FoCo Cafe – Serving Up Compassion
– By Dan England | Photos by Jordan Secher –
Just before 11:30 a.m., when the calm and quiet melts into the cacophony Halle Thompson has come to expect at the FoCo Cafe, a man named Ivan walks in and begins counting the change in his front pocket.
“Let’s see,” he says while sifting through coins next to the crumped dollar bills on the counter. “That’s….$8.43!”
Thompson smiles and leads him to a table for lunch. As soon as she does this, someone else walks up and asks what task he could do next. When she directs him to the garden, where he can carry in fresh supplies, a woman in a Bebe T-shirt and sandals with bling up and down the straps asks for a table for four.
“This is the place I told you about,” she says to her friends, as if she’s describing Denver’s latest downtown restaurant. “It’s so delicious.”
The three customers all represent FoCo’s mission. The cafe, for years, has operated on a “pay what you can” model. It is a nonprofit meant to serve hot, nutritious meals in a dignified manner to those who need them. But it’s not a soup kitchen. It looks like, and acts like, a cute cafe in downtown Fort Collins. The cafe is clean, kind of swanky, hip, fun and even banging, as music powers the volunteers and three-and-a-half staff members through the lunch rush. Right now, it’s Bruno Mars, but Katy Perry held her own a few minutes ago.
The model works just like it sounds. Some pay what it takes: $4. Some pay what it costs: $12. Some pay what they can, such as Ivan. A few pay it forward: $24 helps pay for a few meals, not just your own. That’s what the woman in the BeBe shirt paid. They even have a punch card.
“How cool is that?” Thompson says in reference to the large donation (not the punch card). “You can see where your donations go right away.”
Those who can’t pay at all are asked to volunteer for an hour. They are treated with the same respect, though Thompson works them hard without overdoing it. She keeps an eye on them, but it’s mostly on the honor system: There is no intake process, as most social services require. That creates challenges, but it’s also liberating, Thompson says, both for the client and the cafe.
“They can come in and be normal customers,” she says. “I don’t need to know anything about you. A lot of other resources require a lot of red tape, and then they’re not given a choice in how they want to participate.”
Thompson works as the operations manager for the cafe, and she has a degree in social work from Colorado State University. She compares the cafe to food banks, though she admires the work the food banks do.
“At the food bank you get a pre-package of food,” she says. “Choosing from a menu is more dignified than just being handed a box. This can be a supplemental alternative to that.”
It’s a difficult model to follow. There are only a dozen similar restaurants across the country. Jeff and Kathleen Baumgardner got the idea from the SAME Cafe in Denver. They volunteered at SAME and then met with Fort Collins leaders about opening a similar place. The response was overwhelming: In a few months, their garage was stuffed with donated kitchen equipment, tables and chairs. Boxes of dishes appeared on their front porch. College students came in to help. They opened, appropriately, on Thanksgiving in 2014.
They would need that same generosity four years later, when they nearly closed before donations, including a couple anonymous $10,000 checks, saved them. Since then, hundreds have signed up for the restaurant’s sustaining membership program for at least $10 a month. Those donors, of course, get free meals in return.
The year before, the Baumgardners had retired to Hawaii and turned over the apron to Mallory Garneau, who also has a degree in social work from CSU and worked as their intern. She remains the executive director.
The menu used to change every day, but the pandemic forced them into seasonal menus with occasional specials, dialed up by their full-time chef. The summer menu includes cornbread muffins, Caesar salad, strawberry crisps, smokey chicken and mozzarella on foccocia and a daily special (Thursday’s special was BBQ chicken and cheddar hand pies).
They still discuss those who take advantage of their system. They used to have a donations box, but now they ask customers to pay up front. That, along with the counter service ordering directly from the cook, are the two noticeable differences between a cafe and the FoCo Cafe.
The cafe is only open for lunch, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday-Friday. They offer other resources, such as a hydration station, which offers free clean water (places to fill a water bottle are scarcer than you think), and a free library. But mostly they offer a place for a hot meal served with a side of dignity and good smells. Ivan got a nose full as he sat down for lunch, and that prompted an important question.
“What are you doing with that bacon?” Ivan asked.
Dan England is NOCO Style’s assistant editor and a freelance journalist based in Greeley.