After being asked by several neighborhood kids for food on the CSA delivery route we decided to reach out to find a partner who could help us turn our raw ingredients into something that could be eaten by kids looking for a meal. Eventually we stumbled upon Tricklebee Cafe. In the age of Sysco, we feel really glad to have found a community partner that isn't intimidated by putting fresh CSA veggies to use. In 2018 we consistently donated produce that was leftover after the CSA pack out each week to the cafe. This year we have donated at least one 3/4 bushel of produce each week and have been really excited to see members also sending there boxes to Tricklebee Cafe if they will be out of town. If you have never been to the cafe it is worth the trip. It is warm, lively, friendly and always smells amazing.
What is Tricklebee Cafe?
We are a Pay-What-You-Can Community Cafe. We’re the first one in WI and so far the only one. One is starting to pop up in Madison called Little John’s, but they don’t have a brick and mortar space yet. We were established in 2016, and we’re part of the One World Everybody Eats Network it is a network of 50 cafes that offer pay-what-you-can, healthy food options.
If I walked in the door with a dollar…
Yes, exactly. We say, “if your pockets are full” you can pay a bit more, “if your pockets are light” you pay less, and “if your pockets are empty” you can pay nothing and get a meal and perhaps work a little bit in the cafe.
Is there a recommended amount?
No, because the IRS does not allow us to do that. We have a note on the wall with the calculated price range of what it takes to make a meal. We factor in produce we are gifted, and some grant funding we have. We say it costs about $7-9 to make a meal, because some people have no idea what to give you.
We have a lot of regulars who get the system. But occasionally people are super flabbergasted in a good way, and sometimes people are just overwhelmed and crabby like “What do you mean there’s no price?”
Tell us a bit about the food you cook…
We are plant-based - not that we’ve never used an animal product. We’ve served meat 3 times in the 3 years since we’ve been open. We like offering super healthy meals and we know some of our neighbors might eat not be eating like that very often. We offer:
Soup every day, even in summer.
Some kind of main entree, might be a sandwich.
Some kind of salad and a baked good.
We also offer a beverage.
It’s different every day, we never serve the same thing twice, because it’s based on what we have here. So if Three SIsters brings us a box of kale and potatoes we serve kale and potatoes.
Explain how your relationship with 3 Sisters works.
One day Kelly just kind of popped in with some boxes and said, “Would you want free produce when we have it?” I said, “Of course!”
It’s not a guarantee because we don’t know when people won't come for their boxes. Every day she pops in with at least box, sometimes up to 3 boxes. We’re really grateful. We’ve not yet been to the farm but we’d love to go check it out. We’d love to bring our regulars and staff out there.
At some level we are sort of helping the farm because they don’t want to be sitting around with boxes of rotting produce.
Is it tricky from the restaurant’s perspective when you get one box with like, two eggplant in it?
Yeah, you know those shares are really meant for a family and we feed like 60 lunches a day. So we just throw the veggies into the soup - we joke that we’re like the show “Chopped” I’ve never actually seen it but we just get the box. We never really know, day to day or week to week, what we’re going to have, so I send our chefs a list at night with our ingredients and then they somehow get our menu ready to go!
Do they employees get paid the same as they would at another restaurant?
Yes - that’s one of the hallmarks of the Pay What You Can Network - we vow to pay everyone a living wage. We all make $14.60 an hour, we’re working up towards $15. Every year we do a cost of living raise.
Why did you start Tricklebee?
It’s funny because it’s not my background at all. I’m not a chef, I don’t have restaurant management training. I’m an artist and a pastor in the Moravian Church - a minister. We had a food ministry we were running in LA - we would rescue food from a grocery store and Cuban bakery. It was still edible, but not saleable. We would pick it up every week and come back to the church and put together these beautiful meals. We called it Open Table and we’d all come together over a meal. One day I realized this was my true calling - to keep food out of the waste stream and also build community.
The Moravian Church?
It’s the oldest Protestant denomination, we’re like Lutherans, just smaller and less well-known. We are about a 100 years older than the first Protestants, and stood up against the Catholic Church in the same way Luther did, but the leader was burned at the stake. We are known for a very simple theology - we believe in following the way of Jesus which means including outsiders, feeding people, lifting up the lowly. If we're known around the world it’s because we start clinics in places, we are quietly progressive, not out to convert anyone. There’s some old church furniture in the cafe, and the place where people order is a pulpit. So I joke that I'm still in the pulpit every day. But the cafe is considered an official ministry of the Moravian church. This is the first time they’ve done something like this (opened a restaurant) and they kind of went out on a limb with it. But they don’t regret it.
Why did you end up in Milwaukee?
