Urban Ministry’s WE Community Café is all about the eatin’
WE Community Café at Urban Ministry is serving more than just good food; it’s also serving the surrounding West End neighborhood in ways that are making lives there healthier and happier.
The café is about four things, said Urban Ministry Executive Director Hill Carmichael. “Employment, education, enterprise and eatin’. That’s eatin’,” he emphasized. “When you can’t even get to the ‘g’ you know the food is good.”
WE Community Café offers employment for young people who are chronically unemployed or underemployed. Nine young men and women work in Urban Ministry’s internship program.
During their café rotation, chef instructor McKinzie Harrison teaches them culinary skills, cooking science, kitchen management and customer service. These are real-life abilities, with one thing building upon another. They are developing the emotional intelligence to recognize when something is not right with a customer and the self-confidence to walk over and engage that customer so they can make it right, Carmichael said.
Ama Shambulia, director of wellness for WE Community Gardens and WE Café, and Wanda Larosiliere, director of Urban Kids After School and Summer Learning Camp, have co-written a curriculum for all the interns. It’s a 24-month program that educates them on life skills and professional skills as well as financial literacy. They are connected with institutions like Lawson State Community College to further their education, and they attend programs and leadership training and spend time addressing real-life situations.
“Some of these young people have overcome incredible barriers to get where they are,” Carmichael said.
Kerry Primm, 21, is one of the interns here. He said his work in the café is teaching him everyday skills he’ll use his entire life.
“By managing things around me, I can better manage my own life,” he said. “We’re learning how to grow food as well as cook it. And I’m learning how to be more of a leader in my own community.”
Primm, a musician and an artist who has studied graphic design, contributes his art talents to Urban Ministry’s marketing materials. “It’s a way,” he said, “to do something with my life.”
Enterprise is another piece of this, Carmichael said. “If we can prove that a small social enterprise can be successful and thrive in a community like West End, then others can be drawn here and be successful, too.”
Then, of course, there’s the food.
“We have a history of food being what Urban Ministry does and does well,” Carmichael said. “There are a few things that all humans have to do, and one of those is eating. Rich or poor, black or white, everyone comes to the table and eats something every day. We believe that by sitting down together at a table, you can find rather extraordinary solutions to rather ordinary problems.”
The café is a light-filled space with a short serving line and a beverage station with fruit- or floral-scented tea and cucumber water. Alabama Furniture Market donated the furniture, including the comfortable sofa and chairs in the back where customers can wait for a place at one of the handsome dining tables made of reclaimed wood.
Donations from the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham, the Joseph S. Bruno Charitable Foundation, Alabama Power Foundation and Patcraft Flooring helped it all come together. Rather than a traditional cashier’s station, patrons pay (cash or cards) at a small table tucked into a back corner. There’s a large jar on that table filled with take-away proverbs printed on tiny slips of paper.
The café is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays. The plan is to add service on Thursdays after Labor Day. The staff also caters, which helps build a revenue stream.
The menu, developed by Shambulia and Harrison, changes weekly but is foundationally the same each month. For instance, the third Wednesday is always chicken day. That chicken might be in an enchilada or in a soup or roasted with lime, garlic and cilantro. And there is always a vegan option such as Swiss chard enchiladas or avocado sandwiches made with sprouted wheat artisan bread.
WE Café’s commitment is to quality and wellness, Shambulia said.
“The idea is to take foods that people are familiar with and give them a wellness experience. Everybody eats spaghetti, so our twist is we use good quality whole-grain pasta,” she said. “You can eat what you like to eat, and it doesn’t have to be detrimental to your health. And the plate doesn’t have to be meat-centered. You can enjoy a meal without meat, and you can still feel satiated.”
In the growing season, fresh produce for the café will come from the WE Community Gardens. This was Urban Ministry’s first social enterprise, and it provides fresh, healthy and affordable food for people in what otherwise would be a food desert. It’s also highly successful, bringing in $20,000 to $25,000 each year from sales at the Princeton Baptist Medical Center Farm Stand and The Market at Pepper Place.
The tasty food at WE Community Café is served in a setting that’s good for the soul. Communal seating is encouraged here, and a couple of long tables accommodate this.
WE Café customers pay what they can, and some simply can’t. So they might bus tables or volunteer to hostess or help with parking. For those who can pay, there is a suggested $5 donation. Some people pay more. If someone pays $10, that helps cover food and labor, Carmichael said. Pay $15, and you’ll cover food and labor and the cost of a meal for another person.
“Many patrons want to do more because they want to help,” he said. “We’re providing people the space to help.”
Before the café, Urban Ministry operated a soup kitchen for 32 years under the direction of “Ms. Belle” Carlisle. Community Kitchen was open five days a week and saw about 100 people each day. Carmichael estimated that the kitchen was serving 25,000 people each year.
“When we made this decision to discontinue the soup kitchen, we knew immediately that there would be some serious questions in the community,” he said. “We were feeding many and meeting immediate needs, but we were asking ourselves, ‘What is our role in the community long term?’
“Soup kitchens are wonderful and impactful and needed,” he added, “but our goals were beyond immediate. We say, ‘Compassion for today, wholeness for tomorrow.’ In reality, a soup kitchen is not the way to move people from poverty to economic opportunity. We wanted to give people the dignity to pay what they can for their meals.”
The idea was to build a component within the neighborhood and let the neighborhood have ownership over it, Carmichael said.
“It’s a shift from charity to community development, particularly asset-based community development,” he added. “How can the neighborhood shape its own future and determine how it will get better? No program is as powerful as the belief that they, themselves, can change their own neighborhood.”
Urban Ministry still operates a food pantry that’s open Tuesday through Friday. And there are healthy grocery kits available on Mondays and Tuesdays; people come in on a rotating basis to pick those up. That doesn’t offset the numbers, Carmichael admitted, but “it comes down to meeting the immediate needs of people or the long-term goal of impacting this community.”
At the March 9 grand opening, when WE Community Café was expecting 200 visitors and everyone at Urban Ministry was pitching in to make the day successful, Carmichael was busing tables. He overheard one of Urban’s clients – a woman who once had been homeless – talking to her family, and she said, “For so long we have wanted something nice, we have deserved something nice and now we have something nice. This is our café.”
WE Community Café at Urban Ministry
1229 Cotton Ave. SW
11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Wednesday
On May 12, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Urban Ministry will hold a fundraiser to support its Healthy Living programs. WE Eat Together will happen on the rooftop of the Kress Building, with its view of downtown from 301 19th St. N. WE Community Café will cater. There will be music by The Shaun Pezant Trio as well as wine and beer. Tickets, $45, are available at www.urban-ministry.org.