CH@T: New ‘pay what you can’ cafe set to open in Pittsboro

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Jennie Knowlton, founder and executive director of The Quiltmaker Café, began her first nonprofit journey early last year, along with her husband, David, and daughter, Elizabeth.

Having experienced food insecurity herself during different periods in her life, she says she can personally relate to the dignity lost as choices become fewer and fewer. With The Quiltmaker Cafe — set to open soon in Pittsboro — Knowlton is excited to combine her passion for reducing waste with her desire to address growing food insecurity by providing a space where all are welcome to a meal and community. This week, we spoke with Knowlton about her plans for the cafe.

Let’s start with your mission and objective … what will The Quiltmaker Café do and offer for Pittsboro and the rest of the Chatham community?

The Quiltmaker Cafe’s mission is to provide community and healthy meals to all people, regardless of means. We plan on accomplishing this mission by offering Pay-What-You-Can meals with no pricing, offering choices for meal options and portion sizes, sourcing local food, relying on volunteers for running the café, and providing community tables where all are welcome.

What was the inspiration for it?

During a family vacation, we visited our first pay-what-you-can café in Red Bank, New Jersey, and absolutely loved the concept. Not long after, our daughter, Elizabeth, went to college at Appalachian State, and we happened upon F.A.R.M. Cafe in Boone, which is just as amazing, yet run in a completely different way. When COVID hit in March 2020, the three of us felt sidelined watching so many others lose their jobs and experience severe health issues. We felt that it was time for us to make a drastic turn in our collective lives’ path.

When Elizabeth came up with the idea to start a PWYC, it literally felt like time had stopped, and our true family calling had been realized! When it came to choosing a name, “The Quiltmaker Café”, was immediately agreed upon by all of us. Elizabeth had grown up reading “The Quiltmaker’s Gift,” a children’s book by Jeff Brumbeau with illustrations by Gail de Marcken. We started researching and reaching out to others for input, and it has just kept rolling since then!

Can you summarize the principles of “One World Everybody Eats”?

OWEE is a national organization dedicated to supporting and assisting Pay-What-You-Can cafes. There are currently 30 individual cafes of this type in the U.S. OWEE has defined seven main elements that can be found in successful PWYC cafes:

1. Pay-Way-You-Can pricing: some cafes offer a suggested price, and others run on Free Will donations. But all of them allow for choice in how each guest can participate in the community of the café.

2. Having an option to volunteer in exchange for a meal: provides an option to “pay” that is dignified and creates an equalizer for paying and non-paying customers.

3. Employees earn a living wage.

4. Guests choose their portion sizes: not only provides the dignity that comes with choice, but cuts down on food waste.

5. Café is mostly run by volunteers: allowing all to participate in the community of the café.

6. Healthy, seasonal food is served: allowing local producers to also participate in the café.

7. Community table is offered: along with smaller individual tables, several community tables will be made available providing an opportunity for conversation, understanding and a real sense of “we’re all in this together.”

And about pricing – how will that work (and please touch on your “transparency board”)?

At The Quiltmaker Café, there will be no pricing, and every guest will have the ability to choose their meal from the same menu as everyone else. Some examples of payment would include donating financially, donating produce, and/or volunteering at the café. Some will pay extra, some will volunteer, some will pay less. In all cases, guests will check out in a way that does not create an obvious difference at the register in who is paying and who is not.

To help give folks an idea as to what it costs for the café to run, we will post a “transparency board” that will list the average daily costs to open the café each day, the average daily food costs for a meal, the average cost of similar restaurants in the area, etc. But these amounts will be informational only, and participation is completely up to each individual.

You haven’t finalized a lease or location yet, but what are you projecting as timeline for opening? And after opening, when will the café operate?

We are hoping to open sometime this summer/fall. Our biggest challenge is locating a preexisting restaurant space, so there are a lot of different factors that could alter that timeline. Once open, we are planning to serve breakfast and lunch five days a week, from Friday-Tuesday.

The choice of being closed on Wednesday and Thursday was based on the fact that St. Bartholomew’s Community Lunch is served every Thursday and the new Chuckwagon program (which serves frozen prepared dinners) is held on Tuesday evenings. By working alongside that existing schedule, we can more likely ensure that all community members can depend on at least one hot meal a day.

Most of us are quite familiar with CORA, the West Chatham Food Pantry, and the weekly meal served at St. Bartholomew’s in Pittsboro. Can you talk about how The Quiltmaker has collaborated with other organizations, and how what you’ll do will complement their work?

Pittsboro has several programs that are wonderfully helpful to our food insecure population, and we are proud and excited to partner with several of them. CORA has served over 11,000 residents in Chatham County during 2021 and are excitedly awaiting their additional building to be completed, which will allow clients to “shop” for the items they want and need.

