By Jill Wendholt Silva
Thelma’s Kitchen is a non-profit, pay-what-you-can café.
Ruby Jean’s is a for-profit juicery.
What do these two businesses have in common? Try food, an address near 31st and Troost on the edge of greater downtown and a people-centered approach to urban redevelopment.
“What we need in order to have a resilient community is real economic diversity, and we have to have services for everyone,” says Father Justin Mathews, executive director for Reconciliation Services, the social service agency behind Thelma’s Kitchen, 3101 Troost.
The concept is based on the One World Everybody Eats, a non-profit organization that was awarded a prestigious James Beard Humanitarian of the Year award in 2017.
“We serve people with means, and without means,” says Pamela Infranca, the chef and food programs manager at Thelma’s Kitchen, “but the food is going to be exceptional, and there’s going to be great customer service, and we’re going to get to know our regulars.”
Infranca’s lunch-only menu includes comfort food staples such as meatloaf, roasted chicken, pork tenderloin, sandwiches and vegan patties that are paired with hearty soups, vegetable sides, colorful salads and homey desserts.
An average of 120 to 125 diners eat at Thelma’s Kitchen operates between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Sixty-percent of diners pay $7 or $10 at a “donation station” – and if they have means – can pay it forward. Forty percent volunteer their time to cover the cost of a meal.
“This is not a soup kitchen,” Mathews insists. There is “the dignity of choice” – a menu board displays a list of specials offered each day — and the portion sizes are controlled by the diner, not the server.
“For people who regularly get handed a bag of groceries at a pantry or a tray of food at a soup kitchen, there’s no choice,” he says.
The amount of choice offered is surprising considering Infranca’s only paid kitchen staffer is 25-year-old Sarah Tepikian. She had no cooking experience when she came through the door, but Infranca describes her coworker as “very articulate and social justice oriented.”
Thelma Altschul founded Reconciliation Ministries with her husband David in the 1990s.
Thelma, who died in 2012, walked up and down the block looking for the homeless and hungry, offering them a place to sleep and sharing what little food she had through a standing Friday night meal.
Today the first-floor dining room space features a mural of Thelma and a long, wooden community table of salvaged black walnut.
“I like to just sit at the table. It’s like Forrest Gump – you never know what you’re going to get,” Mathews says. “You might sit next to Mr. Helzberg…You might sit next to someone you never would have met in your life.”
One block down, patrons at Ruby Jean’s Kitchen & Juicery sip cold-pressed juices and protein performance shakes like the Slugger, a healthful blend of blueberries, peanut butter, bananas, oats, honey, agave, almond milk and chocolate protein.
Chris Goode, aka the Genuine Juice Guy, opened on Troost in November 2017. His bright spot at 3000 Troost attracts people from around the city and suburbs. In January, Goode was recognized by the Downtown Council with an “Urban Hero Award.”
Setting up shop on Troost took Goode back to his roots: He grew up in the neighborhood and attended Operation Breakthrough, a free daycare provider for the working poor.
The business is named for Goode’s maternal grandmother, Ruby Jean. She lived at 3907 Wabash. She died when Goode was 14 from diabetes, kidney disease and high blood pressure, conditions likely exacerbated by a soul food diet.
“As I became an adult and became conscious of what I put in my body, I realized this is my life’s work,” says Goode, a former college football player.
Like Thelma’s, colorful murals cover the walls, including a portrait of Ruby Jean. There’s also a long, communal wooden table flanked by orange bar stools running down the center of the space.
Ruby Jean’s menu offers trendy grab-and-go options, such as acai bowls and avocado toast, but the goal is to provide a welcoming atmosphere where everyone feels welcome to try foods that may have been previously unavailable.
“I don’t care where you come from, there’s a commonality among all people, and that is health,” Goode says. “To drink a Slugger at 30th and Troost is a powerful symbol greater than its parts.”
Listen to Fr. Justin Matthews and Chris Goode talk Troost.
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