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The Kitchen Table – A Community Café that feeds body, mind and soul

Written By | Jul 25, 2021
The Kitchen Table, Community Cafes, So Others Might Eat

ROCHELLE (Illinois): Most people are familiar with the concept of a soup kitchen, but community cafés are something different. Community cafés compete with diners seeking quality dining experiences. However, they also invite those from the community who may not be able to feed themselves, children or family to the table. At no cost.  The Kitchen Table at Rochelle, Illinois, has twice won recognition as “Community Cafe of the Year” by the national organization ‘One World Everybody Eats (OWEE).  Community cafés, or PWYW (Pay-What-You-Want) cafés, are a contemporary trend sweeping across the country.

The cafés provide people of various income levels access to healthy, affordable meals in a welcoming environment. Community cafés address issues of accessibility, affordability, availability, and food waste, while increasing awareness of healthy eating habits.

The employees of The Kitchen Table are volunteers and the customers set the menu price.

Volunteers also act as servers taking orders and delivering meals to tables. Some customers pay just a dollar while others pay $10 or more. But no one knows what’s paid by others. The bills for the meals have no amount posted on them for the point-of-sale (POS) computer system.

Community cafés typically offer one set meal with no set price.

A free-will donation is requested instead of a bill with an itemized account of what was had. Volunteers and donations are the backbones of the community café model. Those diners who are well-off come to dine with those who are less fortunate making for a kind of pay-it-forward moment in time. For diners with children, it is a chance to humanize the homeless with the basic understanding that everyone needs to eat.

The community café concept began in 1984 in Malaysia at a volunteer-run Indian vegetarian restaurant called Annalakshmi whose motto is, “Eat what you want, pay what you feel, allow everyone the opportunity to enjoy a delicious vegetarian meal with no worries of cost.”

Utah resident Denise Cerreta opened a community café in America (One World Café) in 2003 in Salt Lake City, which has since closed. In 2006, she assisted Brad and Libby Birky in Denver, Colo., in opening S.A.M.E. (So All May Eat) community café.

Recently embracing this concept are the Panera Bread Company and rock star Jon Bon Jovi.

The Panera Bread Foundation opened a community café in Boston and the Jon Bon Jovi Foundation operates the “JBJ Soul Kitchen” in Red Bank, N.J. Both of these establishments were designed to address food insecurities and ensure that everyone has access to a nutritious and delicious warm meal at a time when one in six Americans now go hungry.

The Kitchen Table in Rochelle, Illinois

Carolyn and Grant Brown always had big hearts for those who lack necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing.

They were known for dipping into their savings to help others in their times of need. They have even, on occasion, had strangers over to their homes to eat. Carolyn, an accountant and tax preparer, and Grant, an industrial maintenance mechanic, were just the right fit to heed the calling to begin a community café in north-central Illinois.

For many years, Carolyn has held an Illinois Food Service Sanitation Manager Certification and cooked for church and community events. People would often tell her, “Your cooking is so good, should have your own restaurant.” Carolyn became widely known for her jars of homemade salsa and other products. This Tennessee native easily recognized for a big heart and southern drawl rapidly found her way into many people’s hearts by way of their stomachs.

Brown brings to the north the kind of southern hospitality that doesn’t allow anybody to leave the table wanting for more.

Carolyn Brown dreamt about the possibilities of transforming an abandoned Old Klondike Bar (former abandoned local bar and grill supper club) into a community café every time she passed it on Illinois Route 38 just west of Rochelle.

“I would look at it all the time,” she says. “I asked Grant to go with me to look at it. He told me I was nuts. He said I didn’t realize what kind of work and money it would take to bring the building back up to code. I said we should at least go look and maybe we could get it cheap enough that it would make it easier to rehab.”

Grant refused to entertain her curiosity.

But Carolyn proceeded anyway and made an appointment on her own. When the day came, she convinced Grant to tag along.

“The day we looked at it in July 2012, we offered $5,000,” she says. “The realtor thought that was pretty funny since they were asking $58,000.”

The Browns left that day and figured the Klondike was not meant to be. Then, in January 2013, the realtor called to ask if they were still interested.  “I said ‘Sure, for $5,000,” says Carolyn.

The Browns negotiated the building and property for a little more than $6,000 and closing the deal on February 19, 2013.

Where most would have seen the property as fit for leveling to the ground, Carolyn saw a vision of a future community café.

“We had to tear down the back two-thirds of the building, as it was beyond restoration, but that front part, which was the newest part, we just had to save it,” she says. “The actual front bar portion had such amazing character. The walls were varnished Cedar planks and so beautiful. I could envision how it would look with all the antiques I had collected.”

