One chilly Saturday morning, I set out to explore a new pay-what-you-can café in Milwaukee, primarily run by volunteers. As the social services coordinator at my mosque, I am always on the lookout for meaningful organizations we can work with to make a difference, so when a friend suggested checking out Tricklebee’s, I was immediately curious about how a place like this runs and sustains itself. I just had to find out more.
Tricklebee Café has been open for three months. Located in the Washington Park neighborhood of Milwaukee’s north side, its storefront sits in an old, renovated building on 44th Street and North Avenue.
Had I not been scoping it out, I likely would have missed it. However, for how seemingly unnoticeable it is from the outside, I was completely drawn in as soon as I walked through the front door. I was met with a delicious hug of aromas and one from a young woman as warm as the sunshine yellow sweater she had on, Christy Melby-Gibbons, the woman who runs the show at Tricklebee’s. She immediately offered me a cup of coffee to warm up from the cold and found me a table to sit down at.
Tricklebee’s is definitely one of those places where you have to take some time to look around and just absorb it all in. The décor inside the café is eclectic and colorful. It feels less like being in a café and more like a cozy home. There are smiling faces all around, friendly conversation and children playing together in the kid-friendly area of the restaurant. A young girl, no older than four years old, came over to Melby-Gibbons nibbling on a brownie and asked, “Is there anything I can help with?”
Melby-Gibbons’ idea for the café came from her experience living in Los Angeles. When she lived there, she worked with a church that collected food that had passed its sell-by date from local grocery stores and turned it into gourmet meals. They opened up their doors every Thursday night, providing a meal to anyone who needed one, calling their program, Open Tables. Melby-Gibbons said they found that neighbors would come in from all over the city.
“We had homeless neighbors, drug addicted neighbors, mentally challenged adults, lonely widowers, wealthy people,” Melby-Gibbons said. “Everybody just came together because they were hungry for community and healthy food.”
After five years of running Open Tables, Melby-Gibbons and her team wondered if there were other places doing this sort of work. That is when they discovered, ‘One World, Everybody Eats,’ a network of 60 cafés similar to Open Tables that are operating throughout the United States, with an additional 50 cafés in the startup phase.
The founding principles of these cafés are to provide healthy food for the community, locally sourced if possible. They also ensure that any staff earns a living wage, not minimum wage, which tends to be $12-15 per hour. Tricklebee’s runs on these same values and promotes the idea that people can either pay what they can or volunteer in exchange for their meal if they don’t have any money. According to Melby-Gibbons, the business model works and the café is thriving on it.
I had the opportunity to volunteer during a food prep shift one morning. I threw on an apron and gloves and there wasn’t a dull moment during the two hours of work. I got to chop vegetables for a soup, help prep gluten-free baked goods and write up the day’s menu on a chalkboard displayed outside the café. I was also pleasantly surprised to see how much effort the staff puts into creating exciting vegan and gluten-free options while ensuring they waste as little food as possible.
Tricklebee Café relies heavily on volunteers to keep it running.
“It’s a really good experience,” Samantha Gruszka, a volunteer at Tricklebee’s, said. “I always feel very welcome volunteering and appreciated, so I keep coming back.”
I also met a group of school-aged boys who were incredibly enthusiastic about their relationship with Tricklebee’s. They had wanted to work at the café ever since they discovered it was opening in their neighborhood. Since they were too young to work, they were invited to volunteer instead, and they happily took up the offer.
Now, the boys volunteer together on a weekly basis when they are not in school.
“It’s fun and we get free food,” said Jalenn Chambers, one of these young volunteers. “The best thing about volunteering here is to help everybody out if they want something and hang out with my friends.”
Melby-Gibbons also said that there are a lot of other children that help out at the café in their free time and that parents are supportive of their children’s involvement.
Melby-Gibbons continues to have high hopes for Tricklebee Café. When strangers come into the café alone, others offer them a seat at their tables, she said.
“Beautiful things happen around community tables,” Melby-Gibbons adds. “I see it every day. I see community blossoming.”
According to Melby-Gibbons, the idea of a common table is important for communities to come together. This concept is the common thread that cafés in the network have tapped into.
Melby-Gibbons said she believes, “This is what America needs during such polarized times when vitriolic hate is being spewed on every station.
“In a time when everything seems to be bad news, we want a place that is good news,” Melby-Gibbons said.