Have a Seat at The Table

The Table restaurant in Louisville's Portland neighborhood. Dec. 3, 2015.There are two options for those who are unable to afford food. They may visit a soup kitchen, stand in line and receive a meal for free. At places like The Table though, they can order anything they like then pay for their meal not with money but with time.

The folks at The Table, a nonprofit restaurant that recently opened in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville, call their operation a two-way giving model and celebrate it as an effective and engaging partnership. John Howard, a leader behind The Table, claims, “There’s so many more positive effects that come out of a partnership model – a two-way giving model – than a one-way giving model. And the light bulb just went off and things started falling into place very quickly after we had that realization.”

The Table was born out of the Portland Promise Church, which Larry and Kathie Stoess moved to Portland in 2012. The church soon created the Promise Community Development, an organization that encourages community development, social entrepreneurism and social justice. Its first outreach project was The Table, which opened at the beginning of November of this year.

the_table_002Howard, who is the president of Promise Community Development, recalls the formulation of the concept, which took years to nail down. “About three years ago, we started talking about what was on our hearts and what the solutions could be to some of the problems that we were kind of burdened with,” he explains. “And one of the great issues we’ve seen in the neighborhood is food insecurity … We just were talking – ‘What is an effective solution that isn’t just a line where people pick up food and walk through?’ And we didn’t know what the answer was.”

The team began doing some research looking for solutions and talking to friends, neighbors and community leaders – searching for some kind of answer to this very real problem. Then, Howard recalls it was a friend who sent him links about Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen restaurant in New Jersey and One Bistro outside Cincinnati. Both restaurants operate on the pay-what-you-can premise where diners are asked to pay for their meal with money, pay for their meal and a little extra or pay with their time to help in the operation of the restaurant.

the_table_005These places seemed to be exactly what the Promise team thought was needed in Louisville and left them puzzled as to why this void had not been filled in their own hometown. “We realized this is going on all over the country but it’s not happening in Louisville,” Howard recalls. “And with Louisville being of its size and being such a food town, we asked the question, ‘Why? Why isn’t this happening? Why doesn’t Louisville have one of these?’”

The group decided to travel to the nearby One Bistro and see what they could learn. They credit the folks behind that restaurant as being imminently helpful in the creation of The Table and thank them for advising how to successfully run what could potentially be a failing model. But this sort of thing can succeed, and it’s doing just that in Louisville.

The Table opened its doors in early November and has been booming ever since. Keeping the business afloat, the eatery has seen just the right mix of those willing to pay with their money and those willing to pay with their time. “We even have some people who have paid – some of our neighbors even – who have paid for their meal and then stuck around to help out,” relates Larry Stoess, a prominent figure at The Table and the pastor of the Portland Promise Church.

Kathie Stoess, who works as the hostess and volunteer coordinator at The Table says customers always have questions about how paying with their time works. Whether they plan to do so or not, its an intriguing concept due to, if nothing else, its irregularity. “But it’s just a real simple process,” she asserts. “You order what you want to eat, and when you’re done, I have a form that you’ll fill out, we’ll put a t-shirt on you and put you to work. It’s that simple.”

John Howard, Joyce Woodrome and Kathie and Larry Stoess.

John Howard, Joyce Woodrome and Kathie and Larry Stoess.

As far as what they’ll actually be doing, it could be anything. From dishwashing to prepping to food-running to even waiting tables, there’s no shortage of day-to-day duties that need to be done at The Table, and with only two paid staff members, they truly do need the help. Time-wise, volunteers can help for as little as 30 minutes, though some stay for up to three hours. “That’s always a question that they have too,” Kathie Stoess affirms. “They say, ‘Well, I only have a half-hour. What can I get for a half-hour?’ And we don’t really work like that. Get what you want to eat and give us what you can.”

This flexibility and accessibility offered by The Table truly brings together people of all walks of life, and that is one of the aspects of the non-profit that Larry Stoess finds particularly beautiful: “It is fun to have someone from downtown who has a lot of financial wherewithal – maybe a business leader or a city leader – in here with some of our neighbors or homeless friends, sitting and dining in the same space together, unaware of each other’s social position,” he emphasizes.

Many, at least from the eastern side of town, have raised the question since The Table’s opening of whether or not a business where the customers do not always pay can be sustainable. According to those doing the bookkeeping, the answer is a resounding yes. Thanks to the right mix of paying and volunteering customers, Howard contends that the restaurant is proving to be entirely self-sustainable in its one month of business. “The whole goal is for this to be self-sustainable,” he maintains. “Most nonprofits rely on fundraising events and end up in fundraising mode all the time. But this model is self-sustainable just through what we do here every day.”

The Table restaurant in Louisville's Portland neighborhood. Dec. 3, 2015.And part of that is food. Kathie Stoess agrees: “One of the things we do here is serve good healthy food.” Food options in Portland are limited to just a couple fast-food joints, so what The Table is bringing is actually quite significant. The menu features such offerings as a root veggie salad, a smoked chicken sandwich and a broccoli, cauliflower, cranberry and pecan side salad. Some of the produce The Table uses couldn’t be more local as it comes from a community garden on 44th Street just down the block.

The menu itself, easily pleasing to any palate, was the result of intense planning and multiple trials. “It developed over a number of months,” Howard details. The team created a list of ideas of what they thought they’d want to offer, and the chef put it together into the menu it is today.

But when guests get seated, they receive two menus: a food menu and a mission menu. On the latter, The Table introduces itself to its customers and explains what it hopes to achieve in the community. It describes the central concept of The Table, which is everyone working together to create a place where all can enjoy “the flavor of the community.”

And maybe some of those who come to The Table will perhaps learn from what it is doing and more Portland residents in particular will feel moved to make something of their own. The building that houses the restaurant has plenty of space for other business to take root, and the hope is that The Table inspires a movement. “I don’t know if it’s a year from now or two years or three years, but we’re hoping that this gives birth to other indigenous leaders in the neighborhood starting businesses,” Larry Stoess ponders.

Howard has similar thoughts: “That’s the big dream,” he says. “That other folks in the neighborhood take the opportunity to start their own business and be part of the development that’s happening in the neighborhood. We need folks from across the city to help develop Portland, but we also really want Portland to be developed internally as well.”

The rise of Portland has indeed been anticipated for multiple years, but now, with a place like The Table actually open and successful, it seems that that reality is even closer – not only to bring development but to lift up the community and provide unprecedented possibility. “We feel like this is one of the ways to secure gentrification with justice,” Larry Stoess describes. “Our neighbors will have the chance to participate in and enjoy the benefits of the development, and we’re giving them that access where everyone has a seat at the table.” VT

The Table is located at 1800 Portland Ave. For more information, visit tablecafe.org.

Photos by JESSICA EBELHAR | Contributing Photographer