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Region's First 'Pay What You Can' Cafe Aims To Inspire Community Revitalization

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
The Knead Community Cafe, along Barnes Street in New Kensington, Pa., will offer meals at whatever price customers can afford. It will be run by two full-time employees and many volunteer staffers.

The region’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant is expected to open in January in New Kensington.Knead Community Café is modeled after similar facilities around the country that offer meals in exchange for donations or volunteer time.

Mary and Kevin Bode, cofounders of the café, said they wanted to renovate the $64,000 building with the hopes that it would spur revitalization in the city’s downtown.

“Our main mission is to create community and bring community back,” Mary Bode said. “We’re bringing and blending people together and that’s how we feel that we help maybe a hurting town, a community, everything.”

Credit Kevin and Mary Bode / Knead Community Cafe
Knead Community Cafe
The blueprint for the cafe shows the inside eating area with the "big farm table" at the center as well as the community conference room and outdoor patio space.

If all goes to plan, when visitors enter the building, they’ll encounter a menu of sandwiches, soups and salads. Customers can place their orders and will be served by whichever volunteers are staffing that day. He emphasized that the café was not a cafeteria, food pantry or shelter, but somewhere anyone could feel comfortable, regardless of their socioeconomic situation.

“You place an order, you sit down, you’re served your meal,” he said. “One of the big things we try to do is we want people to be treated with dignity and respect.”

If guests are unable to pay the menu’s suggested price, they can pay whatever they can or offer to volunteer at the café. Mary Bode said if someone pays more than the listed price, the funds will be “paid forward.”

At the center of the dining room will be what the Bodes described as a “big farm table.”

“So the concept is if you come in by yourself and you don’t have a guest you’re with, you sit down with someone you may not know and share a meal together,” he said.

Vacant buildings surround Knead Community Café, which is located along Barnes Street in the former Sons of Italy facility. Bode said with a few updates, he could have kept the building as it was and opened almost immediately, but their investment in the space and presence of new construction was important.

We really need more things like this. We need people to actually invest in the community and make the place look new again. - Kevin Bode, co-founder of Knead Community Cafe

“We could have opened the doors and started operating, but we wanted to make a statement,” he said. “We really think this is something that’s going to draw people into New Kensington and really spur development.”

In the past 40 years, New Kensington’s population dropped by nearly 8,000 residents. Once home to Alcoa, the city lost a number of businesses as manufacturing left. According to the New Kensington Redevelopment Authority, 175 structures in disrepair have been demolished in the past nine years.

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
When Mary and Kevin Bode were looking for a building for their cafe, they said the Pillsbury's Best ghost sign aligned with their already-chosen Knead Community Cafe name.

“We really need more things like this; we need people to actually invest in the community and make the place look new again,” Bode said.  

The Knead site was strategic in a way, according to his wife. Because they’re so close to Westmoreland Community College and Penn State New Kensington, the pair expect the space will be frequented by students and professors, in addition to community members.

Bode said she also hopes to hire two full-time, salaried employees: one chef and one café manager.

“We’ll pay them a living wage,” she said. “That’s really important to us, that we are giving them a wage where they can sustain themselves and their families.”

A community conference room will be available for any local organization in need of a meeting space, and display windows from when the site was a fish market will be un-cemented and re-opened.

This, he said, will showcase the building and hopefully attract other businesses to the Fourth and Fifth Avenue corridor.

When the weather is warmer, Mrs. Bode said she plans to open the outdoor patio to families for activities and regular movie nights. She said she'd also like to eventually start a service industry job training program.

The couple said they hope to find sponsors and donations to help offset construction costs.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA and 91.3 WYEP, where she writes, edits and generates both web and on-air content for features and daily broadcast. She's the producer and host of our Good Question! series and podcast. She also covers history and the LGBTQ community.