Quiltmaker Café hosts Pay-What-You-Can meal


PITTSBORO ­— For those looking for a hot meal but without Thanksgiving plans, or if you’re simply seeking company and conversation, Pittsboro’s Quiltmaker Café is hosting a Thanksgiving event to provide a space for it all — regardless of ability to pay.

This year marks the first time the nonprofit Quiltmaker Café is holding a “Pay-What-You-Can” meal for Thanksgiving; it’s scheduled for 1 to 3 p.m. on Thanksgiving day — Thursday, Nov. 24 — at Postal Fish Company in Pittsboro.

For café co-founder and executive director Jennie Knowlton, it’s a day she’s looking forward to for a number of reasons.

“I’m just really excited about the fact that there’ll be a place for Pittsboro residents to go if they don’t have plans for Thanksgiving already,” said Knowlton, who established the nonprofit in February 2021 with her husband David and daughter Elizabeth. “So this kind of meal, to me, is not just about food insecurity. It’s maybe about not having family close by, or not being able to travel to family this year, and so still having a place to celebrate the holiday and feel a part of the community.”

The Quiltmaker Café aims to open a permanent fast-casual restaurant in Pittsboro using a pay-what-you-can model, in which those eating set their own price for the meal. Donations can take different forms, including monetary, produce or donations of time through volunteering.

Knowlton said there are around 50 other cafés in the country using the same model, and under the umbrella of the One World Everybody Eats nonprofit organization.

The organization has seven key elements, which the Quiltmaker Café aims to follow, including pay-what-you-can pricing, the ability for guests to choose portion sizes, the ability for guests to volunteer in exchange for a meal, serving healthy and local food, offering a community table as “an equalizer” to guests, paid employees receiving a living wage and volunteers making up the majority of restaurant staff.

In North Carolina, other pay-what-you-can cafés include A Place at the Table in Raleigh and FARM Café in Boone.

Knowlton, who grew up experiencing food insecurity, remembers the associated stigma. A core feature of the restaurant is dignity, she said, and being able to give agency to patrons to dine out and enjoy a meal with others.

“So there’ll be no separation between who might be paying, who might be volunteering, who might be paying under,” she said. “And just building that community also with using volunteers, rather than employees, [so] that everyone is also serving each other, once again, no matter from what type of means they might be coming from.”

Feeding America, a nonprofit and national network of food banks, defines food insecurity as a lack of regular access to a sufficient amount of food for each person in a household to live a healthy, active life. Causes of food insecurity are varied and complex, and can include poverty, unemployment, chronic health conditions, lack of affordable housing and systemic racism.

In Chatham County, 11.7% of residents, or 8,350 people, are food insecure, according to the 2019 Feeding America report. In comparison, the state’s food insecurity rate for the same year was 13.5%. The Chatham County Public Health Department’s 2021 Community Assessment found that more than 1 in 8 Chatham County adults reported worrying they would run out of food before they had money to buy more in the past year, including around 30% of Hispanic or Latinx residents and 20% of Black residents.

Since its establishment, the Quiltmaker Café has hosted different meals in the county, including most recently a Pay-What-You-Can Community Feast attended by 250 people at The Plant in Pittsboro last month. Local chefs Sera Cuni from the Root Cellar Cafe and Bill Hartley from the Postal Fish Co. have collaborated to provide food for the Quiltmaker Café’s events, and will be creating the menu for the restaurant until the Quiltmaker Café is able to hire a chef.

Guests at next Thursday’s dinner can expect to enjoy the Thanksgiving classics, from turkey and stuffing to mashed potatoes and pie. For those with dietary restrictions, there will be some vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Leslie Chartier of Pittsboro’s The Travelling Café is providing food on the day of, as well Postal Fish Co., which is preparing the turkey. Knowlton said Chartier had initially reached out to her about collaborating on the Thanksgiving dinner, calling it a “perfect match.”

Chartier first met Knowlton at a networking event with Circle City Merchants, of which they are both members. The chef said she sees participating in the dinner as a chance to engage in community outreach, a cause essential to her. She hopes to create an “atmosphere of hospitality” for those attending.

“My whole philosophy of hospitality is to make people feel transported just momentarily, so that they forget about what’s going on in their lives,” she said. “And they enjoy the fellowship of other people and good food.”

For Hartley, owner of Postal Fish Co., his motivations for supporting the Quiltmaker Café’s cause are similar. Hartley said Knowlton and her husband initially reached out to him to pick his brain about opening a restaurant when Quiltmaker Café was still in its development phase. In addition to shaping the café’s menu and providing guidance on restauranting, Hartley now serves on the nonprofit’s board.

“Me being in the restaurant industry my entire life, the only thing I know how to do is feed people — whether it’s at home, feeding the family during the holidays, or working in a restaurant or owning a restaurant,” Hartley said. “It’s part of my life, and I’ve come to realize over the years that not everybody is or was as fortunate that I was growing up as a kid.

“And food insecurity’s kind of been brought to the surface here, to me, in Chatham County,” he continued. “And I realized that it is a serious problem, and everybody deserves to be fed.”

Hartley said his family has gathered at the restaurant for their Thanksgiving meal most years since it opened, in 2017. COVID-19 interrupted that, but when Knowlton approached him about using the Postal Fish venue, it was an easy answer.

“So I was like, ‘We can do it here,’” he said. “I’ve always wanted to be able to open the doors to the community on Thanksgiving and Jennie and the Quiltmaker has given me that opportunity.”

Attendance for the Thanksgiving meal is limited to 50 guests, and free tickets can be reserved online at the dinner’s Eventbrite page. The restaurant is still seeking volunteers for the Thanksgiving dinner, and postings can be accessed at the “Volunteer” tab on the Quiltmaker Café’s website.

Currently, the café is still searching for a brick-and-mortar location, with the goal of opening in 2023. Knowlton said the restaurant had been in negotiations with a property this year, but the arrangement fell through in September. The café also completed a $30,000 matching campaign in October, in which they raised over $33,000 for a total of $63,710.

In selecting a permanent spot, Knowlton said the restaurant is considering a number of factors, from having access to sidewalks and being walking distance near the downtown area for those without transportation to feeling like a welcoming venue for all individuals.

“We really feel like our home is in Pittsboro,” she said. “And we want to be very thoughtful of the location that we choose.”

Offering individuals who may be experiencing food insecurity the ability to not only choose different aspects of a meal, but the ways in which they participate in the pay-what-you-can restaurant, is incredibly important, Knowlton said.

“It’s almost like a domino effect,” Knowlton said. “If you have choice and you feel welcomed somewhere, how else does that change what might be going on in your life?”

Reporter Maydha Devarajan can be reached at mdevarajan@chathamnr.com and on Twitter @maydhadevarajan.