With some KC Chiefs expertise, ‘soup kitchen’ becomes healthful restaurant experience

The One City Cafe is a soup kitchen unlike any you have seen

The new One City Cafe inside the Bishop Sullivan Center, 3936 Troost Ave., provides meals cooked from scratch and has servers to provide those in need with a restaurant experience.
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The new One City Cafe inside the Bishop Sullivan Center, 3936 Troost Ave., provides meals cooked from scratch and has servers to provide those in need with a restaurant experience.

A soup kitchen sounds exactly like what it is: a place to put something in your belly.

Nothing fancy. Move your tray. Next.

But a social services center on Troost Avenue has thrown that concept out with yesterday’s stale buns and opened One City Café, a place that offers nutritious and appealing meals, with a dash of self esteem.

And it doesn’t hurt that its chef is a former cook for Kansas City Chiefs players and coaches.

A buzz is building about the cafe opened last month by the Bishop Sullivan Center at 3936 Troost, where the atmosphere is cool, the background jazz is low and the needy are waited upon by volunteers.

“It’s like I’m at a good restaurant getting catered to with good food and good people around me,” said an amazed Mary Hall, who dined at One City Café recently.

Fellow guest Melissa Siegfried agreed.

“I’ve been to different homeless places that serve food,” she said. “This place right here is just outstanding. The environment, the music, the food, the service. It definitely gives you that restaurant experience.”

The Bishop Sullivan Center, which also provides a food pantry, utility assistance and other services, decided a couple of years ago to rethink its meal service. It stripped the walls in the dining area down to chic bare brick, bought new kitchen equipment and a new cooler and created a completely new dining experience.

The place also got a new loading dock, a new roof and a repaved parking lot. The capital campaign approached $900,000, but it’s been a good investment, says site director Doug Langner. Roughly 80 percent of the center’s budget comes from individual donations.

The main focus of the new meal operation is on healthful foods. Many of the people the center serves already are prone to health risks like hypertension and diabetes. A lot of donated food has tended to be high in carbs and fat. Now there is more attention paid to sodium content, good sugars vs. bad sugars, more fresh fruit and vegetables, etc.

Bishop Sullivan receives about 40 percent of its food and produce from Harvester’s The Community Food Network. The rest it buys.

Making a lot of those decisions is Dwight Tiller, who is known at One City Café as “Chef D.” He was hired to produce nutritious meals Monday through Friday for 140 to 160 people. His former job: line cook at Aramark feeding Kansas City Chiefs players and coaches at their practice facility.

In his first three weeks at the café, Tiller created a different menu each night. Most dishes are based on available donations: beef and broccoli, chicken and vegetable lo mein, shepherd’s pie, seared pork chops, etc.

Tiller smiles broadly over a strainer of fresh broccoli when asked if he likes his new gig.

“It’s different from what I’ve done before, but I am definitely enjoying it,” he said.

The response he has received has been uplifting.

“I’ve had folks want to take pictures with me,” Tiller said. “I’ve had folks want to come and shake my hand and say thank you. It’s really fulfilling when folks who would probably only eat a sandwich and a bag of chips eat something like this and you see the smile on their face.”

Thelma’s Kitchen at 3101 Troost Ave. offers similar healthful fare for lunch using a pay-what-you-can model. One City Café — so-named because it aims to straddle the traditional racial divide of Troost Avenue in Kansas City — accepts donations but does not expect its guests to pay for their meals.

“There are plenty of places to eat for people of means,” said Langner. “First and foremost, we want this to be a place for people that need a meal to come in, not worry about (paying) and enjoy this place like they would at any Crossroads restaurant. We serve them from beginning to end. People come in and sit down. We take their drink order. They have menu options.”

One City Café is open 4:30 to 6 p.m. There’s also a salad bar.

“The old space served us well, Langner said. “We fed a lot of people for a long time, but it’s definitely a new day.”

He knew that when, on the first night of One City Café in January, one woman who brought her child commented, “I’ve never been to a restaurant. This is exactly what I would see on TV, and now I get to experience it.”