By Sarah Colson
When Jan Orchard started One Acre Café in Johnson City in early 2012, she had one goal in mind: to “nourish the body, replenish the spirit, and grow the community so that all might be fed.” That mission to feed the hungry, Orchard said, has led the café down a road that’s much broader than culinary arts.
“Everyone told us that our café would take on a life of its own,” she said, “that our community would dictate what we needed. And that’s what’s happened.”
The café, which operates as a “pay-as-you-can” non-profit, has now expanded its reach beyond the stomachs of its customers and evolved into what Orchard calls a “teaching lab.” One Acre Café kicked off a co-op program in 2014 and now has received enough funds through grants and anonymous donations to add another. Both co-ops work five hours a day, five days a week, and learn all of the work of running a restaurant. The goal, Orchard said, is to help the individual learn practical skills to better prepare them for work in the food service industry once the three-month co-op is completed.
Orchard’s goal of maintaining the café’s “teaching lab” involves partnering with a classroom at East Tennessee State University to create a nutritious menu for guests as well as an ETSU student working on his marketing skills to create a marketing video to “continue telling the story of the café’s mission,” Orchard said.
In addition to expanding its co-op program and partnering with ETSU, One Acre has now also partnered with the Science Hill High School Employability and Transition Initiative which works with the school’s Alternative Learning Center (ALC) to educate nearly 25 at-risk students weekly on job skills within the food industry.
“There’s more than one way to feed people,” Orchard said. “There’s encouragement, support, skills, validating them by making them believe in what they can do.”
Kaleb Wright, a junior at the ALC was busing tables last Thursday. He’s done any and all work to be done serving at the café.
“It gives me work experience,” Wright said. “They gave me a letter of recommendation that helped me get a job.”
Danielle Walker, also a junior, has worked there since August and is training her classmate, Courtney Sparks who worked filling drinks for her first shift last Thursday.
“I think it’s really cool,” Walker said. “I like helping other people, because I know some of them can’t afford meals.”
Niki Giles, as One Acre’s Café manager, spends a lot of time with the students from ALC, corralling and managing when necessary, but always with her mind set on the goal: to get these kids ready for life after high school, whether that’s more school or in the workforce.
“A lot of these kids have just kind of got a bad ‘rep’, Giles said, “and don’t have the right coaching. The café is a safe haven of learning for them so they can come in and feel like they’re not different and feel like they’re a part of the community and that they’re worthy of being a part of the community.”
Sherri Cooper leads the Science Hill High School Employability and Transition Initiative and has plans for the alternative center’s garden, which has supplied fresh vegetables to the café since last year.
Now, they’ve planted a smaller garden on site at the café and plan to expand it this year. Thursday, students were helping her plant spring herbs and reseed lettuce, which they do every 12 weeks to ensure a steady supply. She hopes the larger plot will encourage more volunteers to get involved in the gardening process.
“It gives the students real life job experience,” Cooper said of the partnership between One Acre and the alternative learning center. “It gives them community networks that they can utilize whenever they’re doing their resumes and their cover letters. But mostly, the job experience is important because most of the time you don’t get a job because you don’t have enough job experience.”
Giles said that giving high school students a work environment that’s positive and in the “real world” can teach them what they can never learn in a classroom.
“It’s a lot of reiterating that this is for the community,” Giles said of the message she reinforces every Thursday, “and we’re doing this because people struggle and we don’t want you (the student) to be one of the people who struggle. We want to teach you to be kind to those who do and how not to land yourself in that position one day; but if you do, we’re here for you and we’re here for people like that. It’s a beautiful thing.”
This program, Giles said, isn’t just about coaching students. “It’s all about coaching,” she said, “and it’s even about coaching your customer, you know to say ‘hey, Science Hill’s helping us out today and all these kids are volunteers and we’re trying to help them become functioning members of society. We appreciate your patience and understanding today and show them what it’s like to have a customer.’ It’s coaching on every level, even to the customers.
“They (the customers) love it; they see it as a really good thing. Truly, deep down inside, I think everybody wants everybody to succeed. I think when people see you trying to succeed it is a good feeling for them. It says something about One Acre that we are helping kids try to succeed and I think that’s why it makes a lot of people want to come back. We will help you be successful if you want to be.”
Joseph Morgan is one of the co-op participants this year. He volunteered at the café for about a month before becoming a co-op participant through the café’s partnership with Family Promise of Greater Johnson City.
“I love it,” he said of his time with the café. “The people are friendly; the food’s good. The customers are always friendly, they always seem happy – it’s just a great environment to be in. It’s definitely teaching me a lot about professionalism, how to run a business, how to operate a restaurant.”
Morgan hopes to take the experience he’s had waiting tables and learning about the inner workings of a business to start a career in welding or auto technology.
In 2017, Orchard said she has even higher hopes for accomplishing the mission of feeding the hungry by maintaining the co-ops and ensuring the café’s sustainability. What that looks like specifically, Orchard said, is still being developed.
“What we’re doing all sort of tiers into workforce development,” Orchard said, “to give people the courage to go back out into the world regardless of what has happened to them and try to design a life for themselves… I think we’re becoming everything that we dreamed about and I think it’s really interesting how it all fits in with our initial mission statement. We’re staying focused on that.”