A learning curve for give-what-you-can cafe

‘People aren’t getting that they belong here,’ nonprofit restaurant’s founder says

Provision Community Kitchen chef Heather Maby
Provision Community Restaurant chef Heather Maby cooks up a family-size portion of red pepper and green bean couscous.

Inside Minneapolis’ first give-what-you-can community cafe, a handful of guests are sitting down for a family-style meal of red pepper couscous, garlicky spuds, balsamic brussels sprouts, onion vinaigrette salad and warm olive bread from Rustica Bakery.

The cozy 30-seat dining room is decorated with brightly colored walls, potted plants and a hodgepodge of chairs, tables, plates and glassware. Aside from a rug and a couple of lamps, everything in the room has been donated. Taking in the atmosphere, one of the guests remarks: “I’m surprised they’re not playing Gordon Lightfoot.”

Open since October at Lake & Harriet, Provision Community Restaurant offers eight seatings per week. Provision’s three paid chefs create new menus each day and work with volunteer cooks to turn donated ingredients — mostly vegetables and starches — into an enticing feast.

Provision’s goal, founder Anna Wienke said this past summer, was to create a space where everyone is welcome and money is not discussed — a place that welcomes people equally whether they have low income, no income or high income. Her idea was to create community, combat isolation and provide flavorful, nutritious, reliable meals in a county where about 1 in 10 people are considered food insecure.

Yet the restaurant’s first few months have brought unexpected challenges. “People aren’t getting that they belong here,” Wienke said. “In saying that we want everybody here, seemingly nobody is sure that they belong here.”

Provision has found success in a number of ways. About 90% of the food served is donated, helping reduce waste. Guests’ ages and income and education levels closely parallel the overall demographics of Southwest Minneapolis, according to entry surveys. And the nonprofit is financially sound: Diners have been giving about $20 per meal on average and the restaurant’s $50 per plate monthly fundraising dinners have been selling steadily.

Friday night dinners and Saturday brunches routinely bring about 20 guests, but other nights are more sparsely attended. “Wednesdays have been the slowest,” Wienke said. “Real slow, sometimes nobody.”

Even some of the restaurant’s donors aren’t coming to eat, she said, because they “don’t want to take a space from someone who needs food.”

While planning for the restaurant, Wienke assumed it would be “gangbusters” every night. Now she’s looking to change up Provision’s communication strategy and form more community partnerships.

While Provision’s staff have talked to homeless people at St. Stephen’s, distributed flyers at Project for Pride in Living and partnered with Little Brothers — Friends of the Elderly, Wienke said the restaurant’s late fall opening has made it difficult to get the word out on the street. Plus, she said, many shelters have check-in times around 7 p.m., which makes it difficult for those living in a shelter to attend the evening meals starting at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

“People don’t have any frame of reference for a community cafe,” Wienke said. “We are realizing that there is more effort that needs to take place for us to be where we want to be.” The nonprofit restaurant’s board is working to increase the racial diversity of diners, about 83% of whom have been white.

While Provision is a new concept to the Twin Cities, it’s following in the footsteps of nearly 50 other pay-what-you-can restaurants across the country guided by a model put forward by the nonprofit One World Everybody Eats. One cafe in Denver has been open for more than 13 years.

Maggie Kane launched a pay-what-you-can restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, in January 2018. A Place at the Table is open six to seven hours a day, six days per week and staff get the word out by posting relentlessly on social media, reaching out to social service organizations and speaking at corporate events. In 2019, the cafe served over 3,600 meals per month — more than a quarter given free to people who couldn’t afford them.

Kane said most successful pay-what-you-can cafes have hours similar to traditional restaurants, and fixed seating times could be limiting Provision’s appeal.

“People don’t necessarily put it in their calendar,” she said. “People say, ‘Oh, let’s get a coffee, where should we go?’ And if you’re not open the Tuesday they want to get a coffee, they’re going to forget about it.”

Sitting down and talking

As Provision staff evolve their concept, Wienke is concentrating on the small moments of connection that she’s watched happen between the restaurant’s hundreds of paying and non-paying guests. “I was concerned people were going to sit down and not know what to talk about,” she said. “For the most part everybody just sits down and starts talking, and it builds.”

A liberal couple had a peaceful and illuminating discussion with a conservative Vietnam veteran. A regular found solace in a hearty meal and a little company after packing up the home of a friend who had died. A woman dined at Provision on Thanksgiving Day, the anniversary of her mother’s death, telling a staff member, “I just don’t have it in me to cook, but I wanted my daughter to have a proper Thanksgiving, and I’m so glad that you’re here.”

A meal at Provision can contain many moments of freewheeling, digressive conversation. During a recent Thursday dinner, guests bonded over their love of the doughy olive bread, and their nearly two-hour chat touched on the history of Minnesota malls, Daniel Craig’s performance in “Knives Out,” Australian white nationalism and the origin of the Wedge’s nickname — the neighborhood, one diner explained, is shaped “like a wedge of cheese.”

The olive bread loaf went quickly, and Lowry Hill East resident Kari Johnson asked Wienke to bring “a little more bread if you have some.”

“I don’t think you meant to say a little more bread,” chimed in Steve Kramer of St. Louis Park.

“I was being very Minnesotan,” Johnson said, smiling.

A minute later, Wienke returned with news that they’d run out of olive bread. Instead, she gave Johnson a basket of spicy semolina — accompanied by a side of olives — and suggested she share some of the slices with her tablemates.

“That’s what being a good community member is,” Wienke said.

Provision Community Restaurant

The city’s first give-what-you-can restaurant offers set seating times, family-style dining and a menu that changes daily.

Meal times: Dinner, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; Brunch, 10 a.m. and noon Saturday

Where: 2940 Harriet Ave. S.

Info: provisioncommunity.org