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'Pay What You Can' Restaurant Acts As Catalyst For Downtown New Kensington

When entering Knead Community Café in New Kensington, Pa., guests are greeted by a host at the door.
He or she asks: “Have you dined with us before?”
The restaurant’s unique payment model is explained: visitors can pay the suggested price after they place their order at the front counter, or they can pay whatever amount fits their budget. If someone is unable to pay, Knead’s management asks that they volunteer later by sweeping, bussing or serving food. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A group from the nearby RIDC Industrial Park business complex frequent Knead Community Cafe for lunch, according to cofounder Mary Bode.

It’s been nearly a year since Knead opened its doors on Barnes Street in downtown New Kensington, about 20 miles northeast of Pittsburgh. Co-founder Mary Bode said the café is fulfilling its mission of reaching people struggling financially without stigmatizing the charity.

The cafe welcomes a steady stream of volunteers, Bode said, and has been designated as a site for people to complete community service hours.

“You just don’t notice that there is a division between people when you’re all working at the same common good,” she said.


Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Mary and Kevin Bode say they were inspired to open Knead Community Cafe after visiting restaurants around the world that served meals in exchange for donations or volunteering. The cafe officially opened on Feb. 25, 2017.

Knead partnered with Penn State New Kensington, which she said has helped them secure grant funding. The college also offers a class where students develop projects to help the restaurant.

Kevin Bode, Mary's husband and business partner, said local grocery stores and farms donate excess food to the restaurant. It’s not quite enough to sustain the kitchen, he said, but more and more, organizations are calling and offering to give.

“It really comes from all different places,” Bode said. “So our cook has really got to come up with a menu [for] whatever we get in that day.”

Recently, Knead and Penn State, along with the city of New Kensington, have put grant money toward improving storefronts along Fifth Avenue. The beautification project aligns with Knead’s mission to help revitalize the community, which is struggling with a declining population and large number of blighted buildings.

Before the Bodes purchased Knead, its windows, like many of the buildings on the street, were boarded up and its exterior was falling into disrepair. 

”A lot of people have credited us with making a spark, being a catalyst to get things going,” Bode said.

New Kensington was once the home of the Alcoa Research Laboratory, and has been called “the city that Alcoa built.” Nearly 25 percent of the city once worked for Alcoa, until they outgrew their facility and moved to nearby Upper Burrell.

Bode said places like Knead and the other neighborhood betterment projects are making a tangible difference.

“People really recognize the value of a community space,” she said.

She said Gov. Tom Wolf stopped by recently to see the Knead model. 

Credit Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
The exterior of Knead Community Cafe on Barnes Street in New Kensington, Pa. on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. The cafe used to be the Sons of Italy building and includes a banquet hall, which Knead co-founders Kevin and Mary Bode say they're going to renovate in the next few years.

Still, running a pay-what-you-can restaurant hasn’t been a flawless process, its owners said. After figuring out building codes and dealing with construction issues, the café still needs to fundraise for about 30 percent of its budget. Mary Bode estimates that amount reflects the percentage of customers who dine at Knead and cannot pay the suggested price.

She said overall, however, the community has been eager to help. 

“We’ve been very blessed,” she said.

In their next year, the Bodes said they’d like to landscape the enclosed courtyard near the café’s entrance and eventually hold yoga classes or show movies there when it’s warm.

Katie Blackley is a digital editor/producer for 90.5 WESA, 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. kblackley@wesa.fm