Additionally, the St. Bart’s Community Lunch serves over 140 lunches every Thursday and offers both a regular meal and a vegetarian option to guests. TQC will complement these beloved community programs by providing additional food and resources to alleviate the growing problem of food insecurity affecting our entire region.

Many times, our food insecure community members do not get to experience the pleasure of “the eating-out experience” i.e., choosing a meal, being waited on, savoring the experience with other guests, etc. A top priority of the café will be stressing the importance of inclusion and participation of our larger community for the success of the café and to communicate the seven core values of OWEE. One of the most exciting ways of doing this will be having larger tables or seating areas where individuals and small groups can sit with others and make a larger group that can cross social, economic and other societal boundaries. Additionally, local chefs in the community have pledged to create top-notch menu items, allowing guests, not only the dignity of a full-service menu, but the high quality of chef created items that they may not have the chance to experience otherwise.

How will you be funded? And staffed?

The Quiltmaker Cafe’s funding is expected to be split evenly between two funding sources. Fifty percent will come from revenue generated by the free-will donation for meals. The other 50% will come from peer-to-peer fundraising and donations from community members.

The café intends to have a paid staff of two to four employees: executive director, kitchen manager, possibly a restaurant manager and volunteer coordinator in the future. Although only employing a few people, those employees will receive a living wage, which is not something always found in the food service industry. The staff will also grow as the restaurant becomes more successful.

Why is the notion of dignity so important?

One of the top priorities of the café, along with offering healthy food and community, will be to provide guests options that are dignified and empowering.

One of the first things most people start to experience with food insecurity is the lack of options. Being able to make choices for yourself builds confidence and self respect. So, everything in the café will be offered with a choice. The choice of how to participate in the community. The choice of menu options and portion sizes. The choice of joining others at the community table or enjoying a meal on your own.

We also believe that donors and paying guests will be just as excited to visit the restaurant. Our menu is being created by two local, amazing chefs: Sera Cuni of Root Cellar Cafe and Bill Hartley of The Postal Fish Co. Guests will not only experience top-notch menu items but can feel good about themselves by helping to provide those same meals for community members experiencing food insecurity. Ingredients will be as fresh and locally sourced as possible, supporting local farms and producers. And we will be offering vegetarian and gluten free options for anyone with dietary restrictions!

You’ve mentioned that loneliness is as rampant as hunger — how will you combat both?

The Quiltmaker Café will only thrive with a strong community connection. This will be a place where all are welcome, not only to receive a meal but to also participate in the operations of the café. Volunteers who are there to do a good deed and those who are there to enjoy a meal will be indistinguishable and will be functioning as a team rather than on separate sides of the counter. It will also be a place where you may eat your meal alone, but only if you choose to do so. Our community tables will symbolize the very heart of the cafe’s focus.

You’ll introduce this on a bit more formal basis at Pittsboro’s First Sunday event … what will happen then?

We will be a vendor again this year at Pittsboro’s First Sunday, on March 6 from 12 to 4 p.m., and this time we will be offering a pay-what-you-can meal. Chili and a vegetarian soup will be offered for lunch, along with a drink, and all guests are welcome! There will be no cost for this lunch, although donations will be accepted. We are very excited to share the pay-what-you-can model with our community members for the first time!

Why did you choose Pittsboro over Siler City?

While the need in Siler City is high, there is also a true need in Pittsboro that cannot be ignored. In order for the PWYC model to be successful, the location of the café must be in a centralized place that both those with food insecurity and those able to pay more than the average amount should feel welcome and comfortable. Depending on the area, most cafes need to have 50-75% of their guests able and willing to donate for their meal. Pittsboro, being the seat of Chatham County, is also located on somewhat of the dividing line between higher income cities (Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Cary, etc.) and areas with a greater need (Siler City, Sanford, etc.).

Pittsboro is also the home and community of our family, and we plan to be a part of the daily operations of The Quiltmaker Café. In a practical sense, we need to be readily accessible to the location, should any problems arise with staffing, building maintenance, etc. Pittsboro allows that accessibility while also addressing the needs of that community. While these reasons may be true for the café to open and stay open, the need in other parts of Chatham County has our attention. This will continue to be a top priority, and while we may open our first location in Pittsboro, we are committed to finding ways to overcome this divide and will continue to consider options in the future.

How can people help or find out more?

Check out our website. There, anyone can donate and sign up for our newsletter to receive updates on location, opening date, upcoming fundraising events and volunteer opportunities. We have a lot of fun events coming up, including a shiitake mushroom inoculation workshop and a dish drive. Also, you can help by simply spreading the word! Share our Facebook page and Instagram (@quiltmakercafe) with family, friends and neighbors!

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