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New West Philly cafe aims to bring everyone to the table

A work in progress at EAT Cafe

The facade on Lancaster Avenue

The facade on Lancaster Avenue

A work in progress at EAT Cafe

In recent years, Philadelphia has cemented its reputation as a foodie paradise, with Starr, Garces, Vetri and Sbraga becoming household names for many. Yet for city parents struggling to feed their families, sitting down to a nice meal at a local eatery is a luxury they simply can't afford. A new restaurant opening this fall in West Philly aims to change that reality, offering customers a dignified, sit-down meal regardless of their ability to pay for it.

EAT (Everyone at the Table) Café, an innovative partnership between the Drexel Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the Drexel Center for Hospitality and Sports Management and the Vetri Foundation, has been three years in the making. It’s the brainchild of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities' Director Mariana Chilton -- the concept of a pay-what-you-can restaurant grew out of the Center's Witnesses for Hunger project, which started in 2008 as a way to better understand and advocate for mothers and caregivers of young children living in hunger and poverty.

Through that project, the Center learned that many of the women living with these issues felt they couldn't take their families to a restaurant because they felt uncomfortable or were unable to afford to it. After learning of similar pay-what-you-can restaurant models in Salt Lake City and Denver, Chilton saw an opportunity here in Philadelphia.

In 2012, the Center conducted focus groups with the community to garner feedback around location, atmosphere and menu. According to Lili Dodderidge, Communications Coordinator for the Center for Hunger Free Communities, most of those focus group members have continued to stick with them as planning for the Café has progressed.  

A suitable location was found at 3820 Lancaster Avenue, a stretch of the commercial corridor in the West Powelton neighborhood that currently lacks a sit-down restaurant. Even though there's little competition, launching a new restaurant remains a tremendous challenge. Fortunately, Drexel agreed to get behind the project.

"Drexel saw the importance of the project even though it's a big risk," recalls Dodderidge. "It's been important to make sure we have the right partners because we're not restaurateurs."

That's where the Vetri Foundation -- founded by famed local chef and restaurateur Marc Vetri -- comes in. They've helped the EAT Café team think through things like hiring, quality of service and funding. Drexel's Center for Hospitality and Sports Management will help with training employees; EAT Café's priority is to hire members of the local community. They are currently in the process of searching for a chef/lead cook from the neighborhood.

Equally important to realizing the vision for EAT Café is Donnell Jones-Craven, EAT Café's general manager. Jones-Craven is a seasoned chef and professional culinary manager with experience serving homeless and marginalized communities. Spend five minutes with him and it's immediately clear that he’s motivated by the Café's mission and role in the community.

"When I saw this position come up, I was excited!" he recalls. "We're hoping to make this a real community café and not just this thing that an institution dropped into the neighborhood."

In fact, Jones-Craven envisions a future for the café as a multi-generational hub where older customers are welcome to sip their coffee and socialize all day, and younger customers have an opportunity to learn a thing or two from them. Plans also include a featured artist night, and there will be permanent installations of neighborhood artists' work in the café.

"It's not a soup kitchen, but it's also not a Vetri restaurant," explains Jones-Craven. "It's in between, and everyone will be welcome."

In order for the pay-what-you-can model to work, EAT Café will need to create a welcoming environment not just for those who struggle to feed themselves and their families, but also for customers willing to pay a little bit more for their meal. To that end, Jones-Craven has been working on what he calls a "comfy café menu" that includes some favorites like good ol' mac 'n cheese, but with a twist that adds in vegetables or protein to make it a balanced, healthy meal.

EAT Café will be reaching out to nearby Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, college professionals and students to let them know about the new dining option just blocks from where they live, work and study. Suggested prices will be $10 or less, and the hope is that those with the ability to pay more will recognize the great value EAT Café offers for the price and chip in a few bucks extra. Organizers are also hoping that the Vetri and Drexel names will help attract people to the Café. The menu will change seasonally to give customers a reason to keep coming back.

That seasonal focus is also a deliberate move on Jones-Craven's part to help make the meals that families eat at the Café accessible.

"I want to make it so mom and dad can go home, get the ingredients locally, and reproduce the meal at home," he explains.

Having consulted with Sunset Magazine and Safeway on recipe development, Jones-Craven became attuned to busy parents' need for recipes that incorporate five or fewer ingredients and require 15 minutes or less to cook.

"You have to look at who your constituency is and make a meal for them," he says. But he quickly adds that he's not ruling out the occasional Chef's Night featuring more elaborate creations, just to keep things interesting.

To help families become more comfortable with cooking for themselves, the Café also plans to offer workshops on growing fresh produce and meal preparation. The idea is that the Café won't just be a place to get a good meal, but also a resource for people to learn the skills they need to prepare healthy, low-cost meals on their own.

While EAT Café -- which is targeting a November opening -- may be only one restaurant out of hundreds in the city, Jones-Craven wants its impact to be felt throughout the West Philly neighborhood and beyond.

"We're hoping that this community-based café model will become the model for other cities," he says. "We're hoping it'll make restaurateurs think about their business differently and ask what they can do to help."

SAMANTHA WITTCHEN is a designer, writer, harpist and co-founder of iSpring, a sustainability strategy and analytics firm working in Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley. You can follow her efforts to make the world a better place and become a harp rockstar on Twitter at @samwittchen.
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