CEDAR RAPIDS — At the new Groundswell Cafe, staff and volunteers manning the cash register don’t accept tips. Instead, they’re asking customers to “pay-it-forward” to help pay for meals for those who can’t afford one.
Nonprofit Matthew 25 opened the lunch cafe Monday in their Kingston Village building, serving up a full slate of sandwiches, salads and soups along with a slice of community spirit.
“It’s embracing the idea of, ‘How do we create a place where generous people can help pay for people in need?’” Matthew 25 executive director Clint Twedt-Ball said.
“Free meal” cards are discreetly placed by the door and the cash register, and people can hand them to the cashier when it is time to pay.
The cafe works on an honor system — there is no income requirement or paperwork needed to access the free meals.
“It’s not always a fun thing to say you can’t afford things. If they say they need it, we’re going to trust they need it,” Matthew 25 director of development and communications Jana Bodensteiner said.
The model is based on others like it. National organization One World Everybody Eats supports more than 60 “pay what you can” nonprofit restaurants across the country. Some operate slightly differently in how they handle distributing the free meals; for example, some don’t have any prices on their menus and simply ask patrons to set their own price at the register. Others limit the number of times people can have a free meal per week.
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Bodensteiner said, for now, Matthew 25 is going to play it by ear as far as supply and demand. They hope to attract sponsors to offset free meal costs and hope that donations will provide enough to not have to turn people away.
Inside the cafe, smaller tables sit next to a long “community table,” meant to encourage conversation between diners.
“It’s important to have people from all walks of life breaking bread together,” Bodensteiner said.
On the day of the ground opening, the space attracted a steady stream of customers for lunch, many dropping bills into the donation jar next to the cash register. A few others quietly received a sandwich or bowl of soup, free-of-charge.
“I love that it can bring different types of people together, those that have resources to give and that are in need. If you look out our window on any given day, you’re likely to see people in suits and people collecting cans. We’re exceptionally lucky to have diversity in this part of town, and we’re hoping to serve both ends,” Groundswell director Aaron Amundson said.
About half the staff are paid, and half are volunteers. The cafe’s nonprofit status and volunteers behind the counter also help keep the model sustainable.
The cafe is open for weekday lunches, leaving the space available for events in the evenings and weekends. Along with Groundswell Cafe, Matthew 25 also opened a co-working space this week adjacent to the restaurant.
Chef Linda Butler, a retired United Methodist pastor, said she relies on organic and local ingredients as much as possible, along with fair trade coffee and tea.
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Much of the produce on the menu come from Matthew 25’s Cultivate Hope urban farm, and Butler is working with Albert’s Organics food distributor for other ingredients.
“Creating a menu that is farm-to-table means you don’t know what’s available until the farmer tells you what’s available. It wasn’t easy to create. It took several months of tasting,” she said.
She emphasized the vegan-friendly options, which include a Cajun tofu sandwich with vegan smoked Gouda cheese. Other options on the menu, which will change seasonally, include sandwiches like the Fall Ham, with ham, pear, apple, cheddar cheese, mustard and garlic aioli, soups like creamy potato leek with sausage and kale, and salads like the Fall Mix-up, with warm brown rice and quinoa, spinach, cilantro, peppers, beets, shredded cabbage, sesame seeds, avocado and miso sesame seed-ginger dressing.
“I get to use fresh ingredients all the time,” Butler said.
The seeds for the cafe were sown when Matthew 25 hosted free summer lunches for kids between 2007 and 2009 through Neighborhood Meals, and staff saw how deep the hunger gap in the neighborhood went. In 2010, they did a USDA-funded neighborhood study that found barriers to eating fresh, healthy food in the area were the cost of the food and time to prepare it.
After the nonprofit started an urban farm and community gardens in 2012, the next step, Twedt-Ball said, was getting the food they were growing into people’s hands.
More than just providing a bite to eat, organizers hope the cafe helps builds community.
“From the most ancient of times, food has been about building community,” Twedt-Ball said. “We hope people come, connect, hang out, and find people that share their values ... I think we’re starting to realize as a society how connected food is to the overall health of mind, body and soul.”
l Comments: (319) 398-8339; firstname.lastname@example.org
If you go
l What: Groundswell Cafe
l Where: 201 Third Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids
l Hours: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday
l Details: (319) 200-2791, groundswell.hub25.org
l Interested in volunteering? Contact Linda Butler at email@example.com or (319) 362-2214.