Walking into EAT Café feels like patronizing a dear friend’s new business. It’s fresh and packed with hope, not too formal, but full of flair. From the moment you’re greeted and seated to the gratifying dessert, you can’t help but personally root for the café to succeed.
It must be noted, at EAT (Everyone At the Table) Café a different level of hope permeates the air than the average fledgling business venture. Opening a restaurant is always hard: juggling inspections, overseeing design work, purchasing orders. But opening a business where customers are encouraged to only pay what they can – it’s a new direction on this well-worn path.
The idea took root in the head Mariana Chilton, Director of Drexel Center for Hunger Free Communities (CHFC), during a meal stop on a work-related conference. Seven years later, time spent creating vital partnerships, planning logistics, and securing donors, we have the full product. This café on 3820 Lancaster Avenue aims to serve the hungry – whether they can pay or not.
This has been done before, and One World Everybody Eats, a nonprofit that shares its pay-what-you-can community cafe model with cities around the world, has the formula down. This year, January 14-16, our very own EAT Café is giving back by hosting their summit.
The basic idea is that eventually, customers paying the $15 suggested price or more will cover the deficit from those who can only pay so much. This dream goal of financial sustainability, perhaps achievable in three to four years, is currently building atop a solid foundation of grants and donations.
It’s clear that every aspect of the café has been created with intentionality. Starting with the planning stages, when CHFC hired Ryan Kuck, Executive Director of Greensgrow, and his team as community consultants to gather feedback from the community and prepare the initial business plan for the Café.
As the Café opened in October and begins to settle into its rhythm, this community advisory committee continues to play an integral role in shaping decisions. Each month, they talk about topics like how to actively engage the community, how, new programming, language for press releases, and how jobs are allocated.
This is how it was decided to bring the restaurant to 38th and Lancaster, where there was a vocalized desire for more sit-down restaurants and to help re-establish the avenue as the ‘Main Street’ of the neighborhood. From the feedback it also became clear that the neighborhood didn’t want a serve-yourself cafeteria style operation; they wanted table service.
This is a very important aspect of the café to Donnell Jones-Craven, general manager and head chef. He’s intent on avoiding any “soup kitchen” stereotypes; grim spaces and sub-par food can feel dehumanizing. Providing ambiance, table service, and interaction with the chef and cooks is what makes people feel special and cared for.
As for servers and kitchen staff, CHFC makes conscious efforts to hire folks from the neighborhood, welcoming those with criminal records into the hiring process.
As Donnell says, “Not everybody’s squeaky clean, and everybody deserves the opportunity. I won’t say second chance because a chance has a small validity of time. But opportunity is more about what that person is able to seize on.”
He embraces what he considers a “counselor” role in his job. With a degree in Sociology and experience volunteering, Donnell doesn’t restrict his work to head chef.
“I want to see all of my employees go on to something greater. Whatever they want to ascertain in their life. And I see other people coming in, so this is like a passage way. A part of their journey on their way to greater destination.”
EAT has big dreams for its future in striving to make itself a more integral community hub. On the walls, there is space to feature local art, providing a platform for the unrecognized to get some exposure. Lining the front windows, there is an elevated dining space with dreams of becoming a stage for live music showings, spoken word nights, and jazz groups.
They’re also planning on hosting cooking workshops and demonstrations from small, local, food-related businesses.
EAT works to integrate Drexel student learning into different aspects of the café. During the design phase of the space, mock-ups done by students were taken into account for features like layout, color scheme, and logo. There is a plan for culinary students in Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sport Management to take food production labs at the café.
With Vetri Community Partnership as restaurant consultants, Greensgrow as community consultants, and large university departments as lead partners, EAT Café has a lot of power behind it.
Support is coming in from all sides, along with AHOLD USA, who provides food by recovering food “waste,” and People’s Emergency Center, who host the Cafe’s monthly Community Advisory Committee meetings.
Donnell’s greatest hope for EAT is that it can be used as a benchmark for other cities to come together and partner with a community, school, or restaurateur to make their own pay-what-you-can café. With Philadelphia exemplifying how much help a great project can get from the community, “there’s no excuse. I don’t see why it can’t be done.”