Outside, a homeless man sits in a covered wheelchair vending The Voice. His red plaid shirt hangs from his insubstantial frame, and the American flag on his chair flutters minutely in the lunch hour heat. Beside him, two young men sit checking out female passersby, cooing with feigned subtlety. Through the shop door, patrons are met with air-conditioned relief. Inside, everything bustles. Lively conversation flows from the mouths of young polished professionals, the deep throaty voice of a tattooed man with a sizable beard booms, and silverware amiably clinks as an apron-clad woman with dreadlocks places spoon after spoon into a receptacle. Everyone is eating, their plates piled high with fresh vegetables, flatbread pizza and hearty wraps.
Reminiscent of a scene along Pearl Street Mall, the place depicted is in fact Café 180, a community café at 3315 S. Broadway in Denver. It is also along the lines of what 20-year Boulderite and Renaissance woman Sandy Robinson envisioned when she formulated the idea for a Boulder-based community café called Peace-n-Carrots. But Robinson’s idea has since derailed because, she says, she couldn’t find enough volunteers or donors.
As the customary notion that everyone has a right to eat has evolved into the belief that everyone has the right to a gastronomic experience that is healthful and dignified, community cafés and restaurants have emerged throughout the United States.
These venues allow patrons to receive food at a price that suits their means, even if that price is a few hours of volunteering. The community café signifies a junction of varied demographics, feeding everyone from the homeless to those with a fixed income to working professionals on their lunch hours. The patrons are black, white, young, old, wealthy and impoverished. There are no prices on the menu; they ask only that you pay what you can.
Far from a soup kitchen, these venues provide a space where a diverse assortment of people can gather to eat healthy food at a price they can afford. And this is something that all community cafés seem to have in common — their penchant for wholesome foods of the organic, gluten-free and often vegetarian variety.
“The first one of the family of cafés, One World Everybody Eats, is in Salt Lake City,” says Robinson, whose grey hair and amiable eyes are accented by angular iridescent glass earrings. “I saw a magazine article about that café and, it sounds silly, but as I read it I started to shake and cry and I just felt like I had to do this.”
Robinson contacted Denise Cerreta, the founder of the Salt Lake City location, and subsequently accompanied her to Spokane, Wash., where she helped establish One World Spokane.
The One World Everybody Eats Foundation offers services to assist new community cafés with establishment, including mentoring for start-up cafés; a “get-started packet” with checklists, IRS forms and other business-related documents; a compilation of successful cafés’ best practices; an annual networking summit; fundraising strategies; and hands-on support.
“It really is like a family,” says Robinson of the One World community, citing the two Denver-based community cafés, SAME Café and Café 180.
According to Robinson, her initial momentum was potent. She began to envision the café, a place where people of all varieties would come to eat her food, become educated about healthy eating, hand-paint the café’s dishes and become involved in a welcoming community. She started talking to people in Boulder about her ideas, holding weekly meetings, fundraising and looking for a location.
“We had a fundraiser. A theater group donated their talent and location and we did the food,” she says. “That was the turning point for the whole project. I had set up volunteers to run each station at the event and everyone just flaked out. Suddenly it was my best friend and I washing dishes alone at midnight.
“The next couple of days, the flame of the care started to get dim. I woke up face down in the dirt. It almost never has come back to full flame.”
She admits to worrying about how well the community café model would function in Boulder. She mentions a friend who reported greater luck receiving donations for free film showings in Denver than in Boulder.
“Some people that have a lot of money, sometimes, it’s hard to give,” she says. “And then I see people that struggle for every dollar they make and I see them donate. What is that? But I’ve seen every variety in between. I don’t know if it would work here or not.”
It appears Robinson has moved beyond that chapter in her life.
“Looking back, I see where I faltered. I was pretty scared to do this. It was a big project,” she says. “Some people were saying, ‘I don’t know how you’re gonna do it alone.’” According to Robinson, they were right. Her finances suffered immensely and at one point she wasn’t sure she would be able to make the next rent check. Her mission to feed the disadvantaged suddenly became very close to home.
“Working on Peace-n-Carrots, I thought I was going to be homeless,” she says. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to pay my rent.”
But the model isn’t hopeless, as the pair of Denver cafés has shown.
A meal at Cafe 180 | Photo by Camilla Sterne
“We exist so people can eat regardless of their ability to pay,” says Café 180 Executive Director Sarah Lesyinski, whose abounding energy is obvious, even contagious, as she tends to patrons and inquiring newcomers.
The nonprofit café has been open for three years. Lesyinski attributes its success to its Englewood locale.
“We have an ideal location. We are in an area that has both low income and affluent areas,” she says. “We’re also surrounded by a lot of businesses, so working people come in regularly.”
Pay-what-you-can is a business model that trusts in selflessness and relies on people’s inherent goodness. It also celebrates convergence of diverse communities, according to Lesyinski.
“The philosophy of our café is also the community it brings,” she says. “It means businesspeople and people with a fixed income all eating lunch together in the same space.”
However, pay-as-you-can is an unfortunate slave to the possibly fickle gift economy. Other similar business models have not been as successful as Café 180.
Comfort Café, formerly in northwest Denver, failed with this business model, ultimately crumbling under the pressures of a for-profit system, according to founder Jan Bezuidenhout.
“The nutshell is that for us it was not financially sustainable,” she says. “It’s really sad. It was really wonderful in the community and I miss it.”
Bezuidenhout, a 52-year-old hospice worker, started Comfort Café with two other women. Bezuidenhout is the youngest of the three founders, and was diagnosed with cancer soon after starting the business. She attributes the café’s termination to their inability to volunteer all of their time.
“The need was there, the appreciation was there. It’s a great concept, but I think it takes people who can, on a sustained basis, give 100 percent,” Bezuidenhout says. “I think the sustainability really depends on the energy of a couple people who are the vision holders.”
The original pay-what-you-can café, Salt Lake City One World, has also closed. Unlike Comfort Café, it closed so founder Cerreta could move on to other projects.
Robinson was shocked upon hearing about the closure of the Salt Lake City location, partially because Cerreta had such a great influence on her own objectives. She sympathizes with Comfort Café’s dissolution and still keeps her mind open to the possibility of opening Peace-n-Carrots in the future, if the circumstances are right.
She continues to be involved in the One World Everybody Eats community and, up until this year, attended the organization’s annual January summit. She now volunteers her time and cooking expertise to Boulder Food Rescue, where she satisfies her “mama bird syndrome.”
“I put my blood, sweat and tears into the café,” she says. “It might happen someday, who knows. If it’s meant to be, it will happen without harm to anybody’s health or finances.”