Try this! Open a “pay-what-you-can” café and nourish your neighbors

This week’s spotlight: all things food.

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One Acre Cafe is just weeks away from their grand opening.
(photo via OAC Facebook)

When Jan Orchard read stories to her first-grade students, they seemed fidgety—even for seven-year-olds. On mornings when she brought in blueberry muffins, though, they paid much more attention to her.

“They were hungry,” she says.

That’s when she started to understand just how much food insecurity was affecting her community in Johnson City, Tennessee—and decided to do something about it. Last year, she quit her teaching job to open One Acre Café, a “pay what you can” restaurant that’s just a few weeks away from turning on its ovens.

For Jan, the most exciting part about One Acre Café is how the community has come together over the past year to help open its doors. Its existence is owed to the culmination of over 1,000 volunteer hours and $80,000 worth of donated equipment, building materials, and labor.

“Someone donated a $15,000 granite countertop, the plumbing company donated a toilet, a tile company donated all the tile for the bathrooms, and a furniture company donated couches for our lounge,” she says.

Even though all these donations are going towards a charitable café, it’s not going to be a “free” restaurant.

“The idea behind the café is that everyone can contribute something. People are asked to invest in a resource for their community in exchange for their time, and for that, they’ll be fed,” she says.

Payment for a meal comes in the form either of a cash donation ($4, $6, or $8 depending on portion size) or as one hour of volunteer time doing something like rolling silverware, serving food, or greeting patrons.

Beyond being a great place to go and eat, Jan dreams of making One Acre Café a gathering place in the community where people can have interesting conversations and connect with one another.

“What happens when people lose their jobs is that they get deeper and deeper in debt and they become ashamed to go out into the community,” she says. “The idea behind the café is that there should be a neighborhood place where everyone is welcome to come and enjoy a nice meal and have a good conversation without feeling uncomfortable or ashamed about whether or not they have a lot of money.”

How you can replicate it

1. Use a model

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The site of One Acre Café is a former bar and vacant building in downtown Johnson City which has been a real “fixer-upper.”
(photo via OAC Facebook)

Early in the planning stages for One Acre Café, Jan reached out to the One World Everybody Eats Foundation (OWEE), a nonprofit dedicated to fighting food insecurity by helping people start pay-what-you-can restaurants.

They offer best practices, mentorship, and “start-up” kits (basically a ‘paint by numbers’ on how to start a community restaurant) to people who are interested in starting one in their community.

2. Ask other community restaurants for advice

Part of the OWEE model is that once you’re up and running, you should be there to mentor other people who also want to start a community restaurant. One Acre Café had a lot of guidance from the F.A.R.M. Café in Boone, Tennessee.

“What makes these cafés different from other restaurants is that they’re not in competition with one another, they’re trying to help one another,” Jan says.

3. Follow up with people who offer help

Jan’s benefited greatly from believing that when people want to help out, you should let them.

A year ago when she was first getting started, she held a community meeting and silent auction to help get the word out about her plans. At the meeting, she put out some volunteer forms.

Jan was able to grow OAC’s strong volunteer base by calling up everybody who filled out a form.

One of their volunteers, a construction worker named Ernest, has put in a lot of time helping with renovations and monitoring construction permits. But you can tell he’s getting excited about opening day because he has more on his mind than the construction projects. He stopped Jan a few weeks ago with an important question:

“A bunch of the guys here wanted me to make sure you were gonna serve some nice hearty soups and stews with good bread.”

Jan assured him, yes, they’d make sure to have some on the menu.

Are you interested in setting up a community restaurant in your area? Reach out to the One World Everybody Eats Foundation at community@oneworldeverybodyeats.org.

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