This South Charleston nonprofit is feeding hungry people and helping addicts get back on their feet—all while serving up really good food.
Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors, and see charmingly mismatched tables and chairs, a coffee bar, and a cafeteria-style buffet line serving up hearty dishes made from locally grown produce and locally raised meat.
Oh, and see all the people? In the back, there’s a long table of white-haired ladies, chatting and catching up. At another table sit two businessmen having a meeting. At another, a husband and wife enjoy lunch together. See how everyone’s eating the same thing? There’s no menu here—just a set meal that changes daily.
There’s one thing you can’t see: Some of these people might not have paid for their food.
This is Cafe Appalachia, a nonprofit, pay-what-you-want restaurant located in a former Methodist church in South Charleston. It’s a project of Pollen8, an organization meant to help people struggling with addiction throughout their recovery. How does a cafe fit into that mission? Well, in addition to providing hungry people with great food—regardless of their ability to pay—Cafe Appalachia is also providing job training to one of the area’s most vulnerable populations: women struggling with addiction.
Pollen8 partners with Recovery Point of Charleston, a rehab facility that requires residents to get jobs during their last three months. Employees start working in Pollen8’s agriculture program, which grows food for the cafe. “I think it’s healing to dig in the dirt,” says Pollen8 and Cafe Appalachia founder Cheryl Laws.
Laws hopes Cafe Appalachia will eventually be self-sustaining, growing all its own produce on an off-site farm property and in the raised beds and greenhouse on a grassy plot next to the restaurant. Some of these fruits and vegetables will be served fresh, while the ugly ones will be canned for later use. She hopes the restaurant will eventually raise its own livestock, too. Cafe Appalachia is already raising chickens to provide both eggs and meat.
After some weeks on the farm, employees transition into the restaurant. This gives the women interviewing and job experience, not to mention a food handler’s card. Employees also meet regularly with Pollen8’s staff psychologist—but Laws says just interacting with customers is its own kind of therapy for addicts who have been shut off from wider society. “People talk to them, and they get social skills again,” Laws says.
Cafe Appalachia has no religious affiliation, but Laws says the restaurant does have some relation to the building’s original tenant. “We’re a space that offers grace to people,” she says.
Photographed by Carla Witt Ford