So I’m 14 days into this month-long series of posts about my experience of owning and operating a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To see where the story started you can go here. You can also visit the café website or find us on Facebook

I’m tired today so this is going to be a short post.

I just wanted to tell you about a man who comes to the café almost every day, and pays in boxes of tea. Mostly he brings the tea we use to make our ice tea. We went through scads of it this summer, a little less now that it’s cold out, so I’ve got a bit of a backlog of that tea. Like, about 20 boxes.

Today I suggested that he consider switching things up a little, bringing us something different, since we’re not going through the iced tea quite so quickly.

He seemed a little nonplussed. “I’m not going to be here for the next couple weeks,” he said. Which seemed like a non sequitur, but I motored ahead, explained that we would love a little variety in our tea selection, if he could manage it. No pressure.

He frowned. “I’m having surgery next week,” he said.


He didn’t offer any more information, and I didn’t feel right asking. “Well, I hope that goes okay.”

He shifted in his seat, still frowning. He started looking at the door. I think I was making him uncomfortable. This was the longest conversation we’ve ever had, and he’s been coming pretty much since we opened.

“But we’ll still see you tomorrow, right? I said. No answer. Eyes darting.

“The tea,” I said. “That was a request, not an order.”

And that’s when he grinned. “Oh! Okay!”

Yeah, I have no idea what that was about, but I gotta say, talking to people is the best part of my job.



Three Days a Week is a Hobby

This is Day 13 in a month-long series of posts I’m writing about my experience of owning and operating a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook

Three days a week is not a business, said my friend Alan. Three days a week is a hobby.

When we opened the café last January, we only served Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. It was a very tentative start. I’m surprised we did as well as we did, surprised that people stuck with us.

I mean, seriously. What kind of business is only open three days a week?

“You need regular hours,” Alan said. “People don’t want to have to try to remember what day it is when they’re deciding where to go for lunch.”

Of course he’s right.

But I resisted. I didn’t want to commit. All things being equal, I’d rather not work so much. But all things are never equal, are they?

We’re now open four days a week. Come 2018, we might go for five.

Alan thinks we should get on it. At 95, he doesn’t like to see people waste time. More to the point, he’d rather not have to think about what day it is when he wants to come have lunch.


Chef is a Job Description

There are days when I look around the kitchen and wonder what I’m doing here. Making soup, roasting potatoes, stirring the onions while they caramelize. I have no formal training for this. I did not go to school to be a chef.

Yet here I am.

My friend Aimee, who writes for the local paper, says “chef” is a job description.

A couple weeks after we opened, she contacted me, wanting to do a story.

“It’s too soon,” I told her.

She called again a month later. “Ready for me now?”

She came, we talked. A few days later there was a nice little article about us in the food section of the local paper. She used long quotes. I actually sounded like me. We saw a few busy days in the aftermath, and then things settled back down.

I was in no hurry to busy them back up.

I like things when they’re not so busy. I like to look out into the dining room and see people at the tables, but not too many people. Too many people exhausts me, and then it’s not fun anymore. All that smiling.

The truth is, I’m not ambitious. I’m happy making lunch for two dozen people, cleaning up, and going home. I know that’s not how I’m supposed to feel. I’m supposed to want to grow. I’m supposed to aspire.

I think it’s okay not to.

When Recipes Fail

This is Day 11 in a month-long series of posts I’m writing about my experience of owning and operating a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook

There were the granola bars that refused to hold together. We served them in little dessert bowls and called them “deconstructed.”

There were the jonny cakes that just… refused. We scraped the pan into the trash and served the mushroom étouffée on top of leftover cornbread crumbles from the freezer.

But the worst of the fails to date was simply unfixable. We had to serve it the way it came out of the oven: a sad mess that we barely disguised with some strategically placed greens and a drizzle of a last-minute sauce.

The tian, my friends.

A French layered vegetable dish, like a ratatouille, in which various vegetables are arranged, lasagna-like, in a casserole dish, then baked.

I’d never made it before, but I’d done similar things.

Plus, I had a recipe. Untested, off the internet.

What could possibly go wrong?

The recipe for this tian included a layer of mashed white beans, tucked between the strata of summer squash, zucchini, tomatoes. I cooked the beans, mashed them, seasoned them. Spread them over the slices of squash and tomatoes, then covered them with more squash and tomatoes.

When I was done layering everything, my tian was tall and gorgeous. I covered the pan with foil and put it into the oven.

The recipe called for a 30 minute bake, but my tian was extra large, so I knew that wouldn’t be long enough. I gave it 45 minutes, then took it from the oven and peeked under the foil.

I had vegetable soup.

