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Nonprofit converting former church into community cafe

CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail
Sydney Atkins stands outside of the former St. John United Methodist Church, which her mother, Cheryl, will turn into a food establishment called Cafe Appalachia, in South Charleston on Friday, August 18.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail
Cheryl Laws speaks about her plans for Cafe Appalachia inside the former St. John United Methodist Church as her daughter Sydney Atkins looks on. Laws hopes to have a coffee shop open by winter and the full restaurant ready by spring.
CRAIG HUDSON | Gazette-Mail
Pollen8 founder and CEO Cheryl Laws has big plans to turn a former South Charleston church into a cafe to help feed the hungry and train those without skills.

Seeing what Cheryl Laws sees involves some magical thinking and a little faith.

Walking through the sweltering, empty sanctuary of the former St. John United Methodist Church on D Street in South Charleston, Laws described the future layout of Café Appalachia, a new nonprofit restaurant and training program for low-income families.

The 47-year-old South Charleston native wants to open the cafe through Pollen8, a nonprofit organization she founded that creates social programs for drug-impacted families.

Rapid-fire, she pointed out where tables and chairs would go.

“We’ll move out these pews,” Laws said. “At least, most of them.”

There would be space for a small stage — for entertainment. The bathrooms of the old church would be redone, and a kitchen would be installed for cooks to prepare the meals and volunteers to wash dishes.

Pushing through a side exit leading to a fenced yard, where once there’d been a small playground for the church, she pointed to the neatly mowed, level ground and said, “We’ll have a deck and string lights. Over there, we’ll have an herb garden.”

Maybe some flowers.

“It’s going to be amazing,” she promised.

The small room, to the side, near the front entrance — a nursery or coat room, previously — will become the cafe’s first phase.

“A coffee shop,” Laws beamed. “South Charleston needs a coffee shop, doesn’t it?”

That could happen as early as November. The rest will take a little longer.

“We want to have the restaurant running in the spring,” she said. “That makes sense — how much fresh, farm food can you get in December?”

Not much, particularly since Café Appalachia plans to grow some of it.

Originally, Laws said, she and Pollen8’s board of directors hoped to have the whole restaurant up and running by Thanksgiving, but the fundraising plan hit a plateau.

The cafe got the space through St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, which merged with St. John United Methodist Church a few years ago. Kanawha Institute for Social Research & Action (KISRA) donated greenhouses and the program has support from the City of South Charleston and the WV Veterans to Agriculture Program.

Laws has been busy writing grant proposals for materials, and there is a crowdfunding site for Café Appalachia set up through Indiegogo’s Generosity.com, which charges no fee — but they’re far short of the $25,000 goal they set to realize her vision.

So far, they’ve only raised about 10 percent.

“What people need to understand is this is not a soup kitchen,” Laws said. “It’s not a handout, but more of a hand up.”

Café Applachia, she said, is also not going to be just a place for people with little or no money to eat, but a fully functioning, gourmet restaurant.

During lunch, the cafe would offer meals based on the pay-what-you-can model, but with the suggested donation price of $7 for a small plate or $9 for the larger plate.

“Portion control is important,” Laws said. “You want to waste very little.”

Diners can also choose to pay more to help cover the costs for others to eat or volunteer to work an hour or two on behalf of the cafe.

Several times per week, Laws said, Café Appalachia plans to offer black box dinners. Parties of six people would pay $50 each to come in and learn to make a meal out of fresh ingredients under the supervision of a guest chef.

The entire idea for Café Appalachia is based on the One World Everybody Eats model, which works to combat food insecurity.

One World Everybody Eats began as a pay-what-you-can community cafe in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was started by Denise Cerreta. The cafe’s success attracted interest from others, who created their own restaurants around many of the same principles.

According to the USDA, up to one in six Americans are food insecure, meaning that in order to meet nutritional needs, people will consume unhealthy foods, use emergency food pantries or even steal to stay fed.

