When I listened to Tommy Brown describe the sounds and home of F.A.R.M. Café—the old soda fountain at Boone Drug store in downtown Boone, N.C., I was transported back to my days of working and literally being raised at my stepfather’s small pharmacy in the eastern part of the state.
I have the fondest of memories of the customers who arrived like clockwork each day and sat around our sparkly lunch counter. (Imagine early 1960’s Formica for those old enough to remember). And over a cup of coffee or perhaps a meal, our customers discussed life, built community, took care of each other and tried to solve all the problems of the world. Many of them became like family—aunts, uncles and grandparents, and I treasure those relationships and the richness they brought into my life.
Tommy told similar stories of his four and a half years with F.A.R.M. Café, and his perspective is unique in that he has served as customer, board member and now full-time volunteer coordinator. Tommy was invited to bring his perspective and stories as the guest speaker for the Mandolin Fundraiser for A Place at the Table on August 22, 2016.
He shared with us that the idea of F.A.R.M. Café was formed in 2009 as a result of the commitment of a group of citizens from High Country United Church of Christ to address unmet hunger needs plaguing the greater Boone area. They were interested in replicating a community kitchen concept in Salt Lake City that was operating successfully—One World Cafe.
With the leadership of Renee Boughman—now executive chef/director and the Board of Directors, they established the nonprofit, began the search for a location and launched numerous fundraising campaigns to build a foundation for the operation.
In January 2012, the Boone Drug space on King Street—the heart of downtown—became available, and according to Tommy, the board members knew they had to jump on the opportunity. They signed the lease, and four months later, they began serving delicious and healthy lunches to community members regardless of means or ability to pay.
And while those three previous paragraphs may seem to illustrate a smooth three-year journey from concept to grand opening, nothing could be further from the truth.
“We battled the pervasive mindset that people will take advantage of the pay-as-you-can restaurant,” Tommy said. “So right out of the gate we had communications issues around the concept itself. We had to convince citizens that if we treat people with respect during potential tough times and periods of food insecurity—if we create an experience of community where they feel cared for and safe, then they would never want to take advantage of such a place.”
Tommy also detailed other hurdles they faced in Boone, such as finding that right location, convincing other nearby restaurants that they are not competition and of course, fundraising.
The proceeds of lunch sales cover about 80-85 percent of the F.A.R.M. Café budget, which is outstanding, but it does mean that fundraising is a constant.
“We have been creative with our fundraising and diligent with their grant writing, which are certainly a bit easier now that we have a successful history. And we have formed strong partnerships with restaurants such as Panera and Chipotle who have corporate missions that are aligned with stopping hunger in local communities,” Tommy said.
“The bottom line is that if you talk to those across the country who have started similar cafes in their communities, it is a long road. Even though we freely share ideas and best practices among the cafes, each community is unique and comes with its own challenges, so there is not one roadmap or cookie cutter approach that is going to fit,” Tommy said.
“So, my advice to all stakeholders—board members, donors, volunteers and others, is be patient and be committed. You have to keep your eye on the vision and mission and recognize that it is not going to be without delays and heartache. But it will be so worth it in the end to know that you are providing nourishment for the bodies and souls of the people of your community.”
Tommy shared an inspirational and heartwarming story of one of their male customers who is in his late 30’s, had dropped out of college, had lost his way and his home and had been “couch surfing” for more than 10 years. He was fortunate that he could rely on friends to keep him off the street, but he really needed direction. He became a regular customer at the beginning of 2016 and started to feel the support of the café community, as according to Tommy, everyone recognized his intelligence. He started helping out at the café, and the other customers started encouraging him to return to school.
“So with the help of F.A.R.M. Café customers and their connections, I am thrilled to say that this man was able to secure financial aid, is back in college and majoring in philosophy and religion. And I am also thrilled to say that we have witnessed many other such inspiring stories in the four years since our doors opened,” Tommy said.
“We do not have programs at our nonprofit café. We do not orchestrate the conversations that happen or friendships that develop,” Tommy said. “What we do is invite folks to eat with us in our safe and supportive space. We prepare delicious and nutritious food. We open the doors, set the table and community happens.”
Carol Dorn Sanders, MA, FACHE