EAT Café set to close, Drexel loses community tie

Originally Posted on The Triangle via UWIRE

EAT Cafe, the community restaurant located just a few blocks from the heart of Drexel University, is soon set to close.

What was opened as “a joint effort of Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the Vetri Community Partnership, and Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management,” EAT Cafe was to work directly with Drexel and the surrounding community. “Everyone at The Table,” the idea behind the cafe and its name, was to serve as a moral foundation on which the eatery operated.

A little over three years ago, The Inquirer ran a story on the man behind the cafe its General Manager Donnell Jones-Craven. Craven, who had a corporate and catering background, was trying to bring a “pay-what-you-can” style of restaurant to Philadelphia. What began as an idea back in 2014 finally came to fruition in October 2016.

Craven was focusing on trying to erase the stigma of food insecurity in the city, and wanted there to be a place where the community could come together.

“Great food promotes community, and fellowship is the thing we all most desire,” Craven told The Inquirer.

This was specifically important to the City of Philadelphia at the time, because about 90 percent of the city’s food pantries reported empty shelves at least once throughout 2015. On top of that, nearly a quarter of residents lacked reliable access to enough healthy food, and EAT Cafe was going to be in a zip code where 53 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

What Craven wanted to do with EAT Cafe was to bridge socio-economic gap, and create a community experience unlike anywhere else. The goal was to have a full-fledged restaurant that appealed to  students, long-time residents, and people who live in homeless shelters or transitional housing facilities nearby.

Some diners would be able to pay the bill, some diners wouldn’t and some would be able to pay more than the bill. Community cafes lose money; it’s inherently a byproduct of helping those who need it.

Having a solid enough foundation of three years’ worth of promised grants from The Leo and Peggy Pierce Foundation, EAT Cafe was able to sustain losses from the average payment of its customers. However, when Drexel did the economic math required for EAT Cafe to sustain itself, the number came out to about $15 per customer.  

The ultimate model for the sustainability of EAT Cafe was to rely on community partnerships, the generosity of their better-off customers and the grants acting as a buffer.

However, the grants didn’t come through, the customers didn’t total the numbers that EAT Cafe expected and the payments didn’t come frequently enough. Even after rolling back their productivity to just Wednesdays-Fridays and even with the donations, the restaurant still met with financial problems it could not overcome.

According to  a joint statement released by Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities and EAT Cafe, “rising costs of operations and a loss of funding” were what did it in. There wasn’t enough money to be properly allocated to the “three-course seated meals, four days a week” and then still be able to pay its workers.

Although EAT Cafe is closing, Drexel is not done working towards progressing nutrition in the West Philadelphia community.

“Drexel thanks the West Philadelphia community for embracing and welcoming the EAT Cafe into its vibrant community. Although the cafe is closing, the Center for Hunger-Free Communities will continue its efforts to bring everyone to the table and to end hunger in communities. The Center is currently exploring opportunities for other nutrition programming and partnerships,” Drexel CHFC said in the statement.

EAT Cafe’s final day of service will be April 19. It is located at 3820 Lancaster Ave in Powelton Village.

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