My lovely tian was awash in juices from all those squashes and tomatoes. Worse, the mashed beans had migrated from their tidy layer, turning into a swamp of beige amid the soupy yellows and oranges.

I removed the foil. Put the pan back in the oven. Turned up the heat. Gave it another 15 minutes. It was almost time to open and this tian and a green salad were all I had to offer. It had to set up.

It didn’t set up.

I pulled it from the oven.

Maybe it needed to cool a bit, like a pudding. I set it on the stainless steel work table, away from the cooktop. Watched it, like the proverbial pot, as it did not set up. I put it in the refrigerator. It did not set up.

I put it back in the oven. Cranked the heat.

Fifteen minutes. Twenty minutes. I had customers in the dining room. They were ready.

I gave the salad one last toss. Made a tahini dressing for it. Pulled the pan from the oven.

The tian had not exactly set up. It had, point of fact, settled down, like old tires at the bottom of a drained lake. It was, alas, no longer lovely. But I could put it on a plate, nestle the salad up close, drizzle the whole thing with the tahini dressing and call it lunch.

It wasn’t good, that recipe. People ate it, were polite about it, even paid for it, but it wasn’t good.

This is what happens. Not all days are stellar. Not all recipes work.

That’s why there’s tomorrow, so you get another shot.

What If They Don’t Pay?

This is Day 10 in a month-long series of posts about the work I do, owning and operating a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook

In the One World Everybody Eats model, there are volunteer options available for those who are unable for whatever reason to pay for their lunch.

We don’t offer that at Common Ground, mostly because we’re a one-and-a-half person shop, and wrangling volunteers is a job unto itself, one for which I haven’t exactly had time.

I’m also not sure it’s anything I want to do. There are only so many barters I can do, after all, before I have insufficient cash flow to buy next week’s groceries. We’re a commercial enterprise, not a not-for-profit, so our meals aren’t subsidized by grants or other financial assistance. This week’s customers pay for next week’s groceries.

We do have one person who receives free meals in exchange for taking care of our weekly laundry. (We use cloth napkins and placemats and tablecloths, so we generate a substantial amount of laundry.) And we do other exchanges on an ad hoc basis, when, for instance, someone brings in produce from their garden. There is also an organic produce buying club sharing space with us, and we’ll often swap a lunch for a bag of potatoes and a few onions.

But for the most part, people who come for lunch at the cafe are expected to pay.

If they ask how much the meal is — and they usually do on their first visit — I will quote a range, generally between $5 and $10, noting that we have customers who pay less, and others who pay more. Pay-what-you-can is an unfamiliar concept to many people, and by offering a price range I’m attempting to ease uncertainty over what is expected.

When Wendy ran the business, she often wouldn’t offer a price range. If people asked what they should pay, she would tell them to pay what they felt the meal was worth. Some handed her $20, and she thanked them. Some gave her $3, and she thanked them. Sometimes an individual payment would not cover the cost of the ingredients on the plate. But the next payment would often make up the shortfall. And things would average out over the day.

As they do with us.

Only once in this first year did I have someone come in and eat and leave without offering any payment at all. And I suspect he confused us for the shelter across the street that offers free meals to people in need.

Every restaurant that doesn’t require you to order and pay at a counter before you get your food has to deal with the possibility of people leaving without paying. Because pay-what-you-can involves a more personal exchange than a conventional, fixed-price restaurant, it could very well be that restaurants with a pay-what-you-can policy actually see less dining-and-dashing than other establishments.

I’d love to see data. Maybe someone will do a survey.

Words Matter

This is Day 9 in a month-long series of posts about owning and operating a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook

On Day 2 of this series, in recounting a conversation about the café, I shared with you the fact that I’m not vegan.

Maybe you wondered, when you read that, why someone who wasn’t vegan would want to run a vegan café. Maybe you were perplexed. Maybe you were offended. How could I co-opt this word for my own purposes when I wasn’t even a true believer?

It’s a good question. I’m going to try to answer it.

My answer is probably not going to satisfy everyone. That’s okay. We’re all doing our best here.

We inherited our niche from our predecessors. They identified as vegan. Their customers knew and trusted the menu to be entirely plant-based. When we assumed operations, we saw no reason to alienate those established customers.

Plus, we love cooking with vegetables. Besides being good for us, vegetables are really pretty. Colorful, vibrant, amenable to a multitude of beautiful presentations. That’s appealing, too.

Moreover, regardless of our own personal dietary choices, we recognized the need for a plant-based café in this community.

Before Wendy and Matt created this one, there were none.

Now there is one.

Yes. In a city of 120,000. We’re it.

