Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Charmel Taylor insists I try the salad first. Tiny heirloom tomatoes the colors of fire and cucumber sliced in a rounded triangular shape are tossed with a lightly sweet dressing. “You can taste the freshness of everything,” she tells me. One bite, and I know she’s right. After all, they were picked in a garden a block away that morning.
By now, Taylor has professed her foodie status and convinced me to dip the lightly fried okra (also from the garden) and fried green tomatoes in the aioli. She can’t get over that it’s all vegan friendly. “AND it tastes good,” she emphasizes.
Across the table, Emery Barnes is just as passionate about the salad priority order. He learned about fresh food from his grandfather.
“He’d say, ‘When you cook foods, you don’t just cook the food,” Barnes says. “It’s about how you feel. If you feel good, it’s going to taste good. If you feel bad, it’s going to taste bad.”
“So what about the plate sitting before us,” I ask him, “and the people who make it?” He doesn’t hesitate: “I always see them laughing. If they know I’m coming, they’ll be laughing a lot.”
At WE Community Café, you’ll find smiles alongside fresh food. As a pay-as-you-can concept, people can do just that, although there are suggestions for price increments that cover the cost of food, food and labor, or all that and someone else’s meal.
“Certain places you go, you don’t get too much freshness,” Barnes continues. “You get bah. It’s awesome to have something good and fresh. It’s good for you, and it tastes good anyway.”
Barnes’ journey to the WE Community Café each Wednesday is just a walk downstairs in the building for Urban Ministry—a ministry of the United Methodist Church that has served poor and low-income persons in the area since 1976—but Taylor drives from the VA downtown, where she works, back to West End, the neighborhood where she grew up. And she’s not happy when she has to miss a week.
Across from Taylor, Earnestine Lee is also raving about the freshness. It’s her first time here, but she was raised around the corner from the café, played in the park across the street, and remembers the house that used to occupy the lot where the garden that veggies came from is now. She came with her husband, Jerome, who is excited about his newfound knowledge that the honey in the rose hip tea (he’s just gone back for more) will also help with his allergies since it’s local. He’s ready to buy some.
The first time Ama Shambulia, the wellness director for Urban Ministry, saw the pay-as-you-can café model in Spokane, it brought tears to her eyes. It was warm, it was inviting, it was colorful. Most of all, it felt humane. “I saw color, cleanliness, good food, and a welcome and encouraging environment,” she says. “Good food should not just be for people who have money. Good food should be a human right… Once I stopped crying because it was so beautiful, it stayed with me.” That was 2009.
Fast forward to 2015. Belle Carlisle, a 30-plus-year veteran of running the Urban Ministry soup kitchen, was retiring. Hill Carmichael had recently started as its executive director, and everyone started to think big.
The café originally opened that September to a group of 30 neighborhood leaders including Carlisle. Every Wednesday, they came and sat around tables. There conversation happened. What should the café look like? What does hospitality look like? And it was this feedback, this community, that shaped what the café would become.
Those conversations also helped direct a cultural shift at Urban Ministry. Before when there was a crisis, they responded with a program. Now they are thinking more about social enterprise than charity. The revenue they make from produce sales, meals, and catering is being reinvested in paying interns. As a result, a sense of pride and place is leading to community revitalization.
“We want it to be what the community wants,” Carmichael says of the ministry. “For too long we have told kids to get an education and get out. Really, the key to success is changing a community from within, making it the community you want it to be… We are providing space and resources to turn their dreams into reality.”
If the people at my table were any indicator, Shambulia’s mission is starting to take root in West End. The daily challenge for the Los Angeles native—who learned Southern cooking from her grandmother in New Orleans and worked under Birmingham’s chef Chris DuPont in culinary school—is to show that eating well can be flavorful. She wants to teach people how to eat without meat being at the center of the plate or the vegetables being overcooked.
When it comes to collard greens, Shambulia’s kitchen makes them into a marinated salad or cooks them traditionally with smoked turkey. “We cook it long enough to be palatable (to those who are used to the traditional style), but not on and on until the day after tomorrow,” she explains.
