New restaurant wants to feed souls. You decide what to pay

Pay what you can afford at the new Taste Community Restaurant

Chef Jeff Williams and his Taste Project, a nonprofit, has an ambitious goal: a pay-what-you-can dining concept that helps the hungry while offering food that's the equal of its neighbors' in Fort Worth's Near Southside. Taste Community Restaurant
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Chef Jeff Williams and his Taste Project, a nonprofit, has an ambitious goal: a pay-what-you-can dining concept that helps the hungry while offering food that's the equal of its neighbors' in Fort Worth's Near Southside. Taste Community Restaurant

Located on South Main Street between Rosedale Street and Magnolia Avenue, Taste Community Restaurant shares details with other Near Southside eateries: exposed brick and ductwork, an open kitchen, a concrete floor that provides a boisterous acoustic effect, T-shirts with fun slogans on them.

During a soft-opening service, executive chef/co-owner Jeff Williams and his wife, Julie, work the room — when he isn’t in the kitchen and she isn’t acting as a server, answering questions for curious diners.

And there will be questions, because Taste is a nonprofit, pay-what-you-can restaurant.

That’s with a menu that wouldn’t be out of place at such nearby for-profits as Ellerbe Fine Foods or Fixture Kitchen and Social Lounge: Southern shrimp and grits, cornbread-stuffed quail, fried rabbit, a burger and an apple-bacon sandwich.

A butternut-squash risotto available at the soft opening was bright and brothy with a hint of pepper and a dose of Pecorino Romano cheese, topped with fried sage leaves. A kale salad appetizer had a bold citrus vinaigrette, pecans, cashews, dried cherries and ricotta salata cheese.

Those dishes might cost in the teens or more at some local restaurants. At Taste, if you can pay what you would for that meal at a Magnolia strip dining spot, then by all means do so. But if you can only pay a little of it, or if you can’t pay but you can volunteer to do some work there in exchange for a meal, that’s OK, too.

“If you’re in the position of ‘Hey, I lost my job, I don’t know how to put food on the table for my two kids,’ one of the hardest things to do is to walk into a soup kitchen because of the stigma sort of around it,” Jeff Williams says in an earlier interview. “Hopefully, when someone’s in that situation, they can say, ‘Oh, my gosh. Taste Project is great. I’ve been there before, and I’ve paid for a meal. But I know that I can go in there and get a little help on a meal and not feel bad about myself.’ ”

The restaurant, part of the larger Taste Project nonprofit, officially opens Dec. 5. It will be the latest step on a journey that began more than a decade ago.

Answering a call from God

According to his biography on the Taste Project website, Jeff Williams grew up in a family of four. Money was tight, and his parents sometimes struggled to put food on the table, even skipping meals to feed their kids.

Williams, who has a passion for food, began working in the restaurant industry, doing pretty much every job there is. But a little more than a decade ago, he got out of the biz to open an IT company and make a little money. As so often happens, the restaurant biz called him back. Or a higher power did.

“It was shortly after I got married in 2003 that I felt like God gave me a vision that I would feed people,” Williams says. “I originally thought that that was, ‘Hey, I’ll open up a restaurant.’ Because ever since I’d left the industry, I always still really loved the restaurant industry and wanted to eventually go back.”

But Williams felt like God was working on him and giving him an idea of what the restaurant would be like. He retained the memory of his parents needing food assistance — and how sometimes that’s only temporary.

“That’s where the concept came from, a restaurant with no prices on the menu that was geared toward feeding the marginalized,” Williams says. “I was living in California. I think at the time Denise Cerreta had opened up her [One World Cafe] restaurant. But it was in Utah and nobody knew about it.”

Williams tried launching the pay-what-you-can concept in Southern California, but it never got any legs. Nobody understood the idea. Then, 12 years ago, the Williamses moved to North Texas. At first, he was reluctant to bring up the idea.

“I didn’t talk about it much, because it was kind of a bad experience in California talking about it,” he says. “[But] something was just weighing on me, telling me that it was time to do it, to start it here. I had a couple of brief conversations with close friends and people I respected business-wise. ... It was a different response than I got in California, so in 2012 we incorporated and started fundraising. We raised just shy of $90,000 at our first fundraising event, in October 2012.”

Originally, he planned to open in far north Fort Worth, but he was unable to secure the lease on the building. That began the search that led them to the Near Southside.

“We found the area, and we loved the area, and found an organization called Near Southside Inc.,” Williams says. “We sat down with them and they were very excited about the project. They gave a list of landlords and building spaces that they felt would work. That’s how we found this space.”

