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Kentucky cafe asks for your time, not necessarily money

June 30, 2019
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Spark Community Cafe in Versailles, Ky., Sunday, June 23, 2019. Spark Community Cafe operates on a pay what you can scale and offers people an opportunity to volunteer time in exchange for their meal. (Alex Slitz/Lexington Herald-Leader via AP)

VERSAILLES, Ky. (AP) — From an idea in a Woodford County High School classroom, to a pop-up festival, to pop-up shops, to their own space, this now-permanent cafe wants to pay it forward to the Versailles community.

The Spark Community Cafe in downtown Versailles is a “pay what you can,” farm-to-table cafe. If you can’t pay at all, you can volunteer at the cafe. If you only can pay half the bill, then pay what you have. If you have extra, donate it.

The nonprofit cafe operates through donations and volunteerism. There is a tip jar at the cash register, and you can tip your waiter like you would at any other restaurant. But the waiters at Spark are volunteers so the tips go back to the cafe to either feed those who can’t pay their bill, help with general maintenance or pay the few employees who are not volunteers.

Community cafes and restaurants such as Spark’s have gained popularity around the country because food insecurity rates are gradually increasing. Spark’s says around 11.5 percent of Woodford County is food insecure. The USDA says when someone doesn’t have consistent access to adequate food for an active and healthy life, they are food insecure. According to the USDA, one in eight people in America were living food insecure in 2017.

“So we’re walking around and we’re wiping tears away because you’ve got one of the richest families in the community here, like 17 of them,” founder Kyle Fannin said. “Then next to them are people that, for all I know, they’re living in a car. But they’ve got their Sunday best on and you just don’t know.”

The cafe can see close to 200 customers during a lunch or dinner rush. Lined on the walls are the names of various companies that have helped sponsor its creation, which was five years in the making before it opened this past March.

The idea was thought up in a 2014 capstone class at Woodford County High School. Fannin wanted the seniors taking his course to have a real world experience before leaving school. Fannin taught social studies, but wanted to do more before his retirement, so he started the community activism course.

“I taught here for 24 years and at the end I just thought, ‘I’ve got to do something more than just teach these kids how to take a test,’” Fannin said.

It started as a festival in downtown Versailles called “Spark,” and after it gained popularity, Fannin and some of his students decided to make it a pop-up shop in Woodford County. One of his students, Tristan Ferrell, approached Fannin with the idea of making a real cafe, not just a pop-up. He noted the Grace Cafe in Danville, which is also a pay-it-forward community cafe, as a inspiration for finding a permanent location.

“After we did the pop-ups, we were looking to just keep replicating the pop-ups,” Ferrell said. “But we realized all the buildings around here were getting bought up fairly quickly. So when we learned about Grace Cafe, it just struck something. We just had never seen something like that, an environment like that before.”

The process to open their current location started in December 2016. Fannin and Ferrell visited community cafes all around the country from Louisville all the way to places such as Salt Lake City and Denver to get advice and inspiration.

Ferrell, a junior at UK majoring in community leadership development, works at the cafe as the front of house manager and is one of eight paid employees. The three chefs — Isaiah Screetch, Antwan Walker and Jeff Chandler — are paid, along with two dishwashers and two cashiers who are part time.

All of the food served is from local farms. In fact there have been times when they have closed early because they ran out of food. They want the food being served to be from local farmers to help support that business.

“A lot of the local community want to come in because it’s a great place with great food,” Fannin said.

For big events and holidays they have a buffet and the same rules apply — pay what you can. And on Thursday nights they host a local tutoring program, Mentors and Meals.

The cafe’s board also wants to help foster anonymity so that people who are food insecure can remain anonymous. In order to do this, it is encouraged to buy gift cards to use at the cafe. And money made from tips and donations are often loaded onto these cards and the cards are then sent out to groups in the community.

Fannin said roughly 40 percent of their customers are tourists from either out of county or out of state. While they are not only are looking to help the food insecure, Fannin said they also want to create a place where people can come and feel comfortable to hang out and eat with friends and family or give back to their community.

“If you’re a single mother of three children under the age of six you may not be able to volunteer as much of your time,” Fannin said. “Or if you’re elderly or disabled, you may not be able to volunteer as much. We just ask that people volunteer where they can.”

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Information from: Lexington Herald-Leader, http://www.kentucky.com

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