Raise your hand if you have heard of FoCo Cafe. Now, raise your hand if you have dined for lunch at FoCo Cafe. Mallory Andrews often starts her presentations at local fundraisers or awareness events this way. She is always surprised at how many people haven’t even heard of the cafe much less eaten there. And yet, in just over three years, they have served over 66,000 delicious meals to people from all walks of life who pay what they can, even if it is with their time.
While earning her Masters in Social Work at CSU, Andrews began her internship last August for both FoCo Cafe and Homeless Gear/Murphy Center. Over time, she found herself drawn to the opportunities at the cafe and working directly with Executive Director, Kathleen Baumgardner. In March, Baumgardner approached Andrews with a vague job proposal and a few weeks later extended her the Executive Director position. Andrews finished up her Masters that spring and started the training and transition in June and was on her own in August.
Back in 2012, Jeff and Kathleen Baumgardner mused about the idea of a pay what you can cafe over beers with friends. After volunteering at Denver’s SAME Cafe, they were sold on the idea and started the two year process of opening Northern Colorado’s first non-profit cafe. Often seen in the signature tie-dyed t-shirts, the couple focused on fundraising and may hold a record for the most amount of giant checks ever received (I personally gave them two from Whole Foods Market). From Bike in Festivals to becoming the recipients of every brewery and restaurant’s charity of the month, the Baumgardners raised the money they needed to find a building. In addition, their passion, infectious laughter and love for helping others with a hand up created a huge outpouring of love and support from the community. In 2014, they located the building at 225 Maple Street and began a full deconstruction process with the help of many volunteers. Equipment, tables and food would just appear in front of the building as donations poured in. FoCo Cafe opened its doors to everyone for the first meal on Thanksgiving day 2014.
Four employees, Chef Doug, Steven the Operations Manager, Sam the dishwasher and very first employee and Andrews make up the payroll. The majority of the operation is volunteer driven and the cafe relies on six volunteer shifts a day to prepare, serve and clean up each meal. The low estimate Andrews gave is that over 16,000 volunteer hours have been logged over the past five years years. The process to volunteer is easy by going online and filling out a short application and then you can schedule your two hour shift, either before, during or after the lunch hour (9am-5pm). For those who aren’t able to pay for their meal, the policy is an hour of volunteer work. Volunteering as a business or group is another option if you are looking for ways to give back through service hours.
Realizing I hadn’t been to the cafe since the year it opened (yikes!), I invited a friend to join me to see how the cafe and experience had evolved. It was a windy cold day and we entered into a warm, nearly full dining room. We went to the counter to review the menu and were greeted by Chef Doug. There is always a salad, soup and bread option with vegan, vegetarian and gluten free labels. You can usually find their daily menu posted on their Facebook page (@fococafe) which also features Happy Lucky Tea and Wander Coffee. The cafe encourages smaller portions to reduce food waste encouraging multiple trips to try different offerings and always leave satisfied. At the end of the serving line there is a pay station with a cash dropbox or a card reader. The suggested donation is $10 per person. If can pay more then pay it forward or ask about how else you can help and Steven will introduce himself and arrange for volunteering.
Beyond the daily meals, the cafe has quite a few other related programs that give back to the community. It started with The Giving Tree, then expanded to the Freedge, the Kindness Cupboard and the Scarf Wall. The hydration station is one of the projects Andrews is most proud of. During the hot summers the cafe would experience homeless patrons coming in to fill their water bottles from their pitchers which is a violation of health code and would require them to dump the water, immediately wash the pitchers and refill with ice (their ice machine is broken and they purchase ice daily). Realizing this was a problem, Andrews began researching where people without a home or a job could find fresh water and sent out a survey to cafe patrons asking if anyone knew the answer. Apparently the only way was to plug a gas station bathroom sink and submerge a water bottle in the sink water. Not a great option. Seeing a need in the community, the cafe team went to work raising $8,000 to install a donated hydration station an intern had secured. The unit is the only all-season, wheelchair accessible, fresh water station in Old Town. A large donation of water bottles was added to the giving tree so that if someone didn’t have a water bottle they can get the fresh water they need. The cafe also sells their own bottles and the proceeds go towards paying the water bill the cafe supports. The freedge for perishables and kindness cupboard for pantry items relies on the community dropping off food that would otherwise go to waste. Have an abundance of produce in your garden? Bring it by the cafe. The giving tree is a collaboration project with The Mighty Notch Farm and Friendly Critters Farm to bring a wall of kindness to Fort Collins. Everything from toiletries to dog food fill the cubbies. Journals and pens are by far the most popular item taken from the tree Andrews added. The scarf wall is donated scarves (many of which are hand-knitted by volunteers just for this cause) for anyone to take to stay warm in the winter.
I asked Andrews if the cafe is serving the population it is intended to and whether they have seen an increase in homeless patrons. FoCo stands for Feeding Our Community Ourselves and the mission of the cafe 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 keeping in mind their values:
• Every human innately has dignity and should be treated as such.
• Every duty, volunteer or otherwise, has value.
• Participating in a community nourishes the soul.
• Everyone deserves to eat nutritional food.
• All people need a hand up at some point(s) in their lives.
Andrews is amazed at times that the cafe serves many meals those who need it most without a formal outreach program. Much of it is through word of mouth through the schools, La Familia and other agencies. “It is just so diverse,” she said, ” we are not here to only serve the people who need it, we are not here to only serve the people who have money, we are here to serve all people.” Communicating this message clearly at the beginning led to the support from the community as a whole. Andrews remarked that she feels that she is seeing an increase in people and families who are struggling, whether they are officially homeless or not. She hears the phrase “I didn’t expect to be here” a lot and is grateful to be a part of the solution of offering a hand up, not a hand out.
It is estimated that over 30 percent of the homeless population are women and children who don’t often look homeless nor hold up signs on corners. This group often is not counted in the homeless numbers because they are not as visible. To address the issue of childhood hunger during the summer when school is out and free and reduced lunch programs are paused, the cafe began Kids Feeding Kids breakfast program. This program has evolved to become not only an opportunity for kids to eat (possibly their only meal of the day) but to also have a true “summer” experience engaging activities including milking goats, taking care of the garden, nature rides and art activities. Now in its third year, the program will expand to include more field trips to farms and nature activities. The cafe is looking for three interns to help run this program.
While the cafe does rely on food donations and does receive a weekly donation from Trader Joes as well as many farmers during the growing season, they purchase 95% of the food they serve, often at full retail cost. A great partnership with Wander Coffee provides a custom blend for the cafe at wholesale and the cafe sells the blend at a profit. Want to help the cafe continue its work?
- Visit the cafe for lunch
- Enjoy a special Christmas lunch this Friday (12/22)!
- Pick up a $5 reloadable King Soopers card and 5% goes to the cafe every time you reload it for your groceries you are buying anyway
- Purchase meal tokens for friends, family, gifts or to give out to someone in need ($10). Andrews recommends asking if someone is living in the area to make sure they don’t got to waste if you give them to someone who appears homeless or in need.
- Make a one-time tax-deductible donation through their website
- Become a sustaining donor with their monthly or annual giving club
- Bonus – you can choose programs that you want to support such as purchasing from local farms or to support the kids program
- In-kind donations of unopened food, equipment and other materials are always welcome
- Donate items for the giving tree, freedge and kindness cupboard
- Attend a fundraising event
- Yoga at Raintree once a month
- A mostly event at Maxline Brewing
- Party with a Purpose at Odell Brewing
- Host your own fundraising event