Come & Be Fed
The kitchen is warm on a chilly winter morning. A pasta dish is coming out of the oven, pots and pans are clanking, and there’s a lot of chopping going on.
Each person has an assinged job to do – setting the tables with napkins and silverware, washing dishes, setting up the salad bar. And at 11 a.m., the door opens on the west side of a 150-year-old building at Sixth and Vine streets in downtown Davenport.
Guests receive a hello and a smile as they make their way to the serving line of Café on Vine.
Every single one of the 365 days in a year, a free public meal is served here. People come for a hearty lunch, Monday-Saturday, or an early supper on Sundays.
No questions are ever asked – name, address, race, income level, circumstance – nothing.
“It’s one of the key aspects of who we are,” said Sister Ruth E. Westmoreland, the café’s coordinator. “We believe people should be able to just come and eat a meal.”
A meal site first opened its doors in 1999 in a former saloon at 6th and Vine streets. It closed in 2007 when the organization that operated it ran into financial trouble.
Café on Vine opened later that year, under the leadership of an entirely new organization. St. Paul was asked to help support the effort, and said yes. The café staff and volunteers haven’t looked back since.
The café serves approximately 4,000 meals a month. It is the only place in the Quad Cities that offers a free public meal every single day of the year, including holidays. It runs on a tight budget, buoyed by donations from individuals and organizations. In 2015, St. Paul gave $5,000.
All of the food prepared is donated. Much of the produce grown in the St. Paul community garden goes to the café, peeled and chopped and frozen for use throughout the year.
Staff and volunteers – including several St. Paul people – begin arriving about 8 a.m. to prepare the day’s meal. The dining room is readied, its wooden tables and big windows offering the ambience befitting the café name. The kitchen manager determines what will be for lunch based on the donations on hand.
Meals include a main dish, two sides, a salad bar, dessert, and a beverage, such as milk and sweet tea.
The coffee is always on.
The guests, Sister Ruth E. said, include people staying at the Humility of Mary shelter a block away, as well as the King’s Harvest shelter. Others live in the neighborhood, work downtown in temporary jobs such as construction, or are sleeping under bridges. Some come for a few days and are never seen again; some are cherished regulars.
The café does have a few very important rules, she said. Guests are expected to be respectful, and children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. The staff and volunteers at the café know that the people who come to eat are people who may be experiencing mental illness, chemical dependency, or abuse.
“My religious community (Sister Ruth E. is a member of the Franciscan order in Clinton, Iowa) has a mission of nonviolence and peacemaking,” she said. “We are called to work with the poor and the marginalized.”
Jim and Linda Hoepner are two of the volunteers at Café on Vine. Jim served on the board for several years as a St. Paul representative (a position now held by Manny Fritz). The Hoepners greet, clean tables, reset tables, carry trays, sweep, mop, serve, peel, and chop. “It’s darn hard work. Sometimes when I come home, my feet really hurt,” Linda said with a smile.
And the pay? “We’re so fortunate to be able to help someone else out a little bit,” said Jim, who is impressed with the café’s resourcefulness and creativity. “Nothing goes to waste.”
On Mondays, Linda is joined by fellow St. Paul member Barb Buckles (see cover photo). Barb started volunteering there in the fall of 2009, shortly after the death of her husband, Ken. “He passed away in August,” she said while sitting in the café, shortly before opening time. “I needed something to keep me busy. I called here in September, and they said they needed help on Mondays.”
The staff and volunteers at the café have become dear friends. Greeting is one of Barb’s favorite jobs – and she delights when a guest sees her around town and strikes up a conversation.
“I sometimes feel guilty that it gives me such a good feeling to be here,” she said. She only misses a Monday if she is out of town. “The guests are so grateful.”