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. Later that night I called a crisp voice answered, “This is Kathleen”. It was one of the owners. I had a moment of silent panic when I realized it was her personal phone. She remembered us from Instagram and welcomed us to volunteer. The usual volunteers had left for summer break.
It was a cornflower blue Tuesday. We walked up to this unassuming cafe not sure what to expect since neither of us had ever worked or volunteered at a restaurant before. A waving hand on the patio caught my attention. I noticed that the guy leaving on his bike had volunteered with us on a farm the day before. Kathleen introduced herself and jumped right into telling us how happy she was to receive that surprise donation from Hope Farms just now. I’m not sure which was brighter, her face or the tie-dye shirt she wore.
As we followed her inside she continued talking. The spinach came right in time for today’s apple and red onion salad since their regular shipment was running late. Our first task would be cutting apples. She hoped we were familiar with thinly slicing them. The volunteer locker was downstairs sharing the basement with food storage. Organic boxes lined the stairway and walls. We donned aprons and signed forms before heading upstairs. The kitchen was an immaculate machine ran by Jeff, co - owner and chef. Before FOCO Cafe, Jeff was a surgeon. Clean habits are non-negotiable here.
The dijon vinaigrette was made right before we arrived and sat in a larger than life metal salad bowl on the island counter. Not intimidating at all as we started slicing red apples. Jeff maneuvered around us popping corn muffins in and out of the oven. They shared information on how important it has been to source locally for the cafe. Supporting your community and sustainability go hand in hand. Silver Canyon Coffee roasted in Boulder and Happy Lucky's Tea from right in Fort Collins is served daily. Various greens are sourced from Quatrix an aquaponics farm in town. When we visited Quatrix, the owners raved about FOCO Cafe not knowing that we were going to volunteer there the next day. It’s was pretty evident that the local community in Fort Collins has each other’s backs. Organic canned goods come from the Fort Collins Food Co-op. Last year, FOCO Cafe was their biggest customer. The soup special for the next day was a cheese soup. The main ingredient, a beer from local brewery, Odell’s Brewing Co., makes the soup one of their most popular items.
Mid-conversation, Jeff introduced us to Dan who was working on the lights as we chopped up a growing pile of celery stalks. Turns out Dan is a volunteer too. He helped set up the cafe's electrical system in 2014 and hasn’t stopped coming back to donate his services. A “chicken bucket” sat under the counter we were using. At this point, it was starting to overflow with apple cores and parts of celery. Any produce that is edible but won’t make it into a dish becomes chicken feed. Minimizing waste is a foundation of the cafe. A community glass recycling bin sits out back for anyone to use. It prevents regular recycling bins from receiving too many mixed recyclables. When glass gets mixed with other recyclables only 1/6 pickups are actually able to be recycled. Patrons can also donate their old egg cartons to be reused by farmers for fresh egg storage. Paper hand towels are used to clean off plates before getting dumped into the compost. It may take a few more minutes but it results in a lot less trash going to the dumps. FOCO Cafe recycles so much that their recycle bins are picked up once a week. Their trash bins are only picked up about every two weeks.
The level of conscientious effort put into sustainable practices here is eye opening. In hopes of reducing plate waste, smaller portions are given and guests are encouraged to come back for seconds. When salads are served, customers are asked if they prefer more or less dressing. The customer gets what they want and are less likely to leave something on their plate. Why don’t all restaurants do this? Kathleen and Jeff welcome other restauranteurs to volunteer or even tour their facility to see in person the results of their sustainable efforts. Several popular restaurants in town have even adopted their method of compositing plates and napkins together before washing dishes.
As we dice even more celery we are told of how FOCO Cafe was started. There was a need in the community for more than just a free meal and a hand out. Instead, people needed a healthy meal and a hand up. We’re told that they feed about 100 meals each day and have never given out a bill. It’s a 50/50 ratio of in-need customers to those that can pay for their meals. 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. The face of homelessness and poverty is ever changing and they have a first hand view of it in Fort Collins. The mayor ate in the cafe a few days ago and mingled with many of the in-need customers. “It’s not about a free meal because the farmers have to get paid, the places we buy our ingredients from need to get paid, it’s about being a positive change in someone’s life”. The kitchen overlooks the dining area. Volunteers can see what their efforts produce and guests can see the opportunity to volunteer is theirs.
FOCO Cafe stands for Feeding Our Community Ourselves. I’d say they do more than just feed the community. They create community. This summer, the cafe is launching a program called Kids Feeding Kids. A large number of children in the community only receive consistent meals while in school due to lunch programs. During the summer, those children may not have a reliable meal every day. With this program, older kids in middle and high school can volunteer to help feed younger kids in the community. They learn life skills in cooking, serving, and even restaurant etiquette while making a difference in their community. They in turn, get a healthy meal as well. At the side of the cafe you’ll find a Giving Tree. It’s a place where the community can donate a variety of items. There’s a journal for specific need requests. Sunblock was at the top of the list. Dog food in plastic baggies lined one corner. Books, pens, clothing items, deodorant, and even shoes filled everywhere else.
Jeff and Kathleen volunteer about 80 hours a week each. After only two and a half hours of slicing and dicing our wrists were weary. It was 11:30am, half an hour after opening and the cafe’s line extended to the door. Kathleen began serving and Jeff put the finishing touches on the last dish, Brazilian Black Bean Soup. The second round of help arrived. One of the three paid employees and a guy who signed up for volunteering after eating at the cafe a few days before. Instructions were being hurled around. It was go time and help was needed. Just as we looked at each other, wondering if to extend our volunteer time, a young lady popped in the kitchen. “The online schedule showed there was only one volunteer for this time slot, so here I am”. Right then, Dan, the electrician, also showed up. He left after fixing the lights to go to work but returned to offer some more of his time. Jeff thanked us as he busied around cleaning the kitchen and Kathleen encouraged us to get out front and eat up. We needed no encouragement. After all, we initially heard about FOCO Cafe as a great local spot to grab a meal.
To find out how our experience was as patrons and not just as volunteers, click here.
We took our aprons off feeling inspired. As we ate and chatted we were grateful. By the time we left we were hopeful. The future of this world is in good hands. There is a growing number of people who not only care about each other but also this Earth and its future.
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.