One Acre Café serving up fine food and a dose of dignity, regardless of ability to pay

Tri-Cities Original

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Restaurants that serve delicious food with great service are gems to be treasured.

Restaurants that serve delicious food with great service and also don’t require their customers to pay for that food and service?

Not happening.

But it is, in fact, happening in Johnson City, Tennessee at the One Acre Café at 603 W. Walnut Street.

Since 2013, customers have gathered for lunch in the cafe’s bright and cheerful dining hall to feast on delicious meals handcrafted by chefs without the threat of a check to pay and without the expectation of a tip for the server.

At the One Acre Café, everyone eats no matter what. All that’s asked is that you pay what you can and if you can.

“Everyone contributes something,” said Michelle Watts, One Acre Café executive director. “So if you cannot afford to pay for your meal, you can volunteer. You can donate produce. You can donate eggs.”

“No one is getting a free meal. You come in and help us clean the table was a few dishes,” she said.

The unconventional model is at the heart of the non-profit charitable organization that looks and feels like a for-profit restaurant. That’s on purpose because the hope is that guests will feel special – even if they’ve fallen on hard times.

“We provide food with dignity,” said Ashley Cavender, volunteer coordinator. “When people come and sit down you’re provided an atmosphere of nourishment in every sense of the word.”

That’s the way founder Jan Orchard and her team meant for it to be when they began working on the idea in 2012. They partnered with the organization “One World Everybody Eats” and began renovating a dilapidated nightclub between downtown Johnson City and the East Tennessee State University campus.

Over time, the concept caught on. Before the pandemic, as many as 75 diners would eat at the café daily paying what they could and if they could.

Last May, the pandemic forced the shift to carry-out only. And it unleashed a flood of need that continues to this day.

“It’s actually right in front of our faces,” Cavender said referencing “food insecurity”, a problem she says exists throughout the community, not just a month the homeless population. “It’s comes to making a decision. Do I pay my rent and have a roof over my head, or do I eat today?”

“We at One Acre Café are able to make that decision easier,” she said.

As many as 200 meals a day were served since the pandemic started. From March 2020 to December 2020, One Acre Cafe’ served about 25,000 meals. Of those, 94% were given away with no money in return.

“We just feel like everyone in the community should be responsible for each other,” said Michelle Watts. “And so by doing that, we’re all able to sustain ourselves if everyone contributes something.

Head Chef Holly Ragler curates the menu daily creating delicacies from donations.

“Sometimes I think that I’d love to make tomato basil soup,” she said. “So I say, ‘Ok God, it would awesome to have some basil walk through the door right now. And so many times, it’s just a few minutes before basil walks through the door.”

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She says her job allows her to witness a miracle every morning.

“I love, love, love that we’re surprised daily, that the community thinks of us daily,” Ragle said. “I love fixing fresh food and knowing it’s going to nourish the body.”

“We provide food with dignity,” said Cavender. ” And what that means is that, when people come sit down, they’re provided an atmosphere of nourishment in every sense of the word.”

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Born and raised in the Tri-Cities, Josh Smith has been a member of the WJHL team since 1999. His family roots go deep in the region, and he’s traveled through almost every part of it covering news on local TV since 1995. When he’s not on the job, he’s with his wife, two sons, and daughter.   “They’re the best part of me,” he said.   You may run into them biking on the Tweetsie Trail, hiking around Bays Mountain Lake, or browsing the shelves at the local public libraries.

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