Set to open this spring, the nonprofit Provision Community Restaurant will join a growing number of pay-what-you-can restaurants that aim to tackle food insecurity and waste. 

While we like to say that “food brings us together,” feel-good bromides such as that often elide the real obstacles that many people encounter in their struggles to eat well-balanced meals. How can we truly come together when so many of us can’t afford to join the table? These questions and more prompted Anna Wienke to plan Provision Community Restaurant, a pay-what-you-can establishment set to open in Minneapolis this coming spring.

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Wienke, a 15-year veteran of the restaurant industry, began wrestling with these questions as she reflected on what she owed to her community. So much of her success was rooted in the support and mentorship of her friends and colleagues, so how could she pay it forward? To put her sentiments into action, she started volunteering at her local men’s shelter as a cook and server. In the process, she found herself reappropriating her front-of-house skills for a new audience.

“While serving at the shelter, I began to feel strongly that feeding people just to keep them alive was not enough,” Wienke said. “I wanted more for all of us. I wanted to have a relationship without the separation of a buffet line. I wanted to treat them like they deserve to be treated with the same respect and special care as we were taught to treat millionaire VIPs in fine dining.” For example, she lobbied for amenities that one would find at trendy restaurants, like communal tables and family-style platters.

The changes she saw in the men were, as she puts it, “miraculous!”

Treating houseless people like guests, the same way one would treat a neighbor or cafe regular, resulted in a total mood shift in the dining room. According to Wienke, the men began to smile more readily, and felt freer to share a bit more of their own stories with her and each other. It was here that the seed for Provision was planted.

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The restaurant, operated as a nonprofit and staffed by volunteers, would be open to the general public for dinner three days a week and brunch on Saturdays. Its pay-what-you-can model would allow people like the men with whom Wienke worked to participate to their hearts’ content. The restaurant's name comes from Wienke’s exhortation for guests to share their “personal provision” with the community by donating time or labor to the organization.

“Money and space are two of our most powerful barriers to compassion and connection,” Wienke told me. “If we are able to remove these barriers, we allow an opportunity for those who would not normally mix to come together.”

She hopes to see a mix of people in the dining room that spans races, classes, and cultures. Yet getting all of those people to actually mingle and engage with each other could be challenging. “We are talking about breaking a lot of social norms that, although we may not even enjoy them, offer us a certain level of comfort,” Wienke admitted.

However, she remains optimistic. “Truthfully, I have hardly encountered anyone who has anything negative to say about the concept. For most, the response is, ‘How can I be a part of this?’ or ‘How can I help?’”

In addition to tackling isolation and food insecurity, Provision will be a conduit for food waste reduction. That last aspect of it has attracted the attention of local restaurateurs and purveyors who have been looking for good ways to deal with food waste in their own establishments. Wienke’s already found collaborators in Rustica Bakery and Jester Concepts, a restaurant group which includes hits like Parlour Bar and Borough, who plan to donate both cooking ingredients and teaching hours to the restaurant. In an interview with City Pages, Wienke revealed plans to have Rustica staff come by to host open seminars on different ways to utilize a loaf of bread.

Wienke has high hopes for the restaurant, and the good news is that she won’t be alone in her fight. According to One World Everybody Eats, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting this kind of work, there are about 60 pay-what-you-can restaurants in the United States, with more than double that number currently in development. Provision’s structure is based heavily on the organization’s community cafe model, so even if you’re not in Minneapolis, you may find a restaurant just like it in your hometown.

So what is Wienke most looking forward to, once the restaurant opens?

“What I hope for Provision to be is a daily opportunity for me (and hopefully others) to share my Provisions," she said. "Each day will hold the possibility of seeing the bright light of hope come on, which is an indescribable miracle that I crave.”

Provision Community Restaurant is planned to open for full service in Minneapolis in early April 2019.