Just before ten on a Tuesday morning, as Maggie Kane crosses a small dining room, she refills a water glass, straightens a vase of flowers, hugs a regular, and answers a server’s question. This may sound like an ordinary restaurant scene, but A Place at the Table is not an ordinary restaurant.
On the first floor of the cheery, sunlight-flooded cafe on West Hargett Street in downtown Raleigh, people are grabbing coffees to go. Moms help toddlers pour syrup over chai-spiced waffles. Friends tuck into turkey-bacon-avocado club sandwiches around a six-top. But afterward, some of them will be heading back to a homeless shelter rather than a home.
Kane believes that no matter where you’ve come from, where you are, or where you’re going, everyone deserves a place at the table, which inspired her to open Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can cafe.
A Raleigh native, Kane grew up volunteering with her youth group at Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church. Its various mission projects included helping out at Good Shepherd Soup Kitchen in downtown Raleigh, which feeds up to three hundred people a day.
She recalls thinking, “Why am I this kid who is serving people who look just like me across the line? Why am I so privileged and they are not?”
While she pursued a degree from N.C. State in international studies and Italian studiesKane thought she would teach English abroad or work for the American embassy in Italyshe volunteered and interned with the nonprofit Love Wins Ministries, working with people experiencing homelessness. Soon, Kane was spending more time at Love Wins than in class, and when she graduated in 2013, she was hired to run its day shelter.
Kane got to know several people who came to the shelter regularly, and started going to eat with them in soup kitchens. But she soon realized that feeding your body and feeding your soul are two different things.
“I hated not getting to choose what I wanted to eat, having a plate of food I didn’t like, and being rushed. You had to stand in line and then eat in five minutes,” Kane says. “There was no community in that moment. So over special occasions, I took some of those people out for meals. We spent hours sharing food, sharing stories, and getting to know each other. I realized how important food was to bringing people together.”
She also realized that what those people really wanted was choice; while she credits soup kitchens for feeding the hungry, Kane wondered if there was another way that would also provide the missing componentsdignity and fellowship.
In 2014, Kane learned about the concept of pay-what-you-can cafes through the nonprofit One World Everybody Eats, which works to create spaces where people eat in dignity and form strong bonds. There are more than sixty pay-what-you-can cafes in the U.S.; the closest to Raleigh is F.A.R.M. Cafe in Boone.
Kane repeatedly traveled to Boone over the course of several months to learn from the staff at F.A.R.M. Cafe, which she credits as her mentor restaurant. With each visit, she brought someone new with herher mom, friendsto get validation that this was something she could do.
“Most people said, ‘This is crazy, how will you do this?’ But no one said ‘absolutely not,’” Kane says.
It was enough validation for her.
At the start of 2015, Kane left Love Wins to make A Place at the Table a reality. First, she had to learn how to start a nonprofit and how to open and run a restaurant. It took time to find the right peoplewith both the skill set and the belief in Kane’s missionto make that happen, including a lawyer, an accountant, and people who could share restaurant-industry insight, such as Sean Degnan (who chairs APATT’s board), Tony Hopkins, and Todd Ohle, the co-owners of buku and soca. To help introduce the concept to Raleigh, Kane spent a year doing pop-up events.
There was also fundraising, of course. Kane says she was able to open the doors thanks to community-wide financial support, both from individual donors who gave anywhere from $5 to $5,000, churches and faith-based organizations, and companies like Blue Cross Blue Shield and Golden Corral.
“It took three years to spread the word, to tell people who we were, to have people support us,” Kane says. “We then had to find a location. A lot of landlords turned us away. People turned us down because we weren’t a sexy restaurant they wanted to put in their space.”
Finally, last January, A Place at the Table opened in the former Café de los Muertos space. For Kane, it was important that there not only be a menu for diners to choose from, but that it offered healthy, wholesome options. The menu emphasizes scratch cooking made with fresh, often local ingredients: dishes such as sundried tomato, basil, and goat cheese quiche, yogurt bowls topped with fresh fruit and hazelnut granola, and Kane’s personal favorite, a quinoa salad with roasted vegetables and mixed greens. You can pair a cup of Larry’s Coffee with pastries from Durham’s Ninth Street Bakery and snag a bag of Carolina Kettle Chips.
So how does it work? When you walk in, volunteers, part-time employees, or Kane herself will explain the concept. Everything has a suggested price, and the cashier will ask what you’d like to pay. You can opt to pay moreanything beyond the suggested price, including tips, helps offset costs for others, or goes toward a living wage for APATT staffor you can pay less.
If you pay at least half of the suggested price, you aren’t required to volunteer. If you can’t afford to pay anything, you can instead volunteer for one hour. Patrons can also purchase meal tokens for others, which can be added to a communal jar located near the entrance or given to anyone who’s hungry for food or community.
“There’s a person who volunteers twice a week for food. She’s found her family here,” Kane says. “She lives on such a minimal budget that all she eats is heavy pastas, so when she comes here, she gets a salad. She says that the house salad is the best thing she’s ever had.”
Kane continues: “I think there is dignity in getting to choose what you want versus being handed a plate. In being served, having someone bring it to you, filling your water glass for you, and getting to sit down and savor it.”