At Café Esperanza, the power of simply having options brings hope to life.
“This isn’t a soup kitchen where people get in line and are getting whatever we give you,” said chef and kitchen manager Angelique Gilyard. “We give the people the choice in what they have. You can have your sandwich toasted if you want, the whole sandwich or just the bread. If you want soup, great. If you want to take your meal home, that’s fine.”
“Choice means dignity,” said Emily Wolfe, the café’s hospitality manager.
Café Esperanza is affiliated with Hope Lutheran Church in Reading, Pa., a city of 88,000 where the median household income is $32,000 and one-third of the residents live in poverty.
Emily Wolfe’s mother, Mary, the café’s founder, has served as pastor of Hope for nearly 15 years. Café Esperanza evolved from a community meal the church began offering seven years ago.
“We also have a food pantry on Tuesdays, and we would worship around tables,” Mary said, “but it always felt like a soup kitchen. We had built community, but we wanted something different, something high-quality.”
“Choice means dignity.”
Hope’s congregation worships in a 116-year-old stone building, an island in a sea of row homes a dozen blocks east of the Schuylkill River. Adjacent to the church parking lot is a row home bequeathed to Hope by a neighborhood woman. Following $180,000 in renovations, that home has become Café Esperanza.
“We got the idea to do something where we could actually offer someone a restaurant experience,” Mary said. “Our area is three-quarters Latino and the rest divided between Black and Anglo, and we wanted to do something that would bring people from all walks of life together.”
Café Esperanza—esperanza is Spanish for “hope”—joins more than 60 other restaurants in the One World Everybody Eats (OWEE) network, formed to address the food insecurity that affects roughly 1 in 5 households in the United States. The pay-what-you-can model works, OWEE posits, not just because of donations and volunteers but also because, contrary to what some might suspect, customers really do tend to pay whatever they can.
A community gathering point
OWEE strives to promote interpersonal connection, diversity, compassion, respect and inclusion while offering groups such as Hope the guidance to start and operate restaurants.
“We wanted to open in spring 2020 but, due to COVID, we had to postpone for a year,” Emily said. “During that year, we shifted the focus to serving meals in our parking lot, along with some deliveries. Everything was free, though we did occasionally receive donations.
“Angelique made restaurant meals to-go twice a week—we served more than 10,000 of them—and we forged a relationship with our neighborhood. Volunteers baked for us, farms brought us bountiful organic produce, and some local businesses were very generous with their products.”
In addition to dishing up soups, salads, sandwiches, rice bowls and pastries, Café Esperanza serves fair-trade coffee from Four Monkeys Coffee of nearby Kutztown, Pa. The Wolfes and Gilyard also hope the café’s espresso machine can be a training tool, preparing young volunteers for paying jobs as baristas.
Gilyard, daughter of a New York chef, says she was “raised in a kitchen,” and she plans to offer cooking classes as part of the feeding ministry. “We want people in the neighborhood to have the chance to learn to make different things,” she said, citing hand-rolled pasta as one example.
“Angelique made restaurant meals to-go twice a week—we served more than 10,000 of them—and we forged a relationship with our neighborhood.”
Staffed mainly by volunteers, the café is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and the organizers plan to add weekend brunches.
They aim to serve food that’s local, organic and seasonal while cutting waste as close to zero as possible. A nearby YMCA and shelter have taken leftover meals from Café Esperanza, and the kitchen offers separate bins for composting, recycling and trash.
The café seats about 30, with a community table—a signature of OWEE establishments—to encourage connection and interaction.
“Café Esperanza is affiliated with the church but is not an official ministry of the church,” Mary said. “One reason for that is so people of all faiths and no faiths feel welcome.”
Café Esperanza has been awarded grants by multiple ELCA ministries, including ELCA World Hunger, ELCA Disability Ministries, the ELCA Deaconess Community and Lutheran Disaster Response, and from the Northeastern Pennsylvania Synod.
“We’ve also been generously supported by many local foundations, congregations—both ELCA and full communion partners—and donations from many generous individuals in the community,” Mary said.
“We don’t have a cool name for our neighborhood, we’re just there in the middle of packed-in row homes, densely populated, and we wanted to provide a place that’s so good, so interesting, that people would actually cross the bridges and come into our neighborhood.”