Nov 01, 2018 10:38AM
● By Ashley Madonna
Thanksgiving reminds us all to slow down, spend time with loved ones, take stock of what’s important and reflect on the past year. While for some that can easily be done sitting down around the dining room table passing plates full of sides and an ample turkey, other Tarrant County families don’t have that luxury.
According to the USDA’s 2017 Household Food Security report, 11.8 percent of Americans are food insecure, meaning they are living without consistent access to adequate food. That includes 4.5 percent of households in the country who have very low food security, or that the family’s eating patterns are disrupted based on a lack of resources and access to proper meals. The same report finds 14 percent of Texan households experienced food insecurity last year and 5.8 percent of households had very low food security.
One restaurant in Fort Worth is actively fighting against those numbers. Taste Community Restaurant, Texas’ only nonprofit pay-what-you-can restaurant affiliated with One World Everybody Eats, opened its doors for its first dinner service last Thanksgiving. Their mission: provide Tarrant County families with a meal they could depend on. Since then, the restaurant has served thousands of diners without knowing or asking about their financial status. Each customer is treated the same – like a valued patron – irrespective of their circumstances.
Called To The Cause
Taste Community Restaurant’s founder, president and chef Jeff Williams knows the pressures families can face when struggling to put enough food on the table for the whole family. He was raised food insecure.
Both of his parents worked tirelessly to put food on the table for him and his sister. But there were days when his parents would have scarce options or would skip meals altogether so their own children could eat. That memory of food insecurity stayed with Jeff, so much so that he joined in the culinary industry and started a nonprofit focused on feeding people one plate at a time.
Jeff stayed close to food by taking jobs in restaurants from a young age. He did everything from host to bus to expedite the back of house growing up. He learned restaurants’ ins and outs and saw what made a successful experience for diners.
As an adult, Jeff rejoined the food world after he left the IT business and became a private chef. He and his wife Julie came to North Texas from California in 2005. After their move, Jeff spent years building up a clientele and eventually went on to join the Southlake Central Market team as a cooking instructor. But Jeff felt God called him to do more. After spending time thinking of how to give back by feeding people, the husband-and-wife team decided to open a nonprofit cafe.
It took more than five years to conceptualize, fundraise and find the right location, but with a strong commitment and a sense of calling, Taste Community Restaurant was born. The end result: a safe space that provided quality cuisine to families without a designated price point. At the end of each meal, instead of being presented with a check declaring the cost, families are encouraged to pay what they can afford, pay what they would typically spend or pay more than they typically would. This let the families determine their own payment based on their financial status and did not pressure anyone with suggested prices.
“My husband was food insecure as a kid, and one of the things most important to him was to make sure if you came in and weren’t able to pay that you didn’t feel uncomfortable if you saw a suggested price,” Julie says. “It might make those who can pay feel a little uncomfortable, but we see it as an OK exchange to make those in need more at ease.”
The concept had been tested and proven with more than 60 similar restaurants mentored by One World Everybody Eats sprinkled throughout the country. The nonprofit works with these individually owned restaurants and mentors the cafe’s owners to create a space where people can come together and eat with dignity.
One World Everybody Eats founder Denise Cerreta worked closely with Jeff and Julie Williams to help them build a business model and plan for the future restaurant.
She recalls the couple for having such a strong vision for giving back to others, and she knew they were on the right path to making a difference. After learning more about the concept at One World Everybody Eats’ summits and visiting other similar cafes, the Williamses saw an opportunity to bring that idea to Texas and provide that same concept to locals who could benefit from a community-initiated response.
“They are pioneers out there,” Cerreta says. “[Jeff and Julie] never gave up, and I totally admire them for that.”
The only question was where to open.
“We thought, ‘Let’s go find a community of people who can really get behind us and then we can find a space,’” Julie says.
So after looking across North Texas, Jeff and Julie met with the designers of Fort Worth’s charming mixed-use district, Near Southside, Inc. After talking to the neighborhood’s developers about the concept, the community’s leaders fell in love with it and helped introduce Taste Community Restaurant to the surrounding businesses and residents. The district helped the Williamses find a location nestled among the area’s other restaurants to help them mesh with the nearby dining scene. And to gain some momentum, the Williamses attended local events like Friday on the Green and spoke at business gatherings to introduce their concept.
