By Libby James
There is an old saying: “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Stop in at FoCo Café in downtown Fort Collins. You’ll discover a whole new take on that old adage.
On a recent wintry Saturday afternoon, the cozy and charming small restaurant at 225 Maple Street was vibrant with activity. “Saturdays are usually not our busiest days,” said a friendly volunteer who greeted customers. “But today is different.” He wasn’t sure why they were serving such a crowd.
Founded by Kathleen Baumgardner and her husband Jeff in 2014, FoCo Cafe is unique among the 500-plus eating establishments in Fort Collins. It exists because of the couple’s conviction that all people should have access to good food, whether or not they were able to pay for it. FoCo Cafe’s opening six years ago was the unlikely fulfillment of their dream. Former general manager Mallory Garneau is the current executive director. She took over the reins in 2017 when the Baumgardners left the state.
When she was a graduate student in social work at Colorado State University, she knew she wanted to work where she could address basic needs in the community. FoCo Café was a perfect fit.
The restaurant’s mission is to provide nutritious meals to the people of Fort Collins regardless of their ability to pay. Here’s the way it works: Customers have several choices when it comes to paying for their meal. Based on the average cost for soup, salad, and dessert—and that means all you can eat of each item– a customer pays $12 for their meal. If that is not within their budget, a customer can pay as little as $5. Those wishing to “pay it forward” and cover the cost of a meal for someone else, pay $24 or more. Those who can’t afford more than $4, volunteer their time and talent by working to help maintain the functioning of the restaurant. A fellow sweeping the pavement in front of the cafe explained, “I like to work and then eat.”
Most ingredients are organic, local, and sustainably grown. The menu rotates. It is formed by what is in season. Some of the items on a recent menu included Caesar or mixed green salad, beef stew, chicken vegetable pasta soup, cornbread and cherry almond cake or a cupcake for dessert. Coffee and tea included. The executive director, operations manager, chef, and two part-time dishwashers are the only paid positions. Volunteers take on all other jobs at the cafe. The welcoming environment creates a strong sense of belonging and commitment. In 2018 when the donations box containing $100 was stolen, the community responded within hours by contributing $500 to make sure FoCo would continue to exist.
The cafe has become much more than a place to get a delicious lunch. A rack of hand-knitted scarves, free for the taking, graces one of the walls. The Giving Tree, just outside FoCo, offers clothes, shoes, and a wide assortment of toiletries for anyone in need. There is a food pantry where people donate packaged items they can no longer use, preventing waste while helping others in need.
During the summer months, Colorado Commons raises vegetables in a series of raised beds on the FoCo property. There is a small library of books where people can help themselves or donate a book.
As Garneau looks to the future, she hopes to find the funds to support a fifth paid position for a hospitality specialist. She is aware that customers who are welcomed at the door and explained the mission of FoCo Café, are usually inspired to pay it forward by contributing more than the cost of their lunch.
Another dream of hers is to work with Vindicate Market, a pay-what-you-can grocery store, to provide a single welcoming location to buy groceries and to have a nutritious meal.
FoCo Café is open between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. six days a week and sponsors several special events during the year. Anyone interested in volunteering can find information on the FoCo Café website at fococafe.org