A Cafe for Comfort

By: Candace Ruiz and Jan Bezuidenhout Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Community Vint Cerf How much would you have paid for your last restaurant meal if there were no prices? How much is it worth to you? This is the model for many community kitchens and nonprofit restaurants. Daily menus, no prices and donations accepted. At the Comfort Café in Denver, Colorado, the menu changes daily and the "three old-broads" volunteer each day to bring home-style meals to all who are hungry. When you enter the Café near 39th Street and Tennyson in northwest Denver, you feel comfort and caring from the volunteers who serve you. Local artists’ works adorn the walls and food from the kitchen is made fresh each day.

There are many entities that have the general idea to provide food for the hungry. This is not a new idea. In 1989, Robert Egger started the first "community kitchen," DC Central Kitchen. This Washington, DC establishment trains the unemployed to learn marketable culinary skills with food donated from local restaurants. The food is prepared providing balanced meals for the needy. In early 2001, Denise Cerreta, founder of the One World Everybody Eats Café in Salt Lake City, Utah, converted her for-profit restaurant to a nonprofit. She had hungry patrons who were willing to work for food, and she needed more hands in the kitchen. With that, a small group of followers developed, and over time, a foundation was started to support growth and expansion for other community kitchens around the United States.

Jan Bezuidenhout is the visionary who joined forces with like-minded friends to breathe life into the long held dream that is The Comfort Café. A social worker by training, with education in business as well, Bezuidenhout spent most of her career working with hospice, providing patient-directed comfort care to terminal patients and the people who love them. She is the founder and president of Namaste Hospice, which has cared for thousands of people in the Denver area since its inception in 1998. Early in her 26 year hospice career, Bezuidenhout discovered that bereaved people were likely to reject traditional counseling interventions, insisting they were just "fine." She understood this type of assertion, which is not necessarily true, to be a reflection of the death denying, death defying culture prevalent in the United States and throughout most of the world. Bezuidenhout had worked in commercial kitchens when she was in high school, college, and graduate school and understood the healing power of food, especially food that was connected with the memory of loved ones and happier times gone by. More than 20 years ago, she and her staff began asking the bereaved to tell stories about their deceased loved ones that involved food. Hundreds of recipes and stories were shared and documented over the years, and these serve as the inspiration for the extensive menu at The Comfort Café. About five years ago, Bezuidenhout became aware of the community kitchen model, which does not list prices but asks diners to make a fair donation for their meal. The two concepts seemed to fit well together and the Café was born in 2010 as a place where the bereaved and others experiencing sadness or challenge are comforted, community is created, and everyone eats high quality, delicious healthy food regardless of their ability to donate for their meal.

The big idea of the Comfort Café is an empowering, community connection point. Patrons come in as strangers and leave as empowered friends. It is a place to build a personal network, a safety net, and friendships. In May 2010, with generous foundation funding, The Comfort Café opened as a comfortable, welcoming restaurant atmosphere where—not just seniors, not just one religious group, not just the poor—everyone is welcomed.

The fresh new menu is posted each day, but no prices are listed. Patrons just donate for what they eat. In fact, the Café finds that 25 percent pay less than the fair market value for a meal, 50 percent pay fair market value, and 25 percent pay extra. And while it is important for people who can pay nothing or just a little, are included in the restaurant, the Café has one patron who pays $50 for his meals, and has had some pay as much as $500 for theirs. Another weekly customer comes in always by himself, yet he never sits alone—he sits and visits with anyone. He says he likes the idea that he can support a place where everyone in the community belongs.

Understanding the social and community value of the restaurant is important since 75 percent of existing paying patrons could choose any other restaurant on the street. So why do they come to The Café? They say they like the inclusive, caring atmosphere—something much different than just being friendly. The Café is creating hope—not from the food and not from the service—but from the sense of hopefulness that comes from the volunteers and the patrons.

Another patron, a former hotshot executive, suddenly unemployed and who had lost everything began coming to the Café regularly. He couldn’t afford to eat so he volunteered for his meals. Bezuidenhout observed him one day, alone at a table with his coffee, his plate of food, and his laptop. As she observed him, she noticed he was wiping away tears so she sat down with him and asked him what was wrong. He said it was the one year anniversary of the suicide of his son, and that he was filled with such pain that he needed "the comfort of the Café." During the conversation, a young mother, and regular customer, entered with her mother and sister and gave Bezuidenhout a big hug. The young mother explained that her mother had just been diagnosed with cancer—they too were grieving in their own way. Bezuidenhout suggested, with the gentleman’s permission, that they all sit together. As they talked, they realized that they were all experiencing pain that day. The Café volunteers gave comfort by listening to them, supporting them, and normalizing their feelings.

What sets The Café apart from other nonprofits is its participatory aspect—each volunteer is given an opportunity to contribute, whether fulltime or for just a few hours. The Comfort Café seats 65 in the dining room, 45 on the outdoor patio area, and there is a separate conference room available for small groups. The first Friday of each month, The Café hosts a big feast and invites local artists to display their work and musicians to play.

So, the next time you are in the mood for comfort food, feeling low, or just interested in a new experience, visit The Comfort Café—you don’t know who you might meet or who might just lift you up.

Candace Ruiz is managing director of Business Service Corps, a company that assists for-profit companies in the development, organization, implementation, and measurement of community outreach programs. Contact her at Candace.ruiz@BusinessServiceCorps.com.

Jan Bezuidenhout is a founding member of The Comfort Café and founder and president of the Namaste Hospice. Visit The Comfort Café at 3945 Tennyson Street, Denver, Colorado or visit their website at www.thecomfortcafe.net.