A Place to Smile About

In Eat, October 2020 by Jenn Rice2 Comments

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Editor’s note: A Place at the Table closed temporarily and will reopen on October 14.

A Place at the Table offers fellowship through community—but wait ’til you try the food. 

On Wednesday through Sunday mornings, a socially distanced line of people wearing masks dots down Hargett Street, often past Legends night club. It’s a line that begins forming as early as 7:30 a.m., comprised of hungry customers waiting for their morning grind and a house made biscuit from A Place at the Table. 

Let’s quickly clear this up: downtown Raleigh’s pay-what-you can cafe is not a soup kitchen, although it might appear this way with the pandemic-impacted line of people patiently waiting to order and pick up curbside meals between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. The patrons are from all walks of life and many are in dire need of a free meal — but many also crave executive chef Andrew Gravens’ thoughtfully prepared dishes and a craft latte with multiple milk alternatives (calling all oat milk fans!). 

Last year, when I moved back to Raleigh after a very taxing divorce, I had $2.17 to my name. A friend suggested I check out A Place at the Table when I was too embarrassed to admit I needed help. I later had a conversation with A Place at the Table’s founder and executive director, Maggie Kane, admitting to her that I felt like I didn’t deserve to pay less, but also remarking on how delicious the cafe’s food was, coupled with a feeling I hadn’t experienced in a while: pure joy, and escapism for a few minutes as I ordered a latte with oat milk on the barista menu. 

Gravens, who has served as the cafe’s chef for two years, recently introduced a new menu that’s fresh and inviting — plus, anything on it can be modified. “That’s very anti-soup kitchen,” Gravens says. “If someone wants a runny egg instead of a scrambled egg, we’ll make it that way.”

Gravens grew up in Vicksburg, Mississippi, with a deep connection to Mississippi Delta food. What most don’t know is that Gravens also received a psychology degree from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. At A Place at the Table, he is able to marry his strengths and interests: food and helping the community. 

In previous jobs, Gravens says, there was often red tape around everything, leaving him unfulfilled in a sense that he couldn’t really help people as he wished he could. At A Place at the Table, it’s quite the opposite. “We are trying to get back to that idea of coming together to eat a meal and getting rid of those barriers that separate us outside of those doors — but now, everyone is stuck outside of those doors,” he says. 

Before the pandemic, several people would walk in daily for lunch, with no idea that they could have not paid. “[A Place at the Table] is like any normal restaurant,” Gravens says. “It’s a safe place. Bad things happen to all of us and people will show up to feed off of the energy here.” 

Gravens says he has been passionate about mental health since he studied the topic in school and notes that, regardless of status, mental health struggles are ones that can touch anyone. It’s a beautiful thing that, at the cafe, customers, myself included, can step up to the register and put everything they’re dealing with aside for a moment. 

“I think a lot of people take it for granted to have a home or someone to call,” Gravens adds. At A Place at the Table, you start with a clean slate when you walk in the door — or, currently, stand in a pandemic line. 

Gravens sources local produce and ingredients whenever possible. Along with the sandwiches, biscuits and salads the cafe is known for, Gravens says he has plans to offer boxes of sweets to go, with homemade pop tarts, jams and pastries, appealing to the grab-and-go downtown Raleigh crowd and local businesses. 

Though the fellowship of the cafe is welcome, Gravens’ food alone is a mental, nutritious escape. 

For me, that’s a homemade biscuit with eggs cooked to order and house made sausage — just as rewarding as a Cajun filet biscuit, with a slightly cheaper price tag. A Place at the Table, to me, is like therapy, through both food and conversation, a place where smiles and acceptance come free of charge. 

Had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred, A Place at the Table would be situated in its expanded Hargett Street space, adjacent to the cafe’s current digs, with a beautiful new dining room to show. But, of course, the pandemic did happen and Raleigh’s flagship pay-what-you-can cafe’s numbers have flopped. Current stats count 35 percent of patrons as paying customers, and 65 percent receiving free meals, for a total of roughly 300 meals served, to go for now, per day. Boldly put, each day, the restaurant loses anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000.

While A Place at the Table could certainly use all of the support from the local community that Raleigh has to offer right now, Gravens, Kane and dozens of others invested in the cafe’s success maintain it will be there for those who need it, no matter what happens. 

“What isn’t super obvious is that that line of people getting food will always be there,” Gravens says. “We’ll always be here no matter what. We’ll break the bank before we say we’re not doing service.”

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