Updated: July 30, 2013 at 8:12 am
Lyn Harwell is a man on a mission.
"There are 31,000 households on food stamps in Colorado Springs," he said.
With that statistic in mind, Harwell is trying to make a difference. Next month, he plans to open Seeds Community Cafe using a pay-what-you-can concept set forth by the local nonprofit One World Everybody Eats Foundation, of which Harwell is the interim executive director.
At a community cafe customers who can afford to pay cover the gap created by those who can't.
"I've been watching the concept nationally for about 10 years but seriously working on developing a cafe in Colorado Springs for about five years," he said.
According to Harwell, there are 34 community cafes nationwide, with two in Denver: S.A.M.E.(So All May Eat) and Cafe 180. Panera Bread also operates five Panera Cares Community Cafe nationally.
"The idea is to pay forward to help everyone have a nutritious meal," said Leslie Wirpsa, co-executive director for Seeds Community Cafe "Pay what you can or pay more to support the community. If you can't pay, we ask that you volunteer in exchange for the meal. Do things like clear tables, wash dishes or prep food."
Wirpsa and Harwell forged a friendship from their mutual interest in sustainable food and gardening and their work with nonprofit agencies.
"We were both volunteering at Pikes Peak Urban Gardens at the City Greenhouse Project and we started talking about Seeds and we have never stopped since," Harwell said. "Leslie's passion and experience have been vital to where Seeds is now."
Wirpsa is co-owner of Rampart Professional Solutions, where she coaches graduate students in thesis development and completion. Her skills include nonprofit management, donor relations, grant writing and development, all of which will contribute to the cafe's financial stability.
"We as a community can do this," she said. "We can build our local economy and address hunger while still creating great meals for all."
Harwell brings culinary training to the project as well as eight years of experience with nonprofit organizations and ministries working in strategic and operational leadership positions.
There are two facets to Seeds Community Cafe Nonprofit and for profit. The project will be funded through direct donations from customers who wish to pay more than what their meal is worth, through fundraising projects and through individual donor contributions and grants.
Harwell will run a for-profit catering business to help the bottom line of the restaurant. People also can rent the downtown location for private events and parties.
Having grown up on a farm, Harwell is determined to design a creative menu prepared with locally sourced vegetables from places such as Pikes Peak Urban Garden and Ivywild Urban Farm. A rooftop garden at the restaurant is in the plans as well.
It helps that Harwell graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Conn., and his resume includes stints with Olive Garden, Madeline French Bakery and Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico in New Orleans. While working at a local Texas T-Bone, he became involved with the Springs Rescue Mission.
In 2005, Harwell left commercial restaurant work and started volunteering at the Rescue Mission. That evolved, he said, into him becoming the chief operation officer and director of programs. One of the many programs was Food Services and Culinary Arts, where clients were trained for kitchen jobs.
Through his involvement with the Rescue Mission, Harwell discovered the vast need for feeding the hungry in our community and considered it his call to action. From that spirit, the cafe was born.
Donna Ross, an accounting associate at Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, sees the need to help the hungry each day with her job.
"In 2013, more than 31,000 people used SNAP benefits in El Paso County alone," she said of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called the Food Stamp Program. "Unfortunately, SNAP is not allowed for use in restaurants or for prepared food. It can only be used to buy ingredients at grocery stores or farmers markets. There is a huge need for low- or no-income people to be able to get a wholesome, fresh, nutritious meal.
"Seeds Community Cafe is a place for them to eat in a real restaurant, as opposed to a soup kitchen. They can order from a menu, choose their meal and be waited on. No one is made to feel less than anyone else."
Seeds Community Café
109 E. Pikes Peak Ave.
Work on the café is underway with an Aug. 12 soft opening planned. A celebration is scheduled for Sept. 7. Visit seedscommunitycafe.com for more information and to make donations. Friend facebook.com/SeedsCafe for regular updates about the project.