KC Cares: Thelma’s Kitchen makes investing in the community as easy as buying lunch

Thelma's Box Lunch. // Photo courtesy Thelma's Kitchen

Thelma’s Box Lunch. // Photo courtesy Thelma’s Kitchen

The ability to sit down at a restaurant and enjoy a good, healthy meal is a privilege that many in Kansas City do not have the circumstances to enjoy. The residents of KC face severe food insecurity, and rising prices make it difficult for those who face food insecurity to eat out—or eat at all.

Thelma’s Kitchen is combating these compounding issues by creating a safe gathering place for everyone. The city’s first donate-what-you-can cafe sits on 31st and Troost and was started by Reconciliation Services—an organization that works to facilitate community healing along the historic dividing line.

Natasha Bailey, Thelma's Kitchen Lead Cook. // Photo courtesy Thelma's Kitchen

Natasha Bailey, Thelma’s Kitchen Lead Cook. // Photo courtesy Thelma’s Kitchen

Thelma’s is guided by the idea that “everybody eats here.” They aim to bring neighbors together over shared meals and resources, and on some level to begin the work of hearing the historical division of the area’s redlined development.

The restaurant is named after one of its founders, Thelma “Matushka Michaila” Altschul. She lived in Section 8 housing in LaSalle Apartments, not far from where Thelma’s now stands. Even with the little she had, Thelma housed and fed her family and folks in need in her apartment. When she and David Alexii Altschul got married in 1987, they founded Reconciliation Services and began a food pantry and prepared food kitchen called Grace’s Kitchen.

Even before it began, Thelma’s has been focused on building community solutions from within. 

The cafe’s donate-what-you-can model was born out of years of community research, asking those around 31st and Troost what they needed and wanted out of Thelma’s Kitchen. 

“Folks could donate the suggested price of around $10, or donate less than that, or actually even donate their time in order to get lunch that day,” says Kyle Benson-Smith, social innovations and marketing coordinator for Reconciliation Services. “They volunteer for about 20 or 30 minutes for lunch—that way everybody can eat. 

The pay-what-you-can spot served nearly 26,000 meals and boasted over 3,900 volunteer hours, in 2020 alone. But that is only a small portion of the work they do. At the heart of their mission is bringing people from all walks of life together over a meal and ensuring each person is loved and cared for.

 A neighbor grabs a box lunch to-go at Thelma's Kitchen. // Photo courtesy Thelma's Kitchen

A neighbor grabs a box lunch to-go at Thelma’s Kitchen. // Photo courtesy Thelma’s Kitchen

“Everybody can also come together in order to enjoy lunch together, which is really at the heart and soul of Thelma’s Kitchen and Reconciliation Services,” Benson-Smith says. “Turning Troost from Kansas City’s historical dividing line into a gathering place where folks of all socio-economic backgrounds, experiences, races, and life circumstances can come together to enjoy a meal.”

The pandemic changed how Thelma’s was able to get food to the community. It was no longer possible to sit in a restaurant and share with others. During the first few months of COVID-19, Thelma’s closed their indoor dining but offered completely free meals to-go.

Then, in August, they launched Thelma’s Boxed Lunch. Volunteering your time for lunch isn’t possible until they can be in-person, so the cafe set up a to-go window and made pay-it-forward tokens. 

“Folks can still donate at the regular price, or as little as $3, and we actually have pay-it-forward tokens that are donated by other folks in the community who are able to pay lunch forward for a neighbor in need. We hand out those tokens to people who come to the window and aren’t able to pay that day,” says Benson-Smith. “Our case managers at reconciliation services, who provide a variety of social and mental health services, give tokens to their clients. We have some nonprofit partners in the area who give tokens to their clients as well. We’re still able to live by our principle that everybody eats here, we just do it a little bit differently than we did pre-COVID.”

Lunch from Thelma's getting ready for boxes. // Photo courtesy Thelma's Kitchen

Lunch from Thelma’s getting ready for boxes. // Photo courtesy Thelma’s Kitchen

Part of doing things differently means beginning to cater for large events. They’ve even catered a wedding. The catering side of the business helps Thelma’s donate even more meals to those in need around the cafe—bridging more gaps and bringing people together. 

“We definitely look forward to welcoming the community back inside someday,” Benson-Smith says. “In the meantime, our group delivery and catering business have been going really well. We’ve done 1000s of meals that way and have had many business and organization customers, which is awesome because it allows us to extend our mission. Whenever organizations choose to get lunch from Thelma’s Kitchen they still get that healthy delicious meal that they were looking for, but they also get to support a good cause. Those meals allow us to keep serving meals for free here at 31st and Troost and also allow us to support the social and mental health services that we provide to the community.”

Volunteers working alongside Thelma's Kitchen Cook Artis Grigsby (3rd from right). // Photo courtesy Thelma's Kitchen

Volunteers working alongside Thelma’s Kitchen Cook Artis Grigsby (3rd from right). // Photo courtesy Thelma’s Kitchen

To support Thelma’s Kitchen, consider paying it forward for another guest in need by purchasing a token to cover their lunch. You can still volunteer before they fully reopen for sit-down eating with their COVID-safe opportunities. Sign up to volunteer here

If you have a larger group looking for a meal, order boxed lunches. You’ll get delicious food and the knowledge that you’re helping feed the community.

You can also support their mission by visiting their website and making a monetary donation covering anything from a meal to case management, or by purchasing from Thelma’s Amazon wishlist of items they need to better run the restaurant. Keep up with Thelma’s via Instagram and Facebook for more updates.

Categories: Culture