Chow Town

‘Not just a restaurant’: KC’s first donate-what-you-can cafe aims to unite on Troost

In the late 1980s, Thelma and David Altschul opened their east Kansas City home to anyone with no place to go.

The couple welcomed the poor, addicted, homeless and hungry. Thelma fed them all.

“She was someone who loved everyone, no matter who you were,” says Father Justin Mathews, executive director of Reconciliation Services, a nonprofit founded by the Altschuls.

For 30 years, Reconciliation Services has supported the community around Troost Avenue with trauma therapy, housing assistance and employment preparation. The nonprofit’s mission is to “transform Troost from a dividing line into a gathering place.”

Thelma died in 2012, but her spirit lives on at Thelma’s Kitchen, a new community cafe at 3101 Troost Ave.

Here are five things to know about Thelma’s, which recently celebrated its grand opening.

1. Customers pay what they can

There are no set prices at Thelma’s Kitchen, which is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The suggested donation for a four-course meal is $7 for a small portion or $10 for a large portion. But those who can’t afford to pay those prices are invited to give what they can — the suggested minimum is $2 — or volunteer for half an hour in exchange for a meal.

At 11 a.m. on a recent Monday, some customers paid it forward by offering more than full price, while others went to work washing windows or cleaning tables in the dining room, a bright space with colorful murals on the wall.

One mural by Lori and Stuart Bury of Troost Market Collective shows a smiling Thelma with a halo of flowering weeds just like the ones along Troost.

2. Thelma’s runs on volunteers

The cafe is funded by Reconciliation Services in partnership with the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and Village Presbyterian Church. But the concept wouldn’t work without a team of volunteers who donate their time to wash dishes, serve food or bus tables.

Thelma’s has 16 volunteer spots each weekday. Most volunteers work 90-minute shifts once a week or every other week.

Mathews says volunteers are encouraged to talk to and share meals with customers.

“We really want people to get to know each other,” he says. “That’s how we’re going to build community and tear down the divide.”

Thelma’s has 16 volunteer spots each weekday. Most volunteers work 90-minute shifts once a week or every other week and earn credit toward a meal. Shelly Yang

3. The food is really good — and there are always healthy options

Thelma’s menu changes daily, but each lunch comes with a choice of soup, salad, entree and dessert. All the food is made by Chef Pamela Infranca, the granddaughter of an Italian immigrant who owned a market on Troost years ago.

At Thelma’s there are always vegan and gluten-free choices on the menu. Local, seasonal ingredients are included when possible.

Thelma’s Kitchen serves lunch Monday through Friday at 3101 Troost Ave. Customers pay what they can for meals that include soup, salad, an entree and dessert. On a recent Monday, the featured entree was chicken with leeks, mushrooms and mashed potatoes. Sarah Gish

On a recent Monday, the menu board featured creamy potato soup, vegetable soup, sliced cantaloupe and a BLT salad that topped fresh greens with ripe red tomatoes and crumbled bacon.

Entrees included chicken breasts cooked with mushrooms and leeks and served with mashed potatoes; turkey-pepperjack panini sandwiches; chicken salad on egg buns and vegetarian grilled cheese.

For dessert, there was tres leches cake or apple cinnamon bread pudding topped with caramel sauce.

Customers ordered their food cafeteria-style and paid at the counter. Drinks, which also come with the meal, include tea and water infused with fresh fruit.

The lunch crowd included a young dad with a baby strapped to his chest, a middle-aged man with a walker, two teachers on their lunch break, a trio of teenagers and a grandmother with two granddaughters.

“Next time, I’m going to get the cake,” one of the girls told her grandmother between bites of bread pudding. “Can we come here every day?”

4. The space is historic

A customer gives a prayer before lunch at Thelma’s Kitchen, Kansas City’s first Pay-What-You-Can community cafe. Shelly Yang

The cafe is located in a nearly 100-year-old building that was a candy store in the 1920s. Later, it was a shirt shop — and according to Mathews, President Harry Truman once worked there.

You can see the history in the original tile floors and tall ceilings. And because of its big windows and location at the corner of 31st and Troost, the space feels connected to the neighborhood.

Mathews says that Reconciliation Services, which is located in the same building, worked with BNIM Architects to make a clean and modern cafe that retains a little bit of the building’s “grit.”

“I didn’t want this place to be swanky or janky,” Mathews says. “We want to make sure everyone feels welcome.”

Customers are invited to sit at private tables or long community tables made from black walnut wood salvaged from a tree in Mathews’ yard, which is just a few blocks away from Thelma’s.

5. It’s the first of its kind in Kansas City

Father Justin Mathews, executive director of Reconciliation Services in Kansas City, hopes Thelma’s Kitchen will bring community together and transform Troost Ave from a dividing line to a gathering place. Shelly Yang

Thelma’s Kitchen is the first pay-what-you-can cafe in Kansas City. The concept has already caught on in other cities such as Denver, home to SAME Cafe, and Philadelphia, where EAT Cafe opened two years ago.

The Kansas City cafe is on a mission to feed people who otherwise might not be able to afford to eat. Mathews says this is especially important on Troost, where he’s seen the effects of “rapid gentrification” firsthand.

“Rent has almost doubled since 2008,” he says.

Now many longtime residents are struggling to make ends meet.

Mathews wants Thelma’s to be a place where people from all walks of life nourish their souls while feeding their bodies. He says some customers have paid as much as $50 for lunch to help others eat.

No matter how — or how much — they pay, customers dine together as equals. Mathews says that’s just how Thelma would’ve wanted it.

“It’s not just a restaurant,” Mathews says. “It’s a place where people come together who would otherwise not meet each other.”