While the couple does offer a portion of their service’s food at no cost, these plates are not the typical offerings at local food banks or soup kitchens. With a seasonal menu featuring healthy and hearty meals, each dish is created to satisfy both the foodie and the family who may only eat this meal for the day. Jeff says he creates these thoughtful meals featuring fresh ingredients to keep locals excited about what’s new.
“It keeps things a little more interesting,” Jeff says. “People are more willing to come in more often because we are changing things up.”
For the fall, Taste Community Restaurant’s small plates include dishes like Four Cheese Macaroni and Chicken Satay while its main dishes feature options like Harvest Pot Pie and a Cuban Sandwich. Each is crafted with care and served with intention making for beautiful plates full of flavor.
It’s the same sort of restaurant experience you would have anywhere else, regardless of your life circumstance,” Jeff says. “Just because we are helping people out doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice on anything.”
Calling Out For Support
Taste Community Restaurant is designed to provide 20 percent of its meals to those in need thanks to the other 80 percent of diners. But as more people in need started hearing about the nonprofit, that ratio crept closer to a 50/50 split over the summer.
That may seem like a problem at first, but Cerreta reminds people that it takes a few years for any restaurant to get up and running.
“My thing has always been asking were we making a difference, not making a profit,” Cerreta says. “It takes time for people to put you in their rotation and get that word of mouth going.”
Jeff and Julie are filling a need in the community, and they are taking the initiative of hosting creative event series in hopes to bring in more customers who can afford to pay more than they typically would. In September, they brought in local celebrity teams, like city council members and TCU athletes, to serve their guests.
Julie says, however, finding willing volunteers has never been an issue for them. The restaurant’s team relies on daily “Taste Buds,” the volunteers who make up 80 percent of Taste Community Restaurant’s everyday staff. This includes greeters, line cooks and everyone in between.
“I always thought it would be hard to get people to come in and serve,” Julie says. “I was surprised how many people sign up, get excited, have fun and come back.”
These shifts are hard work. Anyone who has held a server job knows running food and clearing tables can get tiring. Julie guesses each of her volunteers walks 2.5 miles per day just from bustling around the restaurant. But Julie says her volunteers keep coming back because they can see how they add value to the nonprofit and can interact with people who benefit from their efforts.
“There are plenty of volunteer opportunities that are easier,” Julie says. “They are able to see firsthand who they are helping and speak to them on a one-on-one basis. That goes a long way.”
Other than volunteers, the nonprofit runs just like every other Near Southside eatery. Taste doesn’t take food donations. They present picturesque plates. And they are successful when they have repeat customers who want to come back and try new things on the menu.
“Having other restaurants nearby helps us,” Julie explains. “I think it’s similar to how restaurants around Southlake help each other. You decide on the destination area and then see exactly you want to eat.”
Julie knows the area’s strong communal energy makes Taste Community Restaurant possible – whether it be through their regular volunteers or diners.
“We love the people of Near Southside,” Julie says. “Almost all of our volunteers are the folks living in the area, but we welcome volunteers from all over the Metroplex.”
While the restaurant still hopes to rise closer to that 80/20 ratio as they build up their brand, the concept is gaining traction that’s giving room for more nonprofit restaurants to open up across the country.
And the Williams family is at the forefront of that grassroots movement. Julie recently joined the One World Everybody Eats board and Jeff works closely with the nonprofit to mentor other proposed cafes across the U.S.
Reflecting on what the past year of business – and the five years it took to create Taste Community Restaurant, Jeff knows he is making an impact. He just thinks about how a restaurant like this would have benefited his own family.
“I always look back at how I wish a place like this would have been there for my parents,” Jeff says. “I get that warm and fuzzy feeling that we are able to be there for people like that. I would say it feels pretty amazing.”
Taste Community Restaurant is the local resource for those in need and those who want to give back while eating out. To get a feel for that spirit, consider the Fort Worth location for your next weekend adventure. It’s an easy way to still take a moment and spend time with loved ones while also giving back to local families fighting against hunger.
For more ways to make a difference, check out our guide to giving through Taste Community Restaurant.