Almost anyone who has tried to open a restaurant in Fort Worth can tell you that target dates are notoriously hard to hit. Taste’s target date was November 2016. The lease was signed in late 2015. Then it took 10 months just to get a building permit. Construction didn’t start till 2017, and then there were problems with wiring and such. The target date was moved to the spring, then to August, and then to December.

“You’re so stressed out but you’re also so happy that this process is done and you’re open and ready to serve the community,” Williams says of the finished product. “I feel super-blessed that I’m able to be a part of it. It’s amazing all the people that you meet in the process.”

Recipes for change

Taste is not the first pay-what-you-can restaurant in Dallas-Fort Worth, nor is it the first to rely on a mix of staff and volunteers among the kitchen and serving staffs. But the concept is still pretty unusual, not just here but nationwide.

Potager Cafe in Arlington spent seven years as a pay-what-you-can restaurant before closing in October 2015 — not because the idea failed, but because the building was in such bad shape that it was no longer safe to dine there, according to a post on spinoff coffee shop Potager Cafe’s Other Stuff’s website.

Fort Worth’s Z’s Cafe has a partnership with the nonprofit Samaritan House, with residents of the house learning food and service skills to help them get back into the workforce. Brewed, the Magnolia Avenue coffee bar/gastropub, worked with Texas Workforce’s Next Step program, employing people who had been in prison or homeless. Brewed co-owner Joey Turner says that the grant ran out with Next Step, so now Brewed partners with The NET, a Fort Worth-based organization that develops support networks for people in poverty, and with Volunteer America. In Dallas, Cafe Momentum employs at-risk youths who have spent time in jail, putting them through a 12-month internship where they learn several duties at the restaurant.

“There are a handful of [similar] restaurants across the U.S.,” Williams says. “They serve about 1.3 million meals a year. This year we were recognized by the James Beard Foundation. Basically all the restaurants got the James Beard Humanitarian Award.”

A big part of the idea behind Taste Project and similar restaurants is to raise awareness of “food insecurity,” a term Williams uses to describe the feeling of not knowing where your next meal is coming from.

“The food-insecure aren’t necessarily the homeless or the permanently poverty-stricken,” he says. “. . . Ninety percent of the food-insecure population are people who have degrees and/or have a job and just need temporary help for a small period of time.”

How it works

Taste Project’s restaurant works like most dine-in restaurants: a host or hostess seats you, a server takes your order and later brings your food, busers clean tables, staff refill your water and tea glasses. Where the difference comes is at the end of the meal.

“You’ll still get a receipt,” Williams says. “The receipt won’t have any price on it at all. It will just be a line item of what you ordered. There’ll be a donation line. So the idea is, a person could either put a dollar amount on the donation line, pay what they would normally pay whenever they go out, or just pay what they can afford. If you can’t afford anything, you’re totally free to leave it blank.” There is no tip line; that’s part of the donation for those who can afford to pay.

For those who can’t afford to pay, Williams hopes that they’ll donate some of their time. “We’re trying to figure out a way that we can put on that receipt some sort of a way.”

The restaurant’s website has sections on how to volunteer (volunteers and other supporters are called Taste Buds), and how to make donations other than just paying for your meal. The restaurant also offers meal tokens for $20. At first, the restaurant will only be open for lunch, but there are plans to add a dinner service and possibly breakfast.

Even in an area that understands the concept, Williams says, it hasn’t been easy to get online donations.

“When you’re doing something that is different, it’s not as easy for people to get on board. The idea of a soup kitchen is not new. So if you approach a church and say, ‘I want to use your facility for a soup kitchen,’ they sort of understand that. ... But when you’re approaching businesses and approaching people and saying, ‘I need $500,000 to open up a restaurant on the Near Southside that stands to make zero money but will be sustained, but we’re gonna give away some 20 percent of our food’ — yeah, it’s just completely different.”

The goal, he says, is for the restaurant to be self-sustaining in five years — and for possible additional locations. But things are starting simply with the lunch-only service and a small but intriguing menu that Williams says will change seasonally. He adds that he’s going to try to always have at least one vegetarian and one gluten-free item on the menu.

“We have to keep up with Magnolia and all the restaurants there, because we have to drive people in here who will give money for their meal,” Williams says. He hopes that those people will donate online — and anything helps.

“For the first couple of years, we do need to get $10,000 in monthly donations,” he says. “And we’re not there yet. Monthly donations is probably where we’re hurting the most. ... The truth of the matter is, if you commit to donating $20 a month, $10 a month, $5 a month, we’ll get there.”

Taste Community Restaurant

Opens Dec. 5

1200 S. Main St., Fort Worth

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (closed on Mondays).