Editor’s note: This is one of an occasional series of pieces about grassroots leaders in Milwaukee.
The Rev. Christie Melby-Gibbons, executive director at Tricklebee Café, received a package in the mail from her parents recently. Inside she found plastic food and order tickets saved from her childhood.
“It sort of hit me. Twenty-five years ago I was already starting my own little restaurant and it had a benevolent side to it,” said Melby-Gibbons, an ordained pastor of the Moravian Church.
Tricklebee Café, at 4424 W North Ave, is a member of One World Everybody Eats (OWEE), a nationwide network of cafés with a pay-what-you-can business model. The café has suggested prices between $5 to $7, but the model allows customers to set their own price for their meals. Customers who can pay more are able to offset the price for customers who cannot afford to pay for their meal.
While living in Los Angeles, Melby-Gibbons’ religion inspired her to collect newly expired food from grocery stores to feed the hungry. She successfully filled her local church with food to give away, followed by a shared community meal. Eventually she decided that she wanted to continue to feed the hungry, but on a larger scale through a restaurant. After conducting research, she discovered One World Everybody Eats.
Melby-Gibbons investigated a few different cities before deciding to open the café in Sherman Park. She believed that the neighborhood would benefit from a pay-as-you-can café because there were no other nearby food providers offering healthy food.
“Within a mile radius of the café, there are no grocery stores that are serving healthy options,” said Melby-Gibbons.
According to One World Everybody Eats, food insecurity — reliable access to affordable, nutritious food — affects 17 million households in the United States. There are more than 60 pay-what-you-can cafés operating in the U.S.
Tricklebee Café receives most of its produce from local farms, either through a plot at Alice’s Garden or through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) from a local farm. The café has also experienced the generosity of neighborhood farmers who often donate extra produce. Many community members have told Melby-Gibbons that they had desperately wanted a healthy place to eat for years.
But food is not the only thing that Tricklebee serves up. Melby-Gibbons also hopes to nourish the psyche of the community. Sherman Park made news headlines across the country after a police officer fatally shot a young black man in August 2016. Melby-Gibbons said the café is a peaceful gathering place for all in the community.
Tricklebee Café will celebrate its one-year anniversary on Nov. 23.
“I have all sorts of plans for the café,” said Melby-Gibbons. In the next year, she hopes to expand hours and occasionally serve breakfast, with the help of donations and grants.
She also would like to get entrepreneurs together in one spot in the neighborhood through a maker’s market. She pointed to a closed Walgreens across the street as a possible location for the market, which would help locals start their own businesses.
Looking back on her life, Melby-Gibbons, 34, said that she feels very fulfilled by nourishing communities through food.
“I am surprised I ended where I am because as a kid I grew up in a religious setting that taught that women are ‘lesser than’ and should not be in leadership roles,” said Melby-Gibbons.
“Eventually I grew away from that and discovered that I had a sense of call to ministry so I went down the track of being ordained in the Moravian church,” she added. “I also got this other deep sort of awakening to do this feeding stuff.”
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