Sign up for our Newsletter

Open Close

L.I.’s first pay-what-you-can café envisioned for Patchogue

Grace Café opened last month in Danville, Ky.

Picture a café in Patchogue where lawyers and nurses dine together with the chronically unemployed, or under-employed.

There, they all enjoy nutritious, freshly made food — and maybe share some perspectives on life.

Some diners pay full fare. Some pay more for the meals than asked. Others just give a few dollars, or nothing at all — instead paying for their meal through volunteer work that helps keep the café operating.

This scene has played out in Rosemarie McCarthy’s head every day for the past three years.

“A lot of people run these community cafés, and they’ve proven to be sustainable,” McCarthy said. “They just haven’t really caught on here on the East Coast. It’s a community project, basically, and this would be the first one on Long Island. We have a big, diverse population in Patchogue so I think this would definitely get support.”

Earlier this year, McCarthy, of Patchogue, established Harmony Café, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. She was meeting Friday in Patchogue with a finance lawyer who flew to New York from Hong Kong to get involved with the project.

“I have a nutritional background, in healthcare, and I’m a practicing lawyer and I wanted to contribute to the community somehow,” said Sandy Yeung, who had just arrived to town off a red-eye from California. “We don’t have community cafés in Hong Kong so I was very captivated by that concept.”

She hopes to use what she learns in Patchogue to open a similar operation in China.

McCarthy’s vision for Harmony Café was inspired by the One World Everybody Eats organization, which was originally based in Salt Lake City and helps set up cafés across the U.S.

And she’s quick to mention that community cafés are nothing like soup kitchens.

“The motto is ‘A hand up, not a hand out,'” she said. “A soup kitchen is more or less an emergency situation. The café is part of a permanent solution, especially for Suffolk’s huge population of working poor. The success is based on the volunteers and the patrons.”

Since the food comes largely from donations, and the place is staffed by volunteers, all the revenues generated from the meals can go toward keeping the place operating. There are other potential revenue streams as well, such as local chefs donating their time for cooking classes.

“It becomes a sort of community center,” said McCarthy, who’s so far spent most of her time researching the concept.

McCarthy said the notion that any such eatery would be plagued with people that have substance abuse or mental illnesses is misguided. That just doesn’t happen at the established locations, she said.

“These cafés are all over the country and people must look at them as regular cafés,” she said. “It will be a community café and people have to respect the rules or they will have to leave. What does any other café do with people like that?”

She’s modeling Harmony Café most closely after Grace Café, which just opened last month in Danville, Ky.

At the heart of the mission is allowing people with lesser means access to healthier food, which tends to be pricier and more time consuming to prepare than cheaper, processed foods, said McCarthy, who’s not a nutritionist but a paralegal who spent seven years in the pharmaceutical industry.

She says she’s just passionate about food, especially the idea that how what people eat can greatly affect their lives in a positive or negative way.

Now that she’s formed her non-profit group, McCarthy needs volunteer help to push the concept along.

She pictures a closed restaurant space in the Patchogue area as the ideal location.

“We have a big, diverse population around here so I think this community would definitely support it,” she said. “It’s a community project, basically, and it would be the first one on Long Island. It would be good because Patchogue does a lot of things first, which the rest of the towns on Long Island then model themselves after.”

Anyone looking to get involved should visit the Harmony Café website.

mike@greaterpatchogue.com

Courtesy photos are of Grace Café in Kentucky.

About the author: Michael White

Michael White is a Bellport resident, longtime newspaper reporter and editor, and the owner of greaterpatchogue.com. Email him your story ideas or tips: mike@greaterpatchogue.com