With its mix of fine dining and fun culinary experiences, the restaurant scene in Kingston draws foodies from afar, but one new cafe dishes up delicious cuisine in an innovative way. The food served at the People’s Place Café is free — unless you want to make a donation.
The restaurant, which opened on October 2, is a community café, housed in the same building as the well-stocked People’s Place thrift shop and newly renovated food pantry. The concept of a cafe where people can eat for free, if they need to, was popularized by singer Jon Bon Jovi of the band Bon Jovi and its taking hold in communities across the country.
“From the research I did when we talked about building it, there were between 50 and 60 in the country,” said Christine Hein, executive director of People’s Place. “That was two years ago, so maybe there’s 100 now. The most famous version of the concept that people around here would know about, is Soul Kitchen down in Red Bank, New Jersey. Bon Jovi owns the restaurant and they do dinners. I thought it would be wonderful to have a community cafe here in Kingston because Ulster County is a giving community and that it would be something that the community would embrace.”
Each day the café’s talented chefs post a new menu, with options for vegetarian and vegan meals. A day’s menu might feature a flavorful Maple Waffle Monte Cristo, mouthwatering Meatballs Marinara with Broccoli, and Cheddar Mashed Potatoes plus a zesty Bean Burger with Salsa, Queso and Guacamole. Daily menus have sandwich and soup choices, with two soups a day, such as Yellow Split Pea with Ham soup and a Cream of Carrot Butternut, plus a choice of Mixed Greens and Mediterranean Chickpea salads.
Another day’s menu might feature crispy Seafood Cake with Lemon Garlic Aioli, luscious Pumpkin Mac and Cheese with Pecans, hearty Pork Carnitas and Cheese on Grilled Flatbread, plus Thai Peanut Pumpkin Soup and Onion Mushroom, and an Asian Edamame salad.
“We are doing between 170 and 200 meals a day,” said Hein. “That’s between breakfast and lunch. I’m hoping that more folks who are financially comfortable will also come and dine. The way a community café works is to bring the entire community into the space. That’s what our goal was when we came up with the concept. It’s a place that everyone can go and have a sense of dignity and there’s no stigma. The only way that it works is if different folks come and dine, people who are working, people who aren’t, people who are retired, people who are young, the whole gamut of community members. In the word community you can find the word unity.”
The café is the latest outreach effort by People’s Place, which has been an institution in Kingston for 47 years. It was founded by five brothers attending Mount St. Alphonse Seminary.
“They had to do a community outreach program for seminary, so they started doing after school tutoring on Abeel Street in Kingston and quickly realized that the kids were hungry. So they had to feed them in order for them to focus on their studies. It just morphed into the food pantry and the thrift store.”
The mostly volunteer-run organization currently has 22 programs, several of which are on track for the holidays.
“Right now we’re gearing up for the Thanksgiving Talkin’ Turkey program that is our Thanksgiving distribution. Last year we helped 1,404 households. On the Monday before Thanksgiving we give them turkeys and all the things needed to prepare the meal at home. We give them turkey and apple pie, corn and green beans and stuffing and cranberry sauce, butter and potatoes. This year we’re going to have sweet potatoes and butternut squash.”
Shortly after Thanksgiving, Project Santa starts for households with children under 14. Customers register and get matched with an “elf.”
“They walk around the store and pick toys that are appropriate to their child’s age, so the toys range from bicycles and tricycles and scooters to legos and Barbie hair dolls, the whole gamut of toys,” said Hein.
Families also get board games and crafts and winter weather clothing items such as scarves and mittens. In addition, families can participate in a program where they get bags of breakfast, lunch and snack foods to help out while school is out of session.
“Last year we helped over 2,000 children.”
Although the well appointed thrift shop is the economic engine for the organization, Hein hopes that diners will visit the café and make a donation, if they can, either at the café, by sending a check, or online through the website. The cafe is open from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at 779 Broadway. Enjoying a meal there can be a tasty way to benefit the community.
“Donations to the café are how we are able to stay open,” said Hein. “We can’t just mystically stay open without funds. We have utility costs, we have to purchase some of the food, so there are overhead expenses, just like with an everyday cafe or restaurant. It is a real cafe with phenomenal food.”
People always talk about shopping local, said Hein, but there is also something to be said about donating locally.
“I grew up in Kingston and my mom would bring us to People’s Place to donate clothes. I am amazed at how many people don’t know what People’s Place does or that it even exists. Some people think it’s just a food pantry or a thrift store but we try really hard to do a lot of outreach and we’re local.”
People’s Place Cafe
17 St. James St, Kingston