The Mustard Seed Cafe feeds the hungry and demands little in return

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EL PASO—Since its grand opening in December of last year, the Mustard Seed Café near downtown has worked hard to keep its commitment to the El Paso community by assuring that “everyone eats.”

Founded by close friends Christi Brown, Patsy Burdick, and Shelley Speicher, the pay-what-you-can eatery is the only one of its kind in the Sun City. It allows patrons to enjoy nutritious entrées and side dishes for less than full price. Customers can also pay for meals by briefly volunteering their time in the kitchen or garden.

Founded by Christi Brown, Patsy Burdick, and Shelley Speicher, the pay-what-you-can eatery is the only one of its kind in El Paso. (Benjamin Woolridge/Borderzine.com)

Founded by Christi Brown, Patsy Burdick, and Shelley Speicher, the pay-what-you-can eatery is the only one of its kind in El Paso. (Benjamin Woolridge/Borderzine.com)

“We want to make this quality of food available to everybody in the community regardless of their ability to pay for it,” said Brown. The café is non-profit, which allows guests to pay well below the suggested price of $3 for a side dish to $10 per entree. The restaurant, which is open Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., has attracted an average of 350 customers per week since it opened.

Brown admits there is no “free food” at the Mustard Seed Café. She believes that it is “better to charge something, even just a little” because that honors the dignity of the customer.

Though the concept of the café is unique to this border city, feeding the needy is not. There are other organizations that both feed and provide shelter to those in need.

Mustard Seed Café how it works

There is no free food at Mustard Seed, but there are several options to pay or to help someone in need. (Benjamin Woolridge/Borderzine.com)Photo credit: Benjamin Woolridge

“We’re doing different things,” said Blake Barrow, director of the El Paso Rescue Mission. He notes that the Mission provides various assistance programs in addition to food and shelter to those in need.

The “Mustard Seed is reaching out to people who are not necessarily homeless”, Barrow said. He has also shared his years of non-profit experience with Brown and is a regular at the cafe.

At a glance, most customers sitting inside the converted gymnasium appear mismatched like the donated dishes the choice cuisine is served on. The need for a low cost meal does not seem readily apparent.

“The community has different faces,” said Chef Roman Wilcox said. He is responsible for the creation of health conscious food served at the café.

Wilcox said the less fortunate may feel uncomfortable with what may be perceived as charity. He does not expect patrons to dress the part. Even the very needy “still have that obligation in them to pay because it’s our culture,” he said.

The café helps to significantly lessen that burden, according to its organizers.

“How-it-works” chalkboards situated next to the entrance provide payment options in both Spanish and English. They are intended to educate guests on the culture of a community café.

“We want to support this endeavor,” said David Dodge, who stopped by for lunch to eat a salad. He and his wife are first time customers who feel that paying a little more helps those who cannot “have a good meal.”

Morgan Kyle, also a first time customer, donated an hour of his time to take advantage of the “green movement.” The El Paso resident said he decided to “come down do a little bit of work and eat some homemade natural food.”

Mustard Seed Cafe community garden

The cafe serves fresh vegetables from their community garden. (Benjamin Woolridge/Borderzine.com)Photo credit: Benjamin Woolridge

The meals are mainly comprised of healthy food options of freshly grown vegetables from seven of the café’s own raised garden beds next to the building at 1140 North St. Vrain. In the future, Wilcox hopes to add at least eight more vegetable beds for the café’s use.

Wilcox said there is also a possibility of planting a separate “community garden” by the First Christian Church next door. The intent of the community garden is to educate local residents with a “teach a man to fish” philosophy on growing and eating healthy foods.

This vision makes the Mustard Seed unique in its efforts to not only supply nutritious meals but also supply community members with knowledge about the nutritional value of food.

“We’ve been humbled and amazed at the success,” Brown said on a frenzied afternoon of assisting dozens of customers and directing 10 volunteers. “I know this was God’s idea from the very beginning.” It is an idea that began one day inside a lonely mother’s empty nest who wanted to reach out to a community in need. “The cafe was a way to bring people together.”

The idea that began inside of Brown’s home that day is now a reality. She and her friends saw a need in the El Paso community and are now feeding it. The community has responded in kind with donations, volunteers and regular customers.

For more information about the Mustard Seed Café you can visit their website at mustardseedcafe.org

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