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Food Rescue: Ursula’s Café Cooks Up Community Stewardship

The sign above Ursula Café’s front door boldly states, “Where Everybody Eats.” This motto isn’t an idle claim but a statement that reflects the restaurant’s “donate-what-you-can” mission. 

Located in Roanoke, Virginia, Ursula Café is the brainchild of Ami Trowell and her husband Jordan Fallon. During the pandemic, the couple was wondering how to use a storefront space in downtown Roanoke that could contribute to their community in a fundamental way. Aware of the COVID-19-accelerated rise of food insecurity and inspired by the One World Everybody Eats movement, they decided “to create a space where payment wasn’t going to be a barrier to coming in and being able to enjoy and eat,” as Trowell explained to The Business Download. 

As the term “donate-what-you-can” suggests, the concept behind Ursula’s Café is that there is a suggested donation price for the various food items.

Some patrons wind up paying the full price or even more than what’s suggested, while others pay less or nothing at all. Trowell says that the shop also receives pay-it-forward donations from people who aren’t able to visit the café. 

Because Trowell and Fallon work as teachers, Ursula’s is only open a couple of days a week —

currently, Wednesday–Friday, but check its website for up-to-date information. The café, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, is entirely staffed by volunteers. By keeping operating costs down, they can focus their resources in ways that benefit the community.  

Photo Courtesy Ursula’s Café 

Trowell and Fallon had worked in restaurants before, and their experiences influenced how they wanted to operate Ursula’s. One of their objectives was to avoid generating the excessive food waste that eateries traditionally have. Trowell, who freely credits her husband as the one who does all the cooking, says that the café’s important challenge is finding ways to serve high-quality food while creating the least amount of waste.   

Ursula’s Café, which opened in August 2022, maintains a small menu geared toward seasonal ingredients as an approach to maximize their food resources. The restaurant regularly serves a gluten-free, vegan three-bean chili and a second soup that reflects the seasons. 

Typically, the menu also offers an organic salad and a sandwich or two, along with homemade sweets and other specialties, such as pimento cheese. Fallon and Trowell utilize locally sourced food, and they also work with an area farmer, who keeps them up to date with what produce is available. 

Photo Courtesy Ursula’s Café 

Naturally, coffee and tea are café mainstays, and Ursula’s uses a local roaster to satisfy its java needs. Quality coffee, particularly with their pay-what-can format, was a high priority for the couple when they were devising the menu. 

“You don’t consider the weight for somebody to be able to have something that was really comforting and delicious,” Trowell said while talking about the importance of quality coffee.

She shared a story about a long-time regular who always compliments them on how wonderful it is that he can get a great cup of coffee in such a relaxed, welcoming place. 

A fundamental purpose for Ursula’s Café is to be a welcoming place where all community members — whether they live on the street, in some type of transitional housing, or in traditional housing — can commingle together. This philosophy is perhaps best symbolized by the big, old farmhouse-style table that sits eight-to-10 people — and formally was Trowell and Fallon’s dining-room table — in the restaurant’s main room. 

“This space gives you a different opportunity to be able to sit together,” Trowell stated. “Highlighting our common humanity is a really important piece of what we’re hoping to do.”

Photo Courtesy Ursula’s Café 

Creating this sense of community extends beyond food and drink at Ursula’s. Its “pay-what-you-can” approach also incorporates a selection of used books, games, and clothes, as well as provides board games to play. 

Even more significantly, Ursula’s also functions as a community arts center, presenting an eclectic lineup of events that includes ongoing stand-up comedy nights.

Trowell, who comes from a theater background, admitted that she wasn’t sure how well stand-up would do at Ursula’s. 

However, she discovered that people found it and the arts center’s “donate-what-you-can” live programming to be an invaluable opportunity for an audience that is often overlooked or, even worse, shunned. As Trowell described it: “To feel so welcomed into a space where often you were pushed out of, or you don’t go into it all because you don’t know if you’re not going to be welcome.”

With the new year comes plans to find more ways to feed the body and the soul of its patrons. An art workshop, dance lessons, and improv classes are among the café’s activity plans. Trowell would like to have Ursula’s open for more of the week; however, she and her husband have purposely tried to stay realistic with their expectations. “We just want to do the best that we can for as long as possible,” she said.

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