Still, that word. And words matter. So when we first opened our doors, sensitive as we were to this issue, we chose to call ourselves “vegan-friendly” rather than “vegan.” And when we described our food, we used the term “plant-based.”

Over the course of the year, this terminology has given way to the more succinct “vegan.” It’s easier, yes, and requires less explanation.

But it’s not really accurate.

To be clear, anyone following a strict vegan diet can eat at Common Ground and know they’re getting a meal completely free of animal products. No meat or dairy, of course, but also no honey, no bone-char-processed sugar, no marshmallows, no conventional bread products or condiments that might contain whey or lecithin. We’re rigorous, because we want our vegan customers to dine with confidence that they’re eating within their chosen guidelines.

The word “vegan” conveys more than what’s on the plate, however. It’s a philosophical and ethical position that removes animal products not just from the diet but from personal care items, clothing, and the home. It further advocates for the elimination of all instances of animal exploitation within the extant culture.

It’s this broader understanding of the word that makes our use of it less than perfect. We are not advocates, per sé. Our focus is on food.

But guess what. The term “plant-based” is also problematic, because for many it implies a whole-food approach to eating, and while our meals are always centered on fresh vegetables, legumes, seeds, whole grains, and fruit, we do use flour (organic) and vegan-friendly sugar (non-bleached) in some of our baked goods, and we cook with oils. These ingredients are comprised not of whole food but of processed fragments, and strict plant-based adherents do not consume them.

So it’s complicated, right? And new categories and complexities arise with some frequency, which means we have to stay on top of things and anticipate the concerns of our customers.

Most of whom, by the way, are neither vegan nor followers of strict plant-based diets. I know this because I ask. Perhaps half identify as vegetarian or vegan, the other half are simply looking for fresh, healthy options to the typical lunch fare available to them.

Regardless of what they call themselves, they all deserve to know what they’re getting on their plates.

So my answer to this issue of how to describe what sort of cafe we are and what sort of food we serve is to be as transparent as possible about our purpose, our ingredients and our cooking processes. We know what we are, and also what we aren’t. We keep our dishes simple and straightforward, so when we talk about them, our words can also be simple and straightforward. And we start with basic ingredients, always, so we know exactly what’s in everything we serve.

I don’t know what the label is for that. But that’s what we do.

Old Generals

This is Day 8 of a month of posts about how I came to own a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, you can visit the website or find us on Facebook. To read these posts from the beginning, here is Day 1.

Have I mentioned my notebooks yet?

I know I told you about my daily journal


where I scribbled down affirmations (and magical thinking) in the period leading up to opening day, and through the weeks and months that followed.

But I had other notebooks, too. Notebooks full of ideas and menus, full of ways to make this little café into an entire village of projects. Art events and poetry readings and music and weekend gatherings.

Dear friends, I had some plans.

Like old generals who are always fighting the last war, in many ways I’m always trying to perfect my previous undertakings. Maybe I hadn’t been as generous as I should have been in that other business, maybe I wasn’t as inclusive. Maybe I didn’t host enough events, offer enough workshops, hang enough local art, hire enough musicians. Well, here’s another chance to get that right.

Add all that old stuff to the inevitable new stuff — the new challenges, the fresh potential — and I end up with a project so overloaded with expectations it’s bound to disappoint.

cf. second marriage, new job, moving house. 

There’s a reason for that.

There’s a reason that the business — marriage, job, household — you envision is never the one that you actually create.

The reason is, the one you envision is a fantasy.

In your fantasy business, every decision has the desired outcome, every customer is a reflection of you, every interaction occurs in its ideal configuration, and time doesn’t exist.

The business you create is full of people you don’t yet know and glitches you didn’t — couldn’t — anticipate, where time collapses when you need more of it, and the work stretches into eternity when you’re exhausted and just want to go home.

In the business you create, the recipe doesn’t always scale well, and you run out of food well before you run out of customers.

Or you have no customers for all the food you’ve made.

Once more for the folks in back: the business you envision is not the business you create.

Owning and operating a business is like any other creative effort, something I have to keep learning again and again. The painting that lives in your head is never the painting that makes it onto the canvas, because the canvas becomes a part of the creative process. It responds to you in a way the initial vision can’t.

A business responds to you, too. And success — however you might define it — really only comes when you let your new creation be what it intends to be, which is not the thing that lives in your head — or in your notebooks — but the thing that exists as a relationship between you and your customers, between you and the world.

Something alive, organic, fluid, a little unpredictable. Yes.

Allowing that relationship to establish itself means setting aside expectations so you can get a good look at what it is you’re actually creating, and then giving yourself time — not days or even weeks, but months. Maybe years! — to really see it.