At Danville’s Grace Café, pay what you can for local food

By 11:30 a.m. Thursday, Grace Café is filling up fast.

Its clientele includes downtown professionals, Centre students and families who come in to eat from a menu that changes daily. The café works with local farmers whenever possible, making use of what’s seasonally fresh.

The strawberries on Thursday’s salad came from a farm near Paint Lick in Madison County. They are organic and bursting with sweetness.

Among the patrons are people who come in without the money needed to feed themselves.

One man came in shortly after the café opened last July and had a meal, then went to work cleaning windows to pay for it. The café serves those with no money to get a meal and allows them to pay for it with labor.

If you’re able, what you pay for your meal can even be anonymous: Those using the cash bin — in fact a large birdhouse — put in what they can afford, with no one the wiser. Patrons can also use credit and debit cards, which do show the amount contributed.

Rochelle Bayless, founder and executive director of the café, said it’s not a soup kitchen, but rather a way to promote community and allow those who are hungry to have access to high-quality local food.

Last Thursday, the restaurant near the Ephraim McDowell Regional Medical Center offereda choice of two salads, two sandwiches and two soups. Beverages included regionally sourced coffee, tea and two types of infused water: ginger-citrus and cucumber-mint.

The café is a nonprofit, not a charity. Its paid employees include a chef, a cook and a dishwasher who started as a hungry patron. He paid some coins for a bowl of soup. But he was still hungry. So he put some more coins in the bin and got some more food. Depleted of money and still hungry, he then volunteered. And he kept coming back until he became an indispensable paid employee.

The café is purposely set up so that it’s often impossible to tell who paid for their meal.

“Charity is not the way to end hunger,” Bayless said. “You end hunger by ending food insecurity (the fear of not know where the next meal is coming from.)”

The café offers gift cards and has a good number of patrons who “pay it forward” by paying more than the menu price, but it makes only about 58 percent of its annual budget on operations. Bayless would like to move that closer to 75 percent.

Meanwhile, the café seeks grants and donations. It’s part of the One World Everybody Eats movement, which began in 2003 when Denise Cerreta opened the first “pay what you can” community café, One World Café, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Bayless also is an interfaith chaplain. Her master’s thesis at Hartford Seminary was titled “A Theology of Food: Seeing Foods as Acts of Grace.”

If Grace Café was just about feeding people, it could heat up canned goods. But it’s also about serving high-quality, locally sourced food in moderate portions.

For people who are food-insecure, the cheapest calorie often comes from fast food or heavily processed items. Grace Café works hard on its menu, so there are lots of fresh vegetables, thoughtfully prepared, and a deliberately small amount of waste at the end of the day. No soda is served.

Jennie Hollon of Danville had lunch at Grace Café on Thursday; she works in local planning and zoning and has a health food store.

“I already know most of the local farmers,” she said. “This is like the best restaurant that’s ever come here. ... It’s something fresh and has a mission.”

Sarah Berry works in a nearby medical office. She and her co-workers are regulars at Grace. A vegetarian, she appreciates its non-meat options. One such option Thursday was a fried green tomato sandwich, with goat cheese, local greens, barbecue red onion marmalade, chipotle Caesar aioli and Boyle County bread from Briar Knob Bakers.

“The food is awesome,” Berry said. “We’re glad to have it in our community.”

Grace Café is supported by Danville businesses that have made an effort to address the community’s hidden problems of hunger and homelessness, Bayless said.

“You don’t have to feel bad if you don’t have enough money,” she said. “We have to erase the stigma.”

Cheryl Truman: 859-231-3202, @CherylTruman

If you go

What: Grace Café

Where: 2190 S. Fourth St., Danville

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; 5-8 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday.

Payment: Cash and major credit/debit cards accepted.