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COVID-19 brings surge in demand and forces changes at Raleigh pay-what-you-can cafe

COVID-19 brings surge in demand and forces changes at Raleigh pay-what-you-can cafe

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RALEIGH — The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed Raleigh's pay-what-you-can cafe A Place at the Table to rework its business model.

For two and a half years, the nonprofit restaurant aimed to feed anyone who was hungry.

But with thousands out of work and other hunger relief groups stretched thin, executive director Maggie Kane said they've seen hunger skyrocket, forcing A Place at the Table to change.

Very quickly, Kane said the cafe went from 70% of diners paying full price to only 1%.

In the first three months of the pandemic, A Place at the Table gave away more meals than it had all of last year. Kane said the cafe saw its meals double, serving more than 300 people daily. She said the line often stretched from the cafe's Hargett Street door to Weaver Street Market more than a block away.

"We've seen a lot more hungry people, a lot of people coming to us for the first time," Kane said. "People who have lost their job due to COVID, who are living in hotels, we're hearing a lot of those stories."

For the time being, at least until the pandemic ends, the Raleigh cafe has stopped allowing diners to volunteer for their meals, effectively suspending the most direct way the restaurant addressed issues of hunger.

"We never thought we'd be in this position and serving this amount of people," Kane said.

Now diners can pay full price for their meal, pay $3 or get a token from one of several local nonprofits distributing A Place at the Table meal tokens.

Kane said A Place at the Table hopes to return to its original model in a post-pandemic world, but that the changes are needed now to keep the doors open.

"This is our temporary solution," Kane said. "We could keep doing this, but we won't be here in 10 years. I think a lot of these folks coming to us for meals will volunteer. ... It's a sadness. Our staff miss our volunteers."

Free meals

While A Place at the Table is largely ending its practice of giving away meals, the cafe is partnering with several local hunger relief groups and other nonprofits, which will now hand out tokens for free meals at the cafe. Kane also said that families in need will always be able to get a free meal.

"We need to do this to be sustainable and survive," Kane said. "We can't do 350 meals a day."

The main organizations distributing tokens are Oak City Cares, Haven House, Passage Home and the Feed the Pack food pantry.

A Place at the Table closed earlier this month to regroup and reorganize, Kane said. The cafe is preparing to reopen now and expects to be back up and running later this month.

Always good food

A Place at the Table opened in 2018 as a pay-what-you-can cafe, serving breakfast and lunch Wednesday through Sunday. In the original model, diners could pay the suggested price, pay what they were able, volunteer an hour by working at the cafe, or pay $10 for a meal token to hand out to someone else.

"Our mission is that everyone in the community deserves good food regardless of means," Kane said.

In its first year, the nonprofit restaurant served more than 40,000 meals, including 8,159 meals given away. The next year the numbers went up, 48,027 total meals, with 12,559 meals given to someone unable to pay.

In the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic, A Place at the Table gave away 15,432 meals.

In July, A Place at the Table completed a year-long expansion into a vacant space next-door. The expansion meant a new full-service kitchen and room for 50 new seats that have yet to be used.

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