We heard it was a non-profit restaurant. Images of soup kitchens popped into my head. We heard people pay what they can and its ran by volunteers. We heard its locally sourced and they use as much organic ingredients as possible. Well, that was all we needed to hear to know we had to visit. It was a cornflower blue Tuesday when FOCO Cafe introduced us to what sustainability and an adventurous spirit can create.
FOCO Cafe stands for Feeding Our Community Ourselves. Located in Fort Collins, people often think it is named after the city. Locals affectionately call Fort Collins, FOCO for short. The cafe was founded by Jeff, a former surgeon, and Kathleen who worked in Communications at Colorado State University. They realized a need in the community for more than just a free meal and a handout. Instead, people needed a healthy meal and a hand up. The cafe feeds about 100 meals each day and has never given out a bill. It’s a 50/50 ratio of in need customers to those that can pay for their meals. It's the first non-profit restaurant in Fort Collins and prides itself on being able to compete with local restaurants. Providing delicious meals and bringing the community together through sustainable practices is no easy feat.
The menu is constantly changing to reflect the seasons and local availability. A late shipment of greens almost changed the menu the day we visited. Luckily, a surprise donation of spinach from Hope Farms came right in time. Local names can be found throughout the cafe. Silver Canyon Coffee from Boulder, Colorado and Happy Lucky's Tea from Fort Collins are served daily. Look out for Cheese Soup on the menu. Its made with beer from a local brewery, Odell's Brewing Co. A variety of greens are purchased from Quatrix, a local aquaponics farm. Organic canned goods are purchased from the Fort Collins Food Co-op. In fact, FOCO Cafe was their number one customer last year. Being able to know and trust the ingredients that are used in recipes at the cafe makes eating it taste even better.
There's ample seating inside and out. The covered patio and garden provide some of the best spots during Spring. Dogs are allowed and so are donations. A Giving Tree stands in the yard where the community can bring a variety of items for others to enjoy. There’s a journal for specific need requests. Sunblock was at the top of the list. No surprise there due to Colorado's elevation. Dog food in plastic baggies lined one corner of the Giving Tree. Books, pens, clothing items, deodorant, and even shoes filled everywhere else.
It was 11:30, half an hour after opening, and the line extended to the door. We knew we had to join it quickly. In true cafeteria style, menu cards hung above the corresponding items. There were other newbies like us, reading the signs and looking around with wide eyes. The regulars chatted with each other. They seemed to be happy it was seafood chowder day. You could tell the lunch break crew who walked over, sunglasses and heads held high. Others had red sunburnt faces and carried their lives with them. Kathleen, the owner, greeted everyone with warm welcomes and even warmer plates.
There was a choice of three salads and four soups. Homemade corn muffins served as a side and almond cake was the dessert. All made in house. The foodie in me likes to try a little of everything. Kathleen must’ve sensed this. She held up a soup flight. Can you believe it? A local chapter of Engineers Without Borders created it for the purpose of sampling soups at FOCO Cafe. The idea mimics popularized beer and wine flights at other restaurants.
Every customer was treated with the same amount of dignity. Everyone had the same options whether able to pay or not. The cafe minimizes plate waste by serving smaller portions and asking customers preferences. Coming back for seconds is encouraged. The theory is that customers will leave less behind if they have a little more say in what is on their plates.
At the end of the food line is an iPad fitted with a Square card reader. There are 4 payment options at the cafe: pay what you can, pay what you normally would, pay it forward for someone else, or volunteer as payment. No strings attached. Unless, it's the ones pulling on my heart as I hear one patron offer his services after receiving a full plate. He was willing to do whatever was needed. Kathleen, smiled at him. She'd let him know when they had something for him to do.
We found a cozy seat under an open window. Sunlight streamed onto the wooden table and chairs. Its hard to believe the same tables and chairs were originally in a juvenile jail. Engineers Without Borders sanded out the names and rules that were carved into the wood. The line extended out the entrance at this point.
Steam seeped out as my spoon scooped up a tender tortellini. The broth was perfect for soaking corn muffins. Greens were wilted but not wimpy. Having recently acquired a liking for black beans, the Brazilian Black Bean soup was quite an adventure. Creamy but not too thick. The blended beans kicked me right in the tastebuds. The chili was thinner than expected yet completely satisfying. The broth was zesty like fresh squeezed lime. Spicy, orange spotted chicken floated in beans and a few vegetables. Flaky dover sole, salmon, and smoked salmon were cooked in a creamy white chowder for the fourth option. It was buttery and a little salty. As a native of the Bahamas, I’ve had my fair share of seafood soups. This is easily the best seafood chowder I’ve tasted in the America. At 12pm we got up for a second helping of it. Before we could even say what we wanted, they knew. The chowder had been requested for seconds seven times already.
The White Bean Tuna Salad was full of fresh herbs and crunchy celery. Each bite left a spicy tingle to the lips. The earthy Salmon Quinoa salad had just as much mushroom as it did salmon. My favorite, and not because I helped sliced the apples, was the Apple - Red Onion Salad in a Dijon Vinaigrette. Crisp, sweet apple juice complimented the tangy dressing perfectly. As we ate, Jeff busied himself cleaning the coffee and tea station. He walked to different tables chatting and thanking customers for coming in.
In a corner, Wolf strummed his guitar. His playing, a payment and a service to the community. Did I mention playing an instrument counts as volunteering? With only three paid employees, anyone is liable to be a volunteer. And, all are welcomed to. To read about our enlightening experience as volunteers, click here.
Similar non-profit restaurants exist though they are few in number. If you’re in Denver, CO check out SAME Cafe. Wanting to volunteer in Portland, OR then go to The Oregon Public House. L.A. is home to the Little Pine a non-profit by Moby. Fellow musician, Jon Bon Jovi, has two non-profit soul kitchens in New Jersey.