A palpable sense of thankfulness permeates the din of the daily lunch rush at the Fork Real Café, a small eatery in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota that is intent on improving lives – one meal at a time.
In the dining room of the “pay-what-you-can” café – a 2018 recipient of $50,000 from the “A Community Thrives” grant program organized by Gannett/USA Today Network — Andrea Maestas, owner of a local medical billing business, was gratified to find a healthy Cuban sandwich and diced fruit cup made with care from fresh, local ingredients for only $5.
In the cramped kitchen, a jail inmate in an orange T-shirt was happy to be out on work release, even as he scrubbed a metal kettle that once held chili.
And whirling around it all was Robert Burns, a formerly homeless drifter who has found stability and a sense of purpose by volunteering at Fork Real Cafe, where he gets a good meal and positive encouragement in exchange for doing whatever chores need doing.
“It’s a family atmosphere here, it truly is,” Burns said.
Burns, now sober and living with a friend, credits his turnaround to Rhonda Pearcy, the founder of Fork Real Café who believes that healthy food, conversation, respect, open-mindedness, spirituality and creating strong relationships are all elements of building a positive community.
“She’s just a person who cares, and she shows it every day,” Burns said of Pearcy.
Pearcy conceived of Fork Real Cafe in 2016 after retiring from teaching and seeking a unique way to make things better in Rapid City, a tourism town of 75,000 people in western South Dakota. After years of volunteering at her church and the local homeless mission, Pearcy heard of a “pay-what-you-can” style café in Florida and decided to visit in 2016.
Pearcy returned to South Dakota on a mission to combine her gift of cooking tasty, healthy foods with her desire to provide a safe place where anyone with the desire to do good or better themselves could get a meal, learn a trade and be treated with dignity along the way.
In June 2017, Fork Real Café obtained non-profit status, developed a local board of directors and opened to customers. Pearcy runs the café based in part on guidelines of the organization One World Everybody Eats, a national group that supports more than 60 “pay-what-you-can” eateries. Pearcy is aided in ways both big and small at Fork Real Café by her husband of 29 years, David Pearcy, who is secretary of the board that governs the organization.
“When she said, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this, I’m going to open a community café,’ at first I just went along for the ride,” said David Pearcy, who works full time as an air-traffic controller at the local airport. “But now, it’s a calling.”
Meal values, not prices, are listed next to sample lunch plates set on the front counter. Each meal includes a main dish and healthy side item valued at $5 for a small plate and $10 for a large. Soups and salads are valued at $3 and $5.
Patrons are discreetly asked about payment. About 60 percent of customers pay the full value of the meal, 20 percent agree to volunteer in exchange for the meal, and the other 20 percent pay it forward by donating money for another diner’s meal. Individuals or groups that want to buy a meal for a stranger can purchase tokens that recipients can use anytime for a fresh, hot meal.
Whenever possible, the Pearcys buy food from local providers, including from a community garden and some farmer’s markets.
The grant from USA Today/Gannett will allow Fork Real Café to potentially operate for more than the four days a week it is now open for lunch. Most importantly, however, the grant will enable Fork Real Café to find a larger location that better suits its needs.
The café now rents a small seating area and kitchen space from a church that occupies the basement of a restored creamery in downtown Rapid City. The basement site provides little opportunity for signage and does not have an elevator. In late June, just weeks after the USA Today/Gannett grant was announced, the Pearcys were already close to securing a new location with increased visibility, improved accessibility and greater exposure to the community.
“This grant is allowing us to pursue a location at street level that enables us to reach more people who need us,” Rhonda Pearcy said. “You can’t do this very well from a basement.”
In Rapid City, the word is out that Fork Real Café is a place worth supporting. David Pearcy shared a tale from the fall of 2017 when he got a call from organizers of the Lemon Street Gardens community grow space saying they had surplus tomatoes to donate. Pearcy expected someone would drop by with a few buckets of tomatoes.
“They showed up with five wheelbarrows full of tomatoes,” David Pearcy said with a laugh.
Some of the vegetables were quickly turned into tomato sauce but many were packaged up and frozen for later use. “It was crazy, but a good crazy,” he said.
The communal spirit of Fork Real Café was on full display on a recent Friday afternoon.
After eating sandwiches and paying nothing, Fork Real Café volunteer Dennis Cassity, 54, and Sara Red Bear, 36, stepped outside for some air. Red Bear, who is homeless, called the café “a beautiful, beautiful place” and said that in exchange for her meal she planned to show up later and scrub the stairwell.
Red Bear never returned to Fork Real Café that day. But later on, Cassity – who credits the Pearcys with helping him stay on a healthy path — came back, sat for a spell with a glass of cold water, then cleaned the stairs on Red Bear’s behalf.
The episode was just part a typical day at Fork Real Café. “We don’t turn away anybody who is hungry in any situation,” Rhonda Pearcy said.
Winning the A Community Thrives grant has provided a level of support and stability that the Pearcys hope will allow them to not only sustain but broaden their reach into the local community. “Having our own space will provide more opportunities for people to gather over nutritious meals with access to all,” Rhonda Pearcy said. “More space, more time, more opportunities to make a difference in our community.”