The people behind Table Grace Cafe, the pay-if-you-can restaurant that aims to serve the greater good while serving good food, are rolling out a food truck.
Mobile Grace Cafe began hitting the streets this spring. Like the brick-and-mortar Table Grace in downtown Omaha, the food truck has a donation box instead of a cash register. People may pitch in as much as they want to, or as little as they can.
So far the food truck fare has ranged from hamburgers to quinoa salad with roasted beets and goat cheese. At the truck’s official grand opening at the Bellevue Farmers Market on Saturday, Mobile Grace Cafe Chef Erin Schultz served sweet potato waffles and salmon-and-kale quiche.
The point of it is best summed up in the nonprofit Table Grace Ministries mission statement: “To foster a healthy community by offering great food prepared and served in a graceful manner to anyone who walks through the door. ... Our goal is that everyone, regardless of economic status, deserves the chance to eat wonderful food while being treated with respect and dignity.”
Matt and Simone Weber, who are also Christian music ministers, started Table Grace Ministries in 2008. They opened the cafe, at 1611½ Farnam St., in 2011.
People who can’t afford to pay can eat with no worries, but they are invited to volunteer for an hour. The Webers also offer a 10-day job experience program. They help the graduates apply for restaurant jobs.
“A lot of people (in the job experience program) are struggling in some way shape or form,” said Matt Weber, a trained chef. “They may be on parole. They may be homeless. They may not have worked in a while and need something to put on their résumé.”
At the cafe, the Webers serve mostly soup, salad and pizza, made with fresh, organic and local ingredients as much as possible. They hoped the menu and the concept would attract a clientele that reflects the economically diverse population of downtown Omaha.
Theoretically, lawyers, business executives, construction and government workers would eat elbow-to-elbow with people who are homeless, jobless or both.
It’s working, Matt Weber said. The Table Grace Cafe crowd is “about 70 percent low to no income, and 30 percent working professionals,” he said.
Support for the social enterprise has grown as well. The Webers had one donor when they started. Now, they have 3,000 people in their donor base.
“It’s amazing to see the diversity of support we have,” Matt Weber said.
People from the community at large donate their time as well. That’s how Erin Schultz became involved, which led to the food truck. A former nurse technician who had worked with cancer and Alzheimer’s patients, Schultz was working as sous chef at Kitchen Table downtown when she called Matt Weber to ask about volunteering at Table Grace.
“He was pretty excited, because I was already a chef,” she said.
As often happens when people volunteer, Schultz came to believe she was receiving more than she was giving at Table Grace.
“I feel like I got quite a lot out of it,” she said. “It’s a totally different atmosphere than any other kitchen.”
She couldn’t put her finger on exactly what it is about the Table Grace setting. Maybe it’s the connections between people who wouldn’t normally eat or work together, or feeling like she’s part of something that makes a difference.
“There’s a lot of growth happening all the time,” Schultz said. “Whether they need something to eat, or to volunteer, or they’re in the 10-day program and they need to learn how to cut an onion, I feel I can help them.”
Things lined up to create Mobile Grace Cafe. Matt and Simone Weber were looking to expand their offerings in food, music ministry and outreach, with an eye to offering more assistance to the people Table Grace serves.
Table Grace catering, which was pretty much limited to church visits and a group dinner here or there, has been growing. In the past two years, catering has generated about $40,000 a year for the nonprofit, Weber said. They’ve catered everything from small office meetings to weddings. People in the job experience program work on the catering events.
The Webers took advantage of Schultz’s skills and added pop-up dinners to their catering repertoire. After about a year of volunteering, she became a paid employee at Table Grace. The Webers cooked up the idea of a food truck.
“We were thinking, what is something very tangible that could get us out there into the community, and serve the community?” Simone Weber said. “The food truck came along.”
They envisioned taking it to a variety of events and neighborhoods, from food festivals such as Taste of Omaha to food deserts, areas where healthy food is hard to find.
As luck would have it, Schultz has food truck experience with The Dire Lion Grille & Chippy.
The Webers sought grants for a food truck. They found enough generous donors and philanthropists enthused about the concept that they received funding to buy a truck and operate it for its first year.
Schultz went down to Georgia to get the truck and drive it to Omaha. They put together a business plan and menus. The business plan worked in what they call food vouchers, which people can acquire by donations of money or labor and then exchange for meals from Mobile Grace Cafe.
“You can keep it yourself and use it, or if you see somebody who needs something to eat, you can give them that and make sure they got a good meal,” Schultz said.
They’ve taken Mobile Grace Cafe to a variety of events, including a Habitat for Humanity build, the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s CodeCrush Summit for high school girls interested in information technology, Food Truck Thursdays at Gene Leahy Mall and Nebraska Food Truck Wars in Plattsmouth.
In June, Mobile Grace Cafe rolled to Lutheran Youth Serve Omaha at Kountze Memorial Lutheran Church west of downtown. Children in the service-focused religious summer day camp lined up for lunch, which included burgers and salad.
Mike Cherney, president of American Plastics Co. nearby, joined the line after happening by. He was a glad he did.
“I’m a foodie, so I wanted to try it,” he said. “They had a quinoa salad, which is pretty high end. It was seasoned just right, had beets on top, and goat cheese.”
He invited the food truck to a neighborhood association event.
At the CodeCrush event, a person who happened by similarly wanted to try the Mobile Grace Cafe fare. She normally could afford to pay, but didn’t have money that day.
“I told her, that’s what we do, don’t worry about it,” Schultz said. “We just feed the hungry.”