Provision Community Restaurant invites you to 'Come as you are, give as you can'

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

Tucked into a cozy brick building off Lake Street in Minneapolis’s Whittier neighborhood you’ll find Provision Community Restaurant, the city’s only give-as-you-can restaurant. Its bright yellow front door is a cheery token of what’s inside: communal tables, delicious food, and the promise of community.

After years of working in restaurants and volunteering in soup kitchens and shelters, Provision founder and executive director Anna Wienke dreamed of creating a space that would be rooted in community, where anyone could come in, sit down to a home-cooked meal, and chat with someone new, all without the barrier of price.

“I can’t be the first person to think of this,” Wienke remembers thinking. So she researched and found similar cafes and restaurants around the country—most notably New Jersey’s JBJ Soul Kitchen, a community restaurant run by the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foundation (filed away under: another reason to love Bon Jovi). After talking with JBJ’s staff, Wienke developed her idea further. The restaurant she envisioned wouldn’t just have a different pay model; it would be “designed intentionally to encourage [community]: set mealtimes, communal tables, family-style service, everyone’s eating the same thing.”

Dining at Provision has the feel of going to the spacious home of a dear friend who’s really good at cooking—and has invited over everyone they know. They might not be people you’ve met before, but after an hour around the table, passing plates and serving bowls back and forth, you’ve heard their stories, and maybe learned about their preferred Thai restaurant or their top five favorite pizza places. By the time you walk out the door, you feel energized and refreshed, happy to have expanded your circle of connection.

Oh, and the dishes Provision serves are delicious, too. At a recent Saturday brunch, we tucked into a bounty of food placed before us. There was an airy egg white soufflé studded with grape tomatoes perfectly complemented by a salad of simply dressed greens. A basket of tender scones made by a volunteer who works for Rustica followed, which paired beautifully with the best applesauce I’ve ever had—fresh and laced with cinnamon. Rounding things out were breakfast poutine made of crispy potatoes and cheesy sauce, spaghetti squash carbonara, an oatmeal and cereal bar, and a plate of colorful, assorted pickles.

The pickles and carbonara are evidence of Provision’s work to reduce food waste whenever possible: What to do with an influx of produce? Pickle it. What to do with a sheet pan of spaghetti squash leftover from last night’s dinner? Make a breakfast carbonara.

Approximately 90 percent of Provision’s ingredients come from partner organizations like Rustica, Sysco, Wildflyer Coffee, Twin Cities Co-op Partners, and local farms. “Every day is different,” says Wienke. Volunteer chefs arrive a few hours before mealtimes to see what’s come in and what they can cook from it. This means no two visits to Provision are the same—except maybe for those pickles and applesauce—and that sometimes they might not have small things you’d expect from restaurants like, say, decaf coffee or tea.

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

Though I feel supported by my own robust community, it felt nourishing to meet new people around a shared table. One man said he visits Provision every Saturday when he’s not traveling. A father and daughter who live a few blocks away also walked over for their first visit, after seeing construction around the space over the past year. Still another couple had moved to the Twin Cities in August, one to study food insecurity at the University of Minnesota. Over the course of the meal, conversation revolved around food, often sharing favorite places to dine out in the Twin Cities.

Ours was pretty privileged talk. Not everyone has the means or ability to go out to eat, something Wienke considered when developing Provision. For her, going out to eat is “where people are out in the world with others and have the opportunity to engage.” She wanted Provision to offer that chance to everyone.

The restaurant’s literature points out that 40 percent of food in America goes to waste while one in six people goes hungry. This restaurant works as a sort of net, catching some of that food and sharing it with those who may be hungry—whether physically or emotionally.

“Anyone can be in hardship,” Wienke explains. “Anyone can be in need of being around people.”

Chances to engage don’t begin and end with the restaurant. Beyond its family-style meals, Provision offers its kitchen as a commercial space for budding food businesses. Wienke provides guidance and mentorship on everything from reducing food waste to navigating bureaucratic red tape. “I love nothing more than fostering someone’s belief in themselves,” she says. The dining area has hosted other organizations, like Southside Harm Reduction Services, Minneapolis Crisis Nursery, and Project for Pride in Living, as well as a book club. “We’re just continuing to be open to ideas and ways we can partner and support others that are trying to do what they can in their own way to make the community better,” she says.

As the hospitality world undergoes some rapid changes, Wienke sees Provision as supportive of this growth and movement, pointing to organizations that are approaching things differently, such as All Square, a local nonprofit restaurant that supports formerly incarcerated individuals. The name Provision came, after all, from thinking about everyone’s personal provision—what they can offer to their communities. Wienke hopes Provision and likeminded organizations will serve as an example to traditional businesses: “How can for-profit businesses become socially conscious, and try to use their power for good? Why can’t you turn a profit and also support the community in multiple ways so you’re not just about making money?”

In this vein, Provision hosts monthly ticketed “Sustainability Dinners” where a guest chef from a Twin Cities restaurant prepares a meal and hosts a conversation about these heady concepts. Last month was Pajarito’s Tyge Nelson. March’s dinner will be hosted by Lina Goh and John Ng of Zen Box Izakaya, while April will find Tim McKee of Octo Fishbar popping up at Provision. The dinners serve to unite people for a special meal while supporting the sustainability of Provision itself.

“It also gets people in the space,” Wienke notes, which has been helpful since one of her main challenges has been explaining what exactly Provision… is.

“What are we? We’re not a food shelf, we’re not a meal program, we’re not a fancy soup kitchen,” she explains. “This is a different thing. I had no idea how challenging it would be to get people to understand. Until you come in, you really don’t.”

Provision is something of an unusual concept, especially if you’re used to the dance of dining out: being greeted at the door, led to a private table, handed a menu where you choose what to eat. The restaurant has none of the above. Its give-as-you-can model extends from patrons to volunteers. Patrons may make a financial contribution at the door when they arrive, if they wish, but no one solicits those donations, and there’s little signage about it. “Even your presence at the table and engaging with other people is giving,” Wienke explains. That said, Wienke calculated that if 12 people gave $20 every day, Provision would be on solid financial footing. Volunteers give their time by prepping food, setting up the dining room, bussing dishes, and—space permitting—sitting down with patrons to chat.

Lucy Hawthorne

Lucy Hawthorne

Looking ahead, Wienke and Provision’s board of directors envision other restaurant locations—they’re scouting St. Paul, north Minneapolis, and Seward/Phillips/Powderhorn—and the launch of the Harvest Program, which would pair mentors and mentees based on expressed skills and needs. For now, though, Wienke is focused on getting people in the door, establishing regulars, and spreading the word about the work they’re doing.

To achieve this, Provision continues serving dinner three nights a week and brunch every Saturday morning. They’re also hosting a fundraiser on April 16 at the Lumber Exchange Center to celebrate six months in operation. Brent Frederick, owner of Jester Concepts restaurant group and a Provision board member, has dedicated 1 percent of March sales from all of his restaurants to support Provision.

At Provision, there’s a seat for everyone at the table, regardless of background. “Look at it like socially responsible or socially conscious dining,” Wienke says.

Come as you are. Give as you can. Everyone at Provision will be happy just to see you.

Click here to view a photo slideshow of Provision

Provision Community Restaurant
2940 Harriet Ave. S., Minneapolis