I’m from the woods in northern Iowa, like no neighbors. I went to college and grad school out east. My first work was in LA, and that was a major difference from where I grew up. I’ve liked all those experiences but I knew I wanted to come back to the midwest. I think my heart is here. When we wanted to do this cafe I wanted to do it in an urban setting because I didn't think it would work in a rural setting. We just kind of looked around at some cities - the Twin Cities, Milwaukee - everything about MIlwaukee just lined up. It just felt like we were meant to do this.
Just looking at the logistics of the city too, there are a lot of grossly underserved areas here. We felt like we should go to an area that really needed healthy food options. We found an area that I think is really kind of neglected by the city, we don’t have a lot of food options. We just popped down right in the middle of it.
Where are you located?
Sherman Park, on 45th and North.
What would you like people to know about food insecurity that you think is not obvious?
I think the thing I see all the time is this sheltered view of neighborhoods like this one. People from neighborhoods where there are grocery stores think the corner store has groceries. Well, yes, you can buy “food” there but it’s nothing healthy. There is meat but it’s gray, and I’m not a meat eater but I don’t think meat should be gray. Then there are some coolers with produce but it’s all rotting. Rotten iceberg lettuce and rotten tomatoes. The passerby might think “That’s not a food dessert, there’s food right there”. Or at the Family Dollar.
We’ve done this thing where we’re bringing people who aren’t as close to this reality, and we give them a dollar and we tell them to buy themselves lunch at the Family Dollar. So they pool their money and they buy a bag of frozen corn and some hotdogs and maybe a chocolate bar. Then we cook the food and eat it together and we talk about how it makes them feel. Oftentimes people say that it feels kind of empty - it feels like it’s not giving them any nutritional value. So that’s the kind of “food” that’s available here. And that’s what I want people to know.
What are the most surprising things you’ve learned?
One of our board members was leery of us becoming an exclusively vegan restaurant. We were going to be a vegetarian restaurant with vegan offerings. This board member said people weren’t going to go for it. But it turns out that people love it.
Our baked goods are made from low glycemic sugars too, so diabetics can usually eat them..
People are delighted, they love it. Some come almost every day. About 50% of our customers come from the neighborhood and 50% come from outside it becuase they are curious or like what we’re about.
I have a friend who is a vegan activist, I think is how she would self-define. She’s very much out there putting up posters of bloody animals. That’s not where I'm at, not my message. At Tricklebee we have more of an inviting attitude, like, “Why don’t you try it?” I think it’s more of a welcoming experience and people are grateful for that.
How can people support your work?
Donations of fresh things any time of year is always a big blessing for us.
Along with volunteering - if people have a free day, it doesn't have to be consistent but if someone wanted to come work in the cafe, we’re very much volunteer driven. We can’t function without volunteers.
And of course patronizing the cafe, and especially using the Pay-It-Forward model. Every day we have a couple people - usually kids from the neighborhood who don’t have any money. So it really is a blessing to help cover those costs.
When are you open?
We serve lunch Wednesday through Saturday from 11-2.
On Thursday nights we serve dinner at 6 pm. It’s a buffet, everybody loads up their plate and eats together. That starts right at 6 pm and there is no real end time.
On Wednesdays we gather for creativity night but there is not a meal - it’s a gathering of artists and people bring their own projects to work on and we have some limited supplies.
Our customers are very diverse. I’m here all the time so I don't notice it as much. But people come in from outside and say they don’t see people in the city from such diverse backgrounds interacting.
What kind of art do you make?
Mostly beadwork, but other things too - often out of found materials.
I build small scale furniture, shelves and tables out of found materials.
What is the most delicious meal you have had recently?
The funny thing is that every day here I say to our cook “This is the best meal I’ve ever had”.
I just went to this Wild Edibles Harvest event in Prairie du Chien, it was all these experts coming together. They had this chef there, Allen Bergo “The Forager Chef”, and he cooked all wild foods. He made a wild mushroom conserve with hen of the woods, lobster mushroom and chicken of the woods. Just in this vinegary thing with fresh herbs. I probably had five servings of it in one meal.
What is your favorite place to have a meal?
With my family at home at the table. Or wherever they are. It’s one of the most fun times of the day - there are five of us. We have 3 under the age of 7 and we share what we’re grateful for from the day and then we just enjoy each other. I feel like when we eat in a spirit of gratitude the food tastes a little bit better.
What is bringing you a lot of joy?
I’m still reeling in that wild edibles conference. I used to just know maybe 10 things walking around and now I know at least 20 more and I feel comfortable cooking them. At the restaurant level it’s great because it’s free, it’s nature. I think it’s getting back to where our ancestors were, like when you walk outside that’s your grocery store.
We have some exciting stuff coming up in the next few months here in terms of how we are occupying the building. We are looking to expand and grow in the near future.