Chef Matt Clark doing some post lunch clean up in the kitchen. (Tony Duncan/Johnson City Press)
Just less than two months from its Dec. 4 opening, the popularity of the nonprofit One ACRE Cafe is undisputed.
Every weekday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m., its parking lot at 603 W. Walnut St. is packed. The cafe averaged 94 diners daily through December. There have been several days when the crowd exceeded 130, and the cafe recently hit a new high of 167 diners.
One ACRE Cafe’s 95 percent volunteer work force is proving to be as dedicated as its diners, and like its daily lunch crowd, is continuing to grow.
Most telling of all, the cafe is operating in the black and sustaining itself as planned.
Heading into its third month of operation, how has the cafe’s mission to address the issues of hunger and food insecurity in the local community by providing an opportunity for those in need to work for meals, to train for employment in the food service industry and to gain work experience worked out so far?
“We have customers who ask us every day, ‘Are there people here working for their meals?’ We tell them there are many people working for their meals. But you will never know who those people are,” said Jan Orchard, the cafe’s director.
“That’s the way we want it to be. We don’t attach want to attach that (stigma) to anyone.
“We have a number of people who work every day. We provide meals to all our volunteers without asking if they need to work for their food. So, there could be a college student who comes in to work because they don’t have any money that day. They don’t say. And we don’t ask them. We are all working together,” she said.
Going strictly by the numbers, what the cafe does know is that 20 percent of the 1,685 meals it served in December were to people who worked for them. Thirty-two percent of those meals were served to people who “paid it forward” by paying more for their lunch than the cafe’s modest prices in order to help those who cannot pay.
“Also interesting,” Orchard said, is that the cafe has sold 94 meal vouchers and gift certificates. The $8 meal vouchers are often purchased by or given to churches, ministries and individuals who work with people in need that pass them along to those who need a meal. The certificates may be purchased in any amount and given to an individual or group as a introduction to the cafe’s nonprofit work.
“We’ve only been open a short time. All of us are still getting into our positions,” Orchard said in preface to an update on the cafe’s mission to help people through job training and work experience. “We’ll have an informational session on the job track in February.
“For people interested in working their way into the food service industry, they’ll be able to gain experience in all areas of the industry. They will work in all the positions we have. They’ll work as servers, work busing tables, work as prep cooks, etc., until they have mastered all those positions.
“Then we will give them a certificate that says they’ve completed training and we’ll give them references for employment. They’ll have that block of time they have worked here and we will vouch for those people.
“What it will take is a commitment from them and being here five days a week.”
In the meantime, the cafe’s popularity and its volunteer numbers are still growing. It now has about 200 registered volunteers. About 12 volunteers work the lunch shift daily. Those with day jobs are coming in to serve at special evening events.
“We opened Dec. 4 ... and so many things have happened,” Orchard said. “We had five special events in January,” in which groups have come for dinner, paid for their meals and added their donations to the cafe’s nonprofit cause.
The evening crowds at the cafe are also growing, with a group of 50 scheduled for dinner on Valentine’s Day.
“Most of the people who work here are volunteers. They don’t vie for tips. They come here to serve others. I think it’s their desire to help others that creates the sense of community here, the vibe that people seem to like.”
The cafe’s menus also help. Each is created anew daily by chef Matt Clark using as many locally produced items as possible.
Tom Thompson and T.J. Milinn, who came last week to volunteer at the cafe with a group of 10 friends from their New Cache Order, stood witness to the quality of both the food and the opportunity.
“It was really crowded. It was pretty sweet,” Thompson said.
“We worked hard. And we had lunch, too,” Melinn said. “Fabulous. The tomato basil, you have to try. And the cookies, awesome.”
Orchard invited others interested in volunteering at the cafe or in the job track program to begin soon to watch for schedules, notices and more information at the One ACRE Cafe Facebook page and at oneacrecafe.org.