Carolyn began to attend summit meetings for the nonprofit One World Everybody Eats, a spinoff organization from the original One World Café. She took notes during lectures and seminars on how to start and operate a community café.

The Kitchen Table officially began operating in June 2016 after the establishment of a board of trustees, incorporation as an IRS 501(c)(3) registered charity, and more than $60,000 of Brown’s personal finances invested to open the doors.

Since 2012, many others have joined in offering their own time, talents, and monetary donations to make the vision of a local community café come true.

The Kitchen Table seats 36 at a time, but meals are also sent out to the Rochelle homeless shelter and women’s center. Some meals can also be ordered for takeout at a set price. During special events, such as the Second Anniversary Celebration held on June 30, 2018, many more people were served outside.

Mike Rowe made an appearance and donated $50,000 to add on to the facility after the Kitchen Table was nominated to receive Rowe’s award. Recent additions to the Mike Rowe Pavilion now add additional seating to the original building.

The Kitchen Table – feeding body, mind, and soul

Besides providing nutritious meals while protecting the dignity of the hungry, those involved with The Kitchen Table’s inception noticed how the cafe brought people together for fellowship in the community. This was a pleasant side effect to The Kitchen Table’s mission, says Carolyn.

In addition, people from the Ogle County court system have been able to complete community service hours at The Kitchen Table. Carolyn believes everybody deserves a second chance.

Board members have been touched by the generosity of those who have come forward to assist in their mission, Carolyn says. Serving teams have come forward from Rochelle Hospital, Monsanto Company, Holcomb Bank, and several Kiwanis Key Clubs, among others. Tyson Foods, Hormel, Subway Restaurant, Monsanto Company, and Del Monte are some companies that have made generous contributions of food and/or money to The Kitchen Table.

Twenty-five percent of The Kitchen Table diners cannot afford to eat

Carolyn reports that about 25 percent of people cannot afford to pay the cost of a meal, but 75 percent pay more than $5. It costs from $100 to $200, on average, to prepare a meal for 50 to 100 people for a normal night. Some meals, like BBQ ribs, cost more to prepare. But the cost is not passed on to the diners.

Carolyn is known to stretch a dollar to make ends meet, while food donations from local suppliers help keep costs down.

Some highlights of The Kitchen Table were receiving a grant award from the Rochelle Area Community Foundation. The group receiving a grant award of $2,500 from the Rochelle High School Interact Club. Being featured on the front page of the Chicago Tribune also helped to increase awareness.

For  Thanksgiving Day, receiving 75 hams from Tyson Foods and, most recently, receiving a $7,500 grant from the Monsanto Foundation.

And, of course, the $50,000 donation from Mike Rowe to allow The Kitchen Table to expand.

“Always remember that if you can dream it, it can be achieved,” Carolyn says. “It just takes work and perseverance. We can’t change the world, but we can help change our communities.”

One World Everybody Eats Makes announces they will participate in the third annual National Everybody Eats Week.

National Everybody Eats Week (from August 22nd – August 28th, 2021) is a nationally coordinated campaign to help individuals understand the power they have. The power to build community, ensure a table for everybody, and end hunger. Community Cafes have been building equitable communities for nearly 15 years.

During this pandemic, member cafes continued to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Because the challenge and the goal is deeper than food.

We encourage all Americans to dine at a One World Everybody Eats café during National Everybody Eats Week.”

Readers can learn more about One World Everybody Eats at their website.

Everybody Eats | 2016 Real Food Films Winner from Real Food Media on Vimeo.


Read more from Mark Schwendau

About the author:

Mark Schwendau is a Christian conservative patriot and retired technology professor (CAD-CAM and web development) who prides himself on his critical thinking ability. Schwendau has had a long sideline of newspaper editorial writing where he used the byline, “- bringing little known facts to people who simply want to know the truth.” Mark is on alternative free speech social media platforms after lifetime bans from Facebook and Twitter and shadow bans from Instagram and Fox News commenting. His website is www.IDrawIWrite.Tech Follow Mark on: MeWe LinkedIn Gab

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Mark Schwendau

Mark Schwendau is a Christian conservative patriot and retired technology professor (CAD-CAM and web development) who prides himself on his critical thinking ability. Schwendau has had a long sideline of newspaper editorial writing where he used the byline, “- bringing little known facts to people who simply want to know the truth.” Mark is on alternative free speech social media platforms after lifetime bans from Facebook and Twitter and shadow bans from Instagram and Fox News commenting. His website is www.IDrawIWrite.Tech