Paying It Forward

By John Gregory | 2/23/17 12:00 AM

It may not sound like a wise business model to let your customers pay what they can for your product.

But that’s exactly what an increasing number of restaurants around the nation are doing: allowing patrons to pay what they can – either in money or with volunteer time – for their food.

Central Kentucky is home to several such cafes and coffee shops, where the proprietors say they’re serving up good food along with hope and dignity.

The Local Traveler visited a few these establishments to learn how they’re helping people in their communities.

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Finding Grace in Boyle County
At the Grace Café in Danville, their motto is “everyone eats.” Located in an old house just a few blocks from the Centre College campus, Grace Café was the commonwealth’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant. If diners don’t have the funds to pay for their meals, they can work in the kitchen or as servers. If a patron is flush with cash, they can pay extra so that a less fortunate guest won’t have to pay anything at all.

Rochelle Bayless says she founded the restaurant because she thought soup kitchens and food pantries weren’t doing enough to fight hunger.

“What we’re doing is providing an access point for everybody in the community to be able to have that delicious, fresh, locally sourced, nutritious food, regardless of your ability to pay for it,” says Bayless.

As much as a quarter of Boyle County residents are food insecure, says Centre College philosophy professor Daniel Kirchner, who is board president of the nonprofit organization that operates the café. That means those adults and many children don’t know where their next meal will come from. Kirchner blames part of that on large agri-business corporations that dominate the marketplace.

“There’s a problem in our communities, and it’s a problem that’s been created by the food system that we have in our country,” Kirchner says. “We have an industrialized food system on a national scale, but the problems that it creates are local problems. … So we’ve decided to have a local solution to it.”

Nearby farmers provide much of the meat and produce served at the restaurant, and the menu changes frequently to reflect what’s fresh and available in central Kentucky. That results in an eclectic range of breakfast and lunch options that can include French toast with brandy-poached apples, honey roasted carrot bisque, Thai soba noodle salad, shepherd’s pie, or chicken tacos.

The combination of healthy, freshly prepared food served in an atmosphere that is welcoming to everyone has proven a hit with patrons and volunteers alike.

“It’s a happy place: it’s happy to eat here and it’s happy to work here,” says one diner. “There’s a hopefulness and joy, and that’s I think how it should be.”

“Back in the day I was in a rough patch in life and this place really helped me out,” says a kitchen volunteer. “If you’re in a bad position or you’re on the streets, you come in and volunteer and they’ll feed you. It’s good.”

A Seat at The Table
Food insecurity is also a problem in the West Louisville neighborhood of Portland, and a new pay-what-you-can restaurant located there hopes to help with that issue.

“We’re here because we want to love our neighbors and we do that through food,” says John Howard, executive director of the nonprofit Promise Community Development Inc. that runs the farm-to-table restaurant The Table.

As with Grace Café, The Table offers an eclectic menu and sources their food locally. Some of it even comes from urban farmers growing produce in Portland. The Table also allows people to pay what they can, pay forward for other patrons, or work for their meal.

“We don’t have a lot of staff here,” says Kathie Stoess, The Table’s cofounder and volunteer coordinator. “They don’t necessarily have money but they have time. … They can eat and then help us do the work that needs to be done.”

The good deeds and delicious food at The Table recently caught the attention of “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” The Food Network program featured the restaurant and its chef, Laura Rountree, as she made her version of a club sandwich, which includes smoked chicken, bacon jam, and buttermilk ranch dressing on a cheddar jalapeño bun.

“We’ve had people come in since then that saw us on the show,” Rountree says. “We’ve also had a lot people on a national level either call or actually have come in here to talk about wanting to start a similar sort of restaurant in their community.”

Whether it’s the down-home food with an innovative flare, or the ability of any patron, rich or poor, to dine with dignity, The Table is gaining a reputation in the Louisville restaurant scene.

“We talk about creating an atmosphere of radical hospitality,” says Howard. “So everybody has a seat at The Table and everybody does feel welcome here.”

More Dining Options
Other Kentucky communities offer similar pay-what-you-can and pay-it-forward options for patrons.

A local faith-based nonprofit operates Cairn Coffee House in downtown Winchester. Patrons can enjoy hot beverages, breakfast, soup, and sandwiches. Since Clark County is the home of beer cheese, Cairn offers a sandwich called the Hot Mess, which features pepperoni, bacon, beer cheese and crushed potato chips.

“We love pay it forward,” says Steven Crosby, manager of Cairn. “We encourage people who come in, if somebody’s kind to you, then you pay it forward and be kind to someone else.”

Proceeds from the Cairn Coffee House support the adjacent Rowland Arts Teen Center.

J’s Place is all about changing lives in Nicholasville. As drug addiction became a problem in the community, Gwen Riley decided to open a safe and friendly space where people could gather and enjoy each other’s company. The café and coffee shop also provides valuable work experience for those who have struggled with addiction.

“We’ve seen lives changed at J’s Place,” says Riley. “We’ve actually created jobs and employ a lot of the folks that have come through our drug court.”

At Cup of Common Wealth in Lexington, customers can pay it forward either in person or through the shop’s website. And you can put conditions on your generosity: You can prepay for a beverage for a particular person, for someone who works a specific job, or for a homeless individual. You can stipulate that the person has to sing a song or do a dance to receive their prepaid beverage.

“Our mission statement is embrace community, serve others, create culture,” says Allen Warford, the shop’s marketing director. “I think the pay-it-forward board is just a super simple way for people to say, ‘I’m here to help.”

The staff at the Harvest Coffee & Café in Shelbyville is community focused and whole food obsessed, says owner Melissa Hardin. They offer pay-what-you-can Wednesdays as well as a pay-if-forward option any time.

“We had a Facebook review and someone said walking into Harvest is like getting a warm hug,” Hardin says. “That’s good stuff, that’s what we want.”