Many of the people who struggle to eat healthily, One World Everybody Eats believes, are hidden in plain sight. They’re not the homeless. They’re your neighbors.

Laws said she saw the program in action while working on a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.

There she would often have lunch at the F.A.R.M. Cafe, a restaurant that serves gourmet vegetarian and vegan meals.

“The food was amazing,” she said. “These were high quality meals made with fresh ingredients, full of flavor.”

As a nontraditional college student on a fixed budget, the One World Everybody Eats model of pay-what-you-can pricing and the option to volunteer time in exchange for a meal appealed to her.

“And everyone was treated with dignity,” Laws said. “Nobody was looked down on.”

She was also connected to another similar idea in 2009 with then-restaurateur Virgil Sadorra’s restaurants, Cilantros and Delish Express, in Charleston. The restaurants adopted a “pay it forward” concept with profits to go to charity, but the businesses struggled. Sadorra filed for bankruptcy in 2011.

“I haven’t seen Virgil in a while,” Laws said.

Laws said she has tried to learn as much as she can to make Café Appalachia work — and not everything she’s seen will work in the Kanawha Valley.

Café Appalachia will be farm-to-table food, but not vegetarian. Her menu planner, Jordan Crist, said meat is definitely on the menu.

“But we’ll be using small, farm-raised meats,” he said.

Small, farm-raised meats taste better, he said, and are healthier.

Crist isn’t a chef and has never worked inside a restaurant. He has an engineering degree in Industrial & Management Systems from WVU, is a personal trainer and nutrition coach and previously worked as supervisor for UPS, where he helped implement a more efficient delivery system.

Currently, he’s working in real estate.

“I’m a ‘residential redeveloper,’” he said.

Basically, Crist buys houses that need repair for a low price. He makes repairs and remodels these properties, and then sells them at a profit.

The process is often called “house flipping.”

“But that’s so HGTV,” Crist laughed. “I’m trying to improve my community.”

While the 27-year-old doesn’t have formal culinary training, he’s something of a foodie, a backyard gardener and a big believer in holistic food trends. He grows his own herbs behind his parents’ home in South Charleston. He makes his own bone broth, ferments yogurt from whole milk in the family kitchen and infuses herbs and spices into the coffee he makes with his French press.

“I use a lot of rosemary and turmeric,” he said.

Laws has a lot of faith in Crist. They’ve known each other since Crist was in junior high. He and her son grew up together.

“He was always over at the house,” she said.

Laws said Crist will help set the culinary tone of Café Appalachia, build menus and train a cook to repeat his recipes, but only have a limited role in the day-to-day operations of the cafe’s kitchen.

His work with real estate is too time consuming.

“I think I could come in as a guest chef,” Crist said.

According to One World Everyone Eats, over 60 community cafes around the world have adopted some variation of their model, including Panera Bread’s Panera Cares Community Cafes and rock star Jon Bon Jovi’s JBJ Soul Kitchens.

Laws believes the concept can work in South Charleston, West Virginia, a city and a state that both struggle with food scarcity.

“This is the heart of Appalachia,” Laws said.

Along with feeding the public fresh, farm-to-table meals, she envisions the cafe as a place where people without marketable skills can learn about restaurant and agricultural work from the entry level up to management, gain experience and eventually enter the workplace.

Laws said the eventual hope for Café Appalachia is to provide a public space for people and groups to come together.

“I think we could do a lot here,” she said. “I think it could be really great for our community.”

A lot of people want to see it work, she said, but seeing it through will take time, patience and money.

“Right now, we’re just going to focus on getting the coffee shop up,” she said. “We’ll take it slow and reinvest the money from that into the restaurant.”

Laws hoped they’d be ready by spring, but, if not, she said they’d keep pushing forward..

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5195 or follow @LostHwys on Twitter. Follow Bill’s One Month At A Time progress on his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/onemonth/. He’s also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap/.

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