Bow tie pasta with Chardonnay cheese sauce, fresh focaccia topped with herbs, a salad of fresh locally grown greens and made-from-scratch bread pudding aren’t the usual fare for people in need of a free meal.
At Bistro 163 in this lakefront town 38 miles east of Toledo, such tasty delights are the norm though.
Part of the growing community cafe movement, the nonprofit restaurant with a modern, clean decor in the heart of Ohio’s Lake Erie vacationland seeks to connect good food with good fellowship while beginning to address the needs of hungry, lonely and elderly people.
Mary Leucht, 52, of nearby Oak Harbor, has been coming for the meal since winter. The housekeeper at a local hotel said the free meal helps to make ends meet on her modest income.
“I come down for the food and the friendship,” she said.
For buddies Robbie Floriana, 53, and Ken Ahrens, 56, both of Port Clinton and unemployed, the meal stretches their limited finances. They also like meeting new people because they never know who they might sit next to at the long community table set up in the in the center of the restaurant.
“We like the atmosphere,” Ahrens said between forkfuls of creamy pasta.
They’re not alone. Dozens of people have been coming for the meal for months. Visitors have included business executives, city council members and single moms with children.
“It’s a lot more than food here we offer,” said Stacy Maple, a member of St. Joseph Parish in nearby Marblehead, the restaurant’s executive chef and general manager. She also is a graduate of the acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.
Maple called landing at Bistro 163 a sign from God soon after she and her family — a husband and two sons — returned to Ohio after five years in Atlanta. She said she uses her culinary skills while responding to the Gospel call to respect human dignity.
“Everything we do here we want to be a reflection of the needs of our community,” Maple said.
“Hunger, I’m learning quickly, is a symptom of so many bigger problems. Food might get them in here and food starts the conversation. But food is not the answer to the problem. You start to realize there are other things affecting peoples’ lives,” she explained to Catholic News Service.
Bistro 163 opened in June 2016 and is named for the state route that passes nearby. Jack Resetar, 79, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Port Clinton who helped establish the endeavor, likes to think its name refers to Proverbs 16:3: “Entrust your works to the Lord, and your plans will succeed.”
It is one of about 50 such nonprofits that have emerged since what is believed to be the first opened in 2003 in Salt Lake City by Canton, Ohio, native Denise Cerreta. She is the founder of One World Everybody Eats, a network of community restaurants, and works with local groups exploring the concept.
While some community restaurants have come and gone, others have experienced success during years of operation. One philosophy governing them calls for patrons to pay what they think is a fair price for their meal.
Other restaurants, such as Bistro 163, list a suggested price on the menu and encourage patrons to pay a little more to help cover the cost of a meal for someone who cannot pay. Bistro 163 calls its idea “pay it forward.”
“There is not one way or right way to do this,” Cerreta told CNS. “It’s important to free up the food and to eat in community. Building community is so important.”
At Bistro 163, which is open Monday through Saturday for lunch, suggested prices for meals are $7 to $8. The menu changes quarterly, offering seasonal dishes to hold to the concept of locally sourcing food.
How local? The Rev. Bob Butcher, a retired Presbyterian minister, showed up during a recent lunch with a bag full of plump cucumbers from his garden. It was his congregation at Firelands Presbyterian Church that broached the idea of a community cafe with other Port Clinton faith leaders in 2015.
The concept has been well received thus far. Since opening in the location of a twice-failed coffee shop, Bistro 163 has served 20,000 meals, 30 percent of which have been for people who could not pay, Maple said. Those who are unable to pay are asked to volunteer for one hour in exchange, and most people have, she said.
In large part, the restaurants have a small number of paid staff and count on a team of regular volunteers to make the concept work. Bistro 163 draws from a team of about 70 volunteers, largely members of local churches, to staff its lunch service.
Maple also leads a staff of 10 people, including a sous chef, two cooks, three cashiers and four dishwashers. She has hired people who recently were released from prison or are recovering from an addiction as well as high school graduates looking to gain skills before enrolling in a culinary arts program.
Ryan Ross, 31, has worked as sous chef since February after being laid off from his job as a cook at the local Moose lodge. And, he said, he is recovering from an addiction. Ross enjoys making the different meals that emerge from Maple’s creativity.
“I absolutely love it here,” he said. “It has been great to be able to learn from Stacy. She’s a great teacher. She’s willing to teach you if you’re willing to learn.”
Keeping the focus on people in need is a key part of the mission of the restaurant, said Resetar, who serves as the greeter at the monthly meal. He would like to see broader outreach to the community though and he suggested that may be possible as the restaurant becomes more widely known.
“I sense a lot of needs are not being met in the community,” he told CNS Aug. 14, before guests began arriving for the meal. “How do you build community, bringing the haves and the have-nots?”
Maple agrees. The restaurant was to resume a weekly After School Snack and Study program for kids as school reopened this fall. Maple is thinking about starting a Saturday morning gathering for teenagers to give them a place to talk and feel safe.
“There are a lot of social concerns here,” she said. “I’ve learned a whole lot in a year’s time, that’s for sure.”