Café 458 brings out the best of Edgewood Avenue
Dedicated to serving everyone, the long-running brunch spot supports self-sufficiency for Atlanta’s homeless populationWednesday September 13, 2017 07:57 pm EDT
It’s Sunday morning on Edgewood Avenue. To-go boxes, plastic cups and water bottles are the only remnants of the late-night bar scene that dominated the street just hours before. Mothers, fathers and children navigate around to receive their weekly sermon from Boulevard’s historic churches. At no other time can one witness so clearly the duality of Atlanta’s Martin Luther King Jr. district and the gentrified Old Fourth Ward. But in between the old and new sits an outlier: Café 458, a Sundays-only, volunteer-run brunch spot where all proceeds go toward the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency. Unlike some restaurants on Edgewood Ave., Café 458’s sole mission is inviting everyone inside, in the process providing aid to local homeless people through rapid rehousing, workforce development, veteran services, life stabilization and social enterprise in the process.
“First ticket for Solar Sunday!” front of house manager K.C. Myers shouts to her staff. “We are a little short on volunteers today because people are out of town for the solar eclipse.” But Myers’ face bears no signs of worry. A 20-plus-year restaurant veteran, she says her path toward nonprofit work began one day when she “began to feel unfulfilled in life and wanted to find meaningful work.” Café 458 is where she landed.
Every Sunday, the little restaurant relies on volunteers in the front and back to run its often-busy brunch service. Some are repeat volunteers, but many are first timers. “I don’t require any restaurant experience, but most of them are in the service industry,” Myers explains. That said, “as a front of house manager, I have to be mentally prepared to do all of service by myself just in case.”
Café 458 has a classic diner feel, with the kind of funk music that old folks play at fish fries and family reunions. Batdorf & Bronson’s Ren Doughty provides organic coffee every week. The walls are blanketed with daily vegetable plate ingredients and other menu information written in rainbow-colored chalk. From younger, solo diners to elderly couples, all arrive hungry and eager to learn of ACSS and the work they do.
Chef Shane Devereux, who boasts credentials from Top Flr, the Lawrence, Barcelona Wine Bar and the Sound Table, delivers a simple 10-item brunch menu consisting largely of Southern staples such as chicken and waffles, spicy shrimp and grits, and biscuits with pepper gravy. The fresh, local and often donated ingredients bring a familiar comfort and satisfaction that pairs well with the café’s soul-warming mission.
Husband and wife founders A.B. Short and Ann Connor began working with the homeless community back in 1981, but it wasn’t until Short partnered with John Pickens, founder of the Georgia Justice Project, that Café 458 came to be. Believing that the restaurant’s mission complemented Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s teachings, the pair scouted out the civil rights leader’s birthplace and opened their doors on Edgewood in January of 1988.
After 29 years, Café 458 continues to serve its cause. Mondays through Saturdays are “client-focused,” meaning homeless people are invited every morning to come in for breakfast and, as ACSS’s director of development marketing Stephanie Shapiro puts it, “break bread with our staff.” Shapiro volunteers (often paying for her children’s care while she’s there) nearly every Sunday, as well. “Most people who come in heard about us on Yelp, so I’m there to let them know our history and what we are about,” she says. “Café 458 … it’s like my child.”
Her voice grows passionate as she begins speaking of the clients she serves. “When the homeless people come in for breakfast, they come in apologetic,” she says, pointing to a widespread lack in confidence among homeless populations, due to society’s heavy stigma. But, she adds, that stigma is misplaced. “If something happens, most people nowadays don’t have a month of rent saved, so it can happen to anyone. And many people don’t know this until they walk that walk.”
Since 2010, with 10 percent of the ACSS’ revenue coming from Café 458, the nonprofit has helped 1,208 homeless men and women secure full-time jobs, with wages averaging $9.41 an hour. More than 1,500 participants have completed the CareerWorks employment readiness program, which includes coursework and employment readiness training, job search assistance, help with professional appearance and housing placement. Self-sustainability is key at ACSS. Homeless people come into the office during the week to utilize the center’s computer room. They update profiles and resumes and send out job applications. “We focus on sustainable jobs with benefits, guaranteed pay checks … we also give out around 30,000 MARTA cards a year because to sustain a job you gotta be able to get there,” Shapiro adds.
The ACSS also conducts drug tests, and despite typical assumptions, Shapiro says less than 10 percent test positive: “The people on Edgewood aren’t here trying to score drugs; they are here because it’s their home during the day… They are couch surfing or sleeping in shelters at night.” But if a homeless person walks in on a Sunday during the café’s operating hours, they won’t be denied. “People think the homeless people want a handout, but they want an open hand that reaches back. That’s it. says Shapiro. “Many times, the homeless end up volunteering around the office. They will say, ‘let me get that box for you, Ms. Stephanie.’”
Back at the café, after boxing up the leftovers from a very large mozzarella and veggie frittata and thanking the volunteers for their service, I exit through the lobby. There, I meet another volunteer, Melissa Camilo, who says that a homeless man was just here. “When I went to tell K.C. Myers, she only asked for his name,” she tells me. Myers already had an idea as to who it was: one of Café 458’s VIPs (a title Shapiro gives to their homeless clients). Once the man’s identity was confirmed, the manager explained that he was there simply because he’s hungry. “Bring this out to him for me,” she told the volunteer, handing her a plate of food.
“This is why Café 458 is here,” Camilo says as I open the door. “They are here to serve.”