Celebrate Every Win: Kathleen Baumgardner & FoCo Cafe


When I was listening recently to the story of how the FoCo Cafe originated in Fort Collins, Colorado, I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from Martin Luther King Jr.:  “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”


Kathleen Baumgardner, FoCo Cafe Executive Director, recounted the journey and many obstacles she and her husband encountered just to get the doors open on Thanksgiving Day 2014.


“When you are building a new nonprofit and a new concept, you have to be  persistent and patient. FoCo Cafe was a two-and-a-half year labor of love that tested our resolve, but is worth the early struggles and everything we have done since,” Kathleen said.

The “pay what you can cafe” nonprofit was incorporated in June 2012 with a vision and mission that resonated with the Fort Collins community.


“The people of Fort Collins supported us from the beginning and the City offered us space for rent in the Old Town area . We spent six months working through early architectural renderings and seeking support for the project,” Kathleen said. “The newspaper even published an article about our new space, only to have the City tell us that the building was no longer available and that we would need to consider other options. That was incredibly painful and really set us back.”


So Kathleen and her husband, Jeff, picked themselves up and looked at three other City-owned properties, ultimately selecting a 103-year old former warehouse—“at the intersection of wealth and poverty,” according to Kathleen.


They worked with an architect to design the space and finally reached their fundraising goal of $17 0,000 to open debt free.


“When you experience disappointment—while juggling many tasks and demands associated with building a nonprofit-you may not realize that it is for the best. We ended up in the perfect space,” Kathleen said. “It was a real blessing.”


Soon to be celebrating their second anniversary, the fruits of their labor are certainly being recognized in the community. Jeff prepares 90 lunches a day, six days a week with ingredients they purchase from local farmers and businesses. They now have three full-time employees who earn a living wage and receive benefits. Further, they are environmentally conscious, have virtually no food waste, and plate waste is composted. And they have gardens and a glass recycling center on site.


But providing nutritious meals and “uplifting humanity” has not just been the work of The Baumgardners. “We have involved the entire community,” Kathleen said. “We have business sponsors, hundreds of volunteers, farmers and others. We have students from Colorado State University who help us with nutrition projects, videos and other work, and a sociology student is in the process of writing her thesis paper about the FoCo Cafe community. And of course, we have involved those we serve, who volunteer in the kitchen or even entertain with all sorts of musical instruments to enhance the experience for all. FoCo Cafe has provided an amazing environment for people to have lunch together who probably would have never met, and it has added such a richness to our community.”


Building on Success, Celebrating Every Win

In two short years, FoCo Cafe has evolved, and in the first nine months of 2016, they have embarked on three new initiatives—ideas brought to Kathleen and the Board from members of the community.


In January, they launched The Giving Tree—a large cart on wheels and accompanying racks that are filled with donated essentials—hygiene products, wet wipes, toothpaste, baggies of dog food, journals, etc.. The Giving Tree is open from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m., and people in need are welcome to take any needed items, as well as donate items themselves.


Over the summer, FoCo Cafe partnered with another local restaurant and a yoghurt company to offer healthy breakfasts for food insecure families, because many students go without breakfast while school is out for summer. There was breakfast as well as activities for the kids and their families.


And in August, they launched the FoCo Freedge—a commercial-grade refrigerator that was added outside where farmers and gardeners can bring their excess produce to share, and any one is welcome to access fresh fruits and vegetables. The goal is to reduce food waste and encourage more people to cook.


“We are so fortunate,” Kathleen said. “Many days, it still feels surreal that we are doing what we love and really making a difference in this community. And if I could share advice with others who are interested in setting up a similar café, I would encourage you to celebrate EVERY win, EVERY success no matter how small, and involve as many as you can in those celebrations. This helps to build momentum and keep stakeholders engaged.


“And also, remember, slow progress IS still progress. With the community behind you, each piece will fall into place.”

Carol Dorn Sanders, MA, FACHE

Kathleen Baumgardner will do a TED Talk about FoCo Cafe at TEDxPeachtree on Friday, September 30, 2016. The video of that talk will be available soon. She has presented at two previous TEDx Events in 2013 and 2014.

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