Local restaurant trims the fat to feed the hungry

Julia Rentsch

Not much in life is free—but the founders of the FoCo Café are trying to change that, at least for those who can not afford a good meal.

The FoCo Café, located at 225 Maple St., was founded as the city’s first nonprofit restauran by Kathleen and Jeff Baumgardner in 2014.

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Its mission is to “build community by providing nutritious and delicious meals to the people of Fort Collins, regardless of their ability to pay, while using mostly local, organic, and sustainably grown ingredients,” according to their website.

Instead of a cash register, a donation box is on the Café’s front counter, and the menu, which includes a daily selection of soups, salads, breads and desserts, lists suggested prices for each meal. Those who are able to pay what is listed are asked to “pay it forward,” while those who are not may pay what they can, or not at all. Those who eat for free are asked to volunteer to help pay for their meal.

“[W]e both love Fort Collins and we believe strongly that all people deserve access to healthy nutritious food AND the opportunity to give back,” Kathleen Baumgardner wrote in an email.

Before taking on this project, neither Jeff nor Kathleen had restaurant experience beyond Jeff’s stint as a waiter in grad school. The logistics behind their unconventional restaurant, therefore, were planned with some help from others in the business.

“We found SAME Café in Denver and began volunteering there,” Baumgardner wrote. “On our travels to and from our home to SAME, we wrote our mission, vision and values statements, developed plans for meetings, and more.”

SAME Café opened in 2006, and its website states that, at the time, it was only the second nonprofit restaurant in the country, after One World Café in Salt Lake City, Utah. Today, the nonprofit restaurant concept is appearing frequently in news publications including Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, and the L.A. Times.

(Collegian | Zoe Jennings)
(Collegian | Zoe Jennings)

It took the Baumgardners two and a half years to raise the money to open the FoCo Café debt-free.

“We received thousands of donations—some large and most small,” Baumgardner wrote. “The Café is the community’s cafe because the community rallied around the concept and made it happen.”

The couple received gifts of equipment, gifts of service, financial gifts from individuals and local businesses, small grants, and money raised at fundraising events.

One of the biggest challenges to getting the Café off the ground, according to Baumgardner, was finding the right location. The couple knew they wanted to be in Old Town Fort Collins in order to be easily accessible, but costs to rent commercial space were too high. They also wanted their space to have an open kitchen concept, which would require remodeling of traditional restaurant spaces. The couple started to look at non-traditional spaces for a restaurant, and settled on a green-roofed building with large windows and a porch just down the street from Washington Park.

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According to Baumgardner, the Café showed itself to be immediately sustainable in its first year of operation, and business has been thriving. In 2015, the Café served an average of 80 meals per day, and in 2016, they have seen that increase to just about 92 meals per day.

“We have never operated in deficit,” she wrote. “We began as a fully volunteer operation, and five months into operation, we felt comfortable in hiring our first employee because we had saved the dollars to do so.”

The Café currently has just three employees: Sam, the dish washer and prep worker; Steven, the assistant operations manager; and Kathleen, the nonprofit’s executive director, who was hired just this past April.

(Collegian | Zoe Jennings)
(Collegian | Zoe Jennings)

To keep their lean operation running, both employees and volunteers have a role in implementing new ideas and in leading programs, Baumgardner wrote.

Two of their big initiatives, The FoCo Freedge and The Giving Tree, were started by volunteers. The FoCo Freedge began through the efforts of local high school teacher and FoCo Café volunteer Rebecca Gregori to keep good food from being thrown away. Two local farmers started The Giving Tree, a small structure which offers bins of items like hygiene products, snacks, bug spray and writing utensils for free near the FoCo Café.

Despite the FoCo Café’s success, the same cannot be true for every nonprofit restaurant in the country. Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that a nonprofit restaurant in Michigan was forced to close its doors due to a push by the state legislature to increase the minimum wage from $7.40 to $8.15 per hour, with a rise to $9.25 planned to occur by January 2018. The Michigan restaurant, called Tastes of Life, was a faith-based organization that aimed to help those who had struggled with alcohol and substance abuse. Rising food costs, especially for meat, made it impossible for Tastes of Life to break even without raising the prices on its menu, and the restaurant closed in 2015.

The minimum wage in Colorado is currently $8.31 per hour, but a proposed increase to $12 over the next four years will be on the ballot in November, according to the Denver Business Journal. The increase is championed by groups like Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, which is composed of low-wage workers and small business owners.

In order not to follow in the footsteps of other now-defunct nonprofit restaurants, the FoCo Café will need to rely on a lot of help from its friends.

According to Baumgardner, the restaurant has grown the business through a robust online presence: “We have more than 1,600 e-news subscribers and we also interact through our website and social media platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Pinterest. We are reviewed on Yelp, Google, Facebook and we receive feedback through our Square system. We regularly hear that customers come back to the Cafe to bring family and friends.”

The restaurant has 29 reviews on TripAdvisor, with majority labeling it “excellent.”

Reviewer Shirley W. wrote that the restaurant is “always making you feel welcome and as though your satisfaction is all-important. You pay what you like, without fanfare.” Another reviewer, under the name The Travelling Twosome, wrote “The food is delicious and supports many good causes. Lunch can be busy, so be patient. Will be worth it!” Another user called it “a gem of a place.”

The FoCo Café is open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., with daily menus posted online at fococafe.org.