Six Weeks Out

This is Day 3 in a month of posts about how I became the owner of 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

The local food co-op was facing a financial crisis.

It was 2010 and nobody was sure what had gone wrong, but things looked dire. The board of directors put out a plea to members, asking for donations or small loans, repayable in store credit, to help cover the looming shortfall.

One of the several small farmers who sold produce to the co-op decided they could best help the cause by hosting a fundraising dinner. Guests would pay what they could for the meal, and the proceeds would go directly to the co-op. That dinner marked the beginning of the co-op’s pay-what-you-can café, and the hosts were Wendy and Matt of Vegetable Land Farm.

For the next five years Wendy and Matt continued to serve pay-what-you-can meals from the co-op’s tiny kitchen to 25 or 30 guests each day. People paid an average of just over $7 a plate for fresh vegan fare, most of it sourced from their farm and the co-op’s produce and bulk rooms. The co-op took a percentage of the gross, which helped stabilize its accounts, the meals brought customers in the door who often shopped for groceries after eating, and Wendy and Matt grew a small loyal following in a town that had few plant-based food options for restaurant-goers.

I joined the co-op staff in 2013. Wendy, Matt, and I became friends. The lunches were popular. I watched Wendy make cashew cheese and raw beet ravioli. I watched Matt bring his taste for Jamaican cuisine to the plates of our little community. I ate salads of foraged amaranth leaves and plates of morels.

The energy was high, the camaraderie good for all of us. It felt like family.

But while the cafe was busy, the co-op itself never really regained its financial footing. By the middle of 2015 the energy had dissipated. Nerves were frayed. It was clear that soon there would be no money to pay staff or purchase product for the shelves.

I left in July. By October the store was closed for good.

I took a job at a local Montessori school. It was a bad fit. (I wrote a bit about it here.) Wendy and Matt, meanwhile, searched for another location for the café.

Within a month they’d found an available church kitchen, already certified for commercial use. They struck a deal with the pastor, who agreed to a percentage-of-gross lease, and a few weeks later they were back in business.

They put in long hours, serving a lunch/dinner plate from 11 in the morning until 8 at night, three days a week. On Fridays they made vegan pizza and delivered it all over town. (I delivered a few for them myself after leaving Montessori, before landing the job at the coffee bar.) Slowly their old customers returned, and new ones discovered them.

They hosted a few evening events, offered cooking classes. We all got together one weekend to process garlic grown on their farm and brine it in big cauldrons. Some of the old energy returned.

But the new space wasn’t really working for them. They missed the collegiality of the co-op, the company of staff and shoppers, the feeling of being a part of a little hive of activity. They had a growing business, but it was in the basement of a church, with none of the charm — or sunlight — of the co-op. It just wasn’t enough.

And they were exhausted.

That’s when they offered the business to me. They didn’t want to sell it, they just wanted to pass it along to someone who would keep it going. And I said yes.

Though I wasn’t sure it was going to work for me, either.

“Just lunches,” I told the pastor when we met to discuss the change in ownership. “Three days a week. We’ll still do vegan, we’ll still do pay-what-you-can. I’ll want to change the name. We’ll see how it goes.”

We chose a start date three weeks into the new year. I had six weeks to figure out how I was going to run the place without a staff, without start-up funds, and only the barest of ideas of what I was going to feed people when that start date rolled around.