But she’s certainly not trying to force ideas on people. “Transition doesn’t happen overnight,” she says. “Food is so personal, so cultural, such a comfort. It’s not like you can just tell people what to do.” Instead, she wants to put it out there so West End can be a part of a larger movement toward healthful eating. “Unfortunately, poor people and people of color are usually the last to become engaged, and hopefully this is a way to engage people to become part of that national conversation,” she says.
But the café is about more than just eating too. Through their internship program, Urban Ministry wants to train young people in West End, usually ages 17 to 25, in the fundamentals of horticulture, culinary arts, and early childhood education, along with practical life skills, for them to be successful.
The job is typically the intern’s first employment of mention, so Shambulia starts with the fundamentals, teaching them work ethic—to show up, to show up on time, to show up prepared to work. From there she instructs them in food sanitation, food storage, food prep, and knife skills. A life skills curriculum for interns in the café, garden, and early childhood programs helps them get a driver’s license and find transportation, navigating through things Shambulia says many of us take for granted.
Once their work ethic is down, Shambulia finds the interns eager to learn. “They are dynamic, energetic, and funny,” she says. “They are good human beings in challenging circumstances. They are so teachable and malleable.” It’s also a mutual relationship. From them, Shambulia learns about pop culture and how to best teach. Ultimately, she wants the interns to know that they can do whatever they want to do. She wants them to learn consistency, not to be afraid, to be creative, to have fun.
Back in the café on Wednesday, Carmichael greets people who are homeless sitting next to business executives who drive from downtown. Communal seating is encouraged with long dark stained wood tables adorned with fresh herbs in jars “because at the end of the day we are all people,” Carmichael says. “I see people from the neighborhood and outside, all people,” Shambulia says. “That feels good. They keep coming back, so I’m assuming they feel good.”
The area behind the arch in the café was once filled with old shelves bearing cans of food, some new, some expired, and old fridge and an old freezer. Beyond that lay long white tables surrounded by purple walls—what you’d expect in a traditional soup kitchen.
Today behind the arch Chef Instructor McKinzie Harrison works the cash register, collecting cash in varying amounts from around 120 people who come in each week. And she gives hugs to all. At the table are a jar full of proverbs written on sheets of paper, free for the taking.
After the crowd clears, Shambulia and Harrison sit on the red leather couch by the register, worn out from the day, and start planning for the next week. Someone might have mentioned something they’d like to see. Regardless, nothing is set in stone. They play with new ideas each go-round. “We have a lot of fun creating menus,” Shambulia says. “We probably go overboard, but no one has stopped us yet.”
I’m currently awaiting the announcement that chicken enchiladas—recommended as the best by Shambulia, Taylor, and pretty much anyone else I asked—are on the menu for the week with their compatriot, a Swiss Chard Enchilada filled with greens and mushrooms in a sprouted tortilla and smothered in tomato sauce.
I’m pretty sure Taylor will give me tips on what to eat first on that plate, too.
Beyond the café’s walls, Urban Ministry harvests produce in a community garden at the corner of 12th Street SW and McMillon Avenue in West End. Interns sell its bounty at Pepper Place Market on Saturdays from May to October and at a farm stand Princeton Medical Center on Wednesday mornings from April to November.
Wellness Director Ama Shambulia began directing the garden eight years ago, starting not long after she moved to West End and planted her own backyard garden. Here she has the opportunity to marry her passions for food and community. “The spirit of it was to make something beautiful in a West End space that wasn’t beautiful,” she says. “It’s turned into something beautiful and bountiful, and people are starting to think about the garden and the food they eat.”
Volunteer workdays and garden tours are held at the garden Wednesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon. WE Community Café is a part of Urban Ministry, open Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and located at 1229 Cotton Avenue SW, 35211. Pay as you can: $5 covers your meal, $10 meal and labor, $15 your meal and someone else’s.
Open Wednesdays, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
1229 Cotton Avenue SW, 35211
Pay as you can
$5 covers your meal, $10 meal and labor,
$15 your meal and someone else’s
Cafe Menu by Week of the Month
- First: Southern Soul
- Second: Pasta
- Third: Chicken
- Fourth: Soup and Sandwiches
- Fifth: Wild Card