing sales with grants, donations, and other fundraising efforts.
The nonprofit community café operators who spoke with QSR all cite fundraising as a key component of their success. Not only does it provide much-needed dollars to offset costs, but it can also rally the community around the café before it even opens.
“We opened the café with no debt,” says Kathleen Baumgardner, cofounder of FoCo Café. “We fundraised in a lot of ways: events and solicited corporate and individual donations. [We] wrote grants, took in-kind equipment and services donations. Some of the funds were used to renovate the 102-year-old building we’re in.”
Nonprofit-affiliated Rooster Soup, a for-profit café in development in Philadelphia, is also relying on fundraising for start-up funds and to build community support. The café is an offshoot of Federal Donuts, a popular Philadelphia chain. Though not a community café by One World’s definition—prices are fixed—all profits will be donated to Broad Street Ministries, a local nonprofit addressing long-term poverty and homelessness.
Federal Donuts has an existing relationship with Broad Street through cofounder Steven Cook, a member of Broad Street’s Hospitality Collaborative. Cook and his Rooster Soup partners launched a Kickstarter campaign in July 2014 with the goal of raising $150,000. They raised $179,000 in 45 days.
“We weren’t able to service a loan or offer [return on investment] to investors because we’re donating all profits,” says Felicia D’Ambrosio, a partner in both Federal Donuts and Rooster Soup. “We wanted to raise money through the community as proof of concept. It helped us bring larger donors on board.”
Remaining connected to the community also means a steady stream of paying customers.
“Our guests are a microcosm of our community,” FoCo’s Baumgardner says. “We have city council members, the homeless, judges, the under-employed. We got the word out through social media and quite a bit of public speaking. In a year and a half, I attended more than 350 meetings.”
Baumgardner’s community network also came in handy when she needed advice on running FoCo. Neither she nor her husband and cofounder, Jeff, had real restaurant experience before opening FoCo.
Her local contacts and resources provided by One World helped Baumgardner find equipment, make connections with local vendors and co-ops, and develop a business plan that allows FoCo to operate within its “Pay What You Can. Pay It Forward. Pay With Your Time” mission.
It is not uncommon for community café operators to have little to no hospitality background. Most are drawn to the model because of the community service mission. Yet the mission is reliant on the café’s ability to keep its door opens.