Editor’s note: This is the second article in a two-part series that explores culinary-related initiatives benefiting Atlanta’s homeless.
Atlanta doesn’t lack for brunch spots, but when I awoke recently on a Sunday morning, wishing I could hit the pause button on a dizzying 24/7 news cycle, I longed for a brunch that would feed my soul. I needed a place where the food would be good, but the community better.
Feel-good came in the form of Café 458.
Café 458 is a Sundays-only brunch spot at 458 Edgewood Ave. in the Old Fourth Ward. It is a charitable eatery whose proceeds benefit the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency (ACSS), an organization that serves Atlanta’s homeless population. The nonprofit provides these individuals with the resources they need to obtain employment and become self-sufficient.
The restaurant is staffed entirely by volunteers, with the exception of its chef, Shane Devereux, and front-of-house manager K.C. Myers. Both are paid a pittance to make brunch happen every Sunday. Because that’s no easy feat.
Consider staffing. Myers gives rapid-fire training to roughly a dozen volunteers needed each week to work as servers, hosts, beverage runners and dishwashers.
“Anyone in the restaurant industry would understand how difficult it is to have 30 minutes to train people that have never been in the industry,” said Myers, who has clocked years in the hospitality realm and the last 18 months at Café 458.
Devereux — a name that regulars on the Atlanta dining circuit will recall from his time at Peasant Bistro, TOP FLR, the Sound Table and the Lawrence — likewise puts in his time. This includes taking inventory one day, shopping for food the next, and showing up at 3:30 a.m. on Sundays to prep before doors open at 10 a.m.
Why do they do it?
“To pay it forward,” said Devereux, who has worked at Café 458 since last September. “I’ve been given a lot of opportunities. It’s great to give back.”
“I got burnt out in the restaurant industry,” said Myers. “I wanted to use what I learned and take it somewhere. I get to do what I do well and feel great about it. We’re such a great cause for the community. I meet the best people every Sunday.”
They include all the volunteers whom she has minutes to train.
Volunteers are of all ages and walks of life. Some are there to work community service hours, others come in groups — from churches or corporations. There are college kids from as close as Georgia Tech and Georgia State, and as far away as the University of Michigan. Parent/high-school-kid duos periodically show up, as do “service-oriented people who wake up and say, ‘I’m going to do good today,’” said Myers.
(Anyone can volunteer at Café. However, individuals under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent for their visit. Sign up at http://www.atlantacss.org/volunteer/.)
Myers also meets the patrons who want their dining dollars to benefit a population that seeks a second chance. “We got a $200 donation,” she said of a tip that one diner left recently.
According to Stephanie Shapiro, ACSS’ director of development and marketing, gratuities are typically between 30 and 50 percent of the total bill instead of the standard sit-down restaurant tip of between 15 and 20 percent. On an average Sunday, Café 458 will do between 75 and 100 covers, bringing in roughly $2,000.
These funds, besides helping to keep the restaurant afloat, support, among other things, ACSS’ job readiness programs, case management, and the purchase of professional clothing and MARTA cards for individuals going on job interviews.
» RELATED: First-rate food leads to second chances
With its staff of 10 employees, ACSS is able to serve about 450 individuals each year. Since 2010, it has served more than 2,500 people with its programs. More than 1,500 people have obtained full-time employment through ACSS services.
When you enter the building — which houses the ACSS offices and the café — it quickly becomes apparent that less than 2 percent of the ACSS budget goes toward the restaurant. (Yet the café brings in 10 percent of the operating budget, Shapiro said.)
The lobby is bare-bones, with a carpet that could use replacing. The receptionist desk looks to be 20 years old. A side table holds the restaurant’s menu of the day, flimsy slips of 8 1/2-by-11 paper cut in half.
The dining room is nothing fancy either. Worn tables hold seating for about 40. It feels like a cramped diner. During the week the space serves as a resource center for ACSS clientele enrolled in the workforce development program. But on Sundays it operates as a fully functioning restaurant.
Make that a fully functioning restaurant with some pretty darn good food. It’s a scratch kitchen, as you’ll note from the house biscuits and the highly recommendable house-made breakfast chicken sausage patties that are just spicy enough.
A frittata, made with farm eggs, was packed with potatoes, chanterelles, onion and a blend of cheeses, and garnished with avocado slices and microgreens. It was so substantial that we had to take half of it home.
The menu is brief, with roughly nine entrees and a handful of sides.
“We try to keep it simple. You don’t want too much of me trying to get creative,” said Devereux. “We call it ‘brunch,’ but we try to keep it to what people would have for breakfast.”
Staples include shrimp and grits, chicken and waffles, a seasonal market vegetable plate … and that frittata, whose components change depending on the produce Devereux gets his hands on at the nearby Freedom Farmers Market, or that come by way of donation.
Even beverages are the result of generosity. Local coffee roaster Batdorf & Bronson donates its Organic Whirling Dervish Blend to Café 458 for those who need their morning cuppa.
While Devereux manages to get the pantry stocked every week, the volunteer schedule somehow works out and Sunday brunch happens. Myers calls it “the most unpredictable job I’ve ever had.”
Each day of service is full of surprises, including those from a diner’s point of view.
There are people who walk in not realizing the restaurant is a charity, Myers said. That gives all her helpers a chance to visit tables and explain the mission, along with a preemptive plea for patience that goes something like, “Hi, I’m your volunteer for the day. Go easy on me,” said Myers.
“It’s a place where people need to be a little more understanding as a guest. This is a mission restaurant.”
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