A new restaurant, nestled in the heart of downtown Rock Island, is putting healthy, nutrient-dense foods on tables for everyone, regardless of financial situation. Owner Laura Mahn’s 20 years of ideas, experiences, and plans have brought NEST Cafe to life.
A man sits at a café in downtown Rock Island. He is unkempt from years of homelessness, tears on his face. The owner of the restaurant, Laura, approaches the man, concerned that something is wrong with his food. But the man just wants to take it all in, the fresh herbs growing out front, the china plates on the tables, the nutritious meal he was able to pay for himself with the two dollars and change he had. He is tired of taking handouts. He wants every inch of this moment to sink in.
This is just one of the many customers that walk through the doors of NEST Cafe. The mission of the restaurant is to provide a full restaurant and community experience, complete with a community table to sit and enjoy a meal with anyone else who may sit beside you.
While N.E.S.T is an acronym for Nourish Everyone Sustainably Together, the restaurant also embodies the feeling of a bird’s nest from the decor on the walls to the lighting hanging from the ceiling. And like a bird’s nest, it evokes the feeling of home and family, bringing nourishment and connection to those that come to the cafe to share a meal.
NEST officially opened the doors to its new permanent location at 1524 4th Avenue in Rock Island on April 15, 2022, after a year and a half of serving the community as a ‘pop up’ style restaurant, but it’s been an idea in owner Laura Mahn’s mind for years. Laura, her husband Jason, and their two sons Asa and Gabe are all St. Paul members.
“My mom was very involved in food ministries when I was growing up in North Carolina. The idea started forming close to 20 years ago and took shape over the last five to six years,” Laura said. “I took church groups in Atlanta to this amazing cafe that served primarily homeless people. We volunteered and served quality food. The division between the people serving and the people who are served got under my skin so eliminating that division was important to me. Here at NEST, groups of people from different economic situations are coming together to share a healthy meal without even necessarily knowing each other’s economic background.”
Weaving it all together
Laura, an ordained deacon, spent countless hours researching, traveling, and putting the pieces in place for NEST to take form. From Farm Cafe in Boone, NC to the vegan Tricklebee Cafe in Milwaukee, Wisc., and everywhere in between, Laura visited, volunteered, and learned best practices to bring back to the Quad Cities.
“A permanent location in Rock Island was always the plan. It’s the most diverse and has the most need in the Quad Cities. It’s important to spotlight that and say, ‘look at our diversity, look at all the gifts we have.’
Rock Island/Milan is the most racially diverse school district in the state of Illinois. It’s a hub for refugees and immigrants of all sorts of backgrounds so we want to be representative of all cultures. We’re trying to educate people on how we think of food insecurity. Almost 25% of the Rock Island community is considered food insecure. These are people that work with us and go to school with us. You can’t necessarily walk into a room and identify someone as being in need.”
And so NEST Cafe found its home, just a few blocks from the Centennial Bridge, not far from public transportation, in a location that is easily accessible to all.
One World, Everybody Eats
Laura credits partner organization, One World, Everybody Eats with providing guidance and resources to get started.
“I thought I was a genius for coming up with this idea,” Laura laughed. “I should see if anyone else has ever done this and then I found One World, Everybody Eats.”
Four years ago, Laura attended the organization’s annual summit.
“I walked in nervously. I was by myself, I was the only person there with no actual restaurant and it felt like home. I thought these are my people. They’ve been a real gift. We are able to learn from other people’s 17 years of experience. Anytime I have a question about something from doing a budget to setting up our POS system, I have someone to call. They’re like a big family.”
How it works
Open Sundays through Thursdays for lunch from 11 a.m-2 p.m. and for dinner on Mondays from 5-8 p.m., NEST Cafe is run almost entirely by volunteers, with only three full-time employees on staff. Laura, Director of Culinary Operations Chef Elly Voss, and Cafe Manager Grecia Lopez are the three responsible for NEST’s day-to-day operations with two part-time employees now on staff.
“It’s a total team effort. I didn’t know Elly or Grecia just a few weeks before we opened. I don’t know how I found those two, I really don’t. I couldn’t imagine a better team.”
Volunteers fill the additional roles of greeting patrons at the door and explaining the mission of the cafe, serving guests, and assisting with clean up. Volunteer shifts take three hours or less to fulfill and there are five to six volunteer opportunities each day.
“All we look for in a volunteer is open-mindedness and a willingness to work and connect with others. We have all kinds of volunteers so if you’re someone who doesn’t like being around people, you’d do great in the dish room. If you’re someone who’s really social, host or server opportunities are perfect. There really is a spot for everyone.”
For guests attending for the first time, a colorful chalkboard walks you through the process. Simply select your portion size, give what you’re able on that day, then find a seat, take it all in, and enjoy.