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Maggie Kane, the Tar Heel of the Month, uses A Place at the Table to feed the hungry, build community

Maggie Kane is the News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month

Maggie Kane works to fight hunger and the stigma of homelessness with her pay-what-you-can cafe A Place at the Table in downtown Raleigh
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Maggie Kane works to fight hunger and the stigma of homelessness with her pay-what-you-can cafe A Place at the Table in downtown Raleigh

It’s not that Maggie Kane doesn’t scare easily, it’s that she doesn’t scare. She doesn’t mean it in the way of bravado or some lip-service toughness. She means it in that she’s already been robbed at gunpoint (and would prefer not to repeat it), but she’s not going to waste a second being fearful.

Perhaps the only thing that’s changed about the 28-year-old executive director and founder of A Place at the Table, Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can cafe, is that she has learned better boundaries.

“I know I can’t go out at midnight anymore and bring someone a blanket,” Kane said of the half-dozen years she has spent advocating for and befriending those in Raleigh struggling with homelessness and hunger.

“I don’t get scared,” she said. “I believe that kindness wins, that goodness does win in the end. I’d rather die tomorrow knowing I was as present for as many people as possible than to ever be scared of people.”

For her work fighting hunger and the stigma of homelessness, Kane is The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Month, a new iteration of the newspaper’s tradition of celebrating people who have made significant contributions to the Triangle and North Carolina. As January’s Tar Heel of the Month, Kane will be considered for the Tar Heel of the Year, the N&O’s annual honor named in December.

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Maggie Kane, the founder of the pay-what-you-can cafe A Place at the Table in downtown Raleigh, during closed hours on Monday, January 7, 2019. Kane runs the unique non-profit cafe in an effort to fight hunger and the stigma of homelessness. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

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Earlier this month, A Place at the Table celebrated its one-year anniversary, a milestone for any restaurant, but a proving point for the non-profit that took years to build. The restaurant, born from monthly pop-up meals, had been been turned away by landlords but now is packed every week and weekend by a broad swath of downtown Raleigh diners.

“They told us, ‘We don’t want your soup kitchen here,’” Kane recalled.

But in its first year, A Place at the Table gave away 8,159 meals to diners, among more than 40,000 total meals served, according to the restaurant’s counting. In November, NBC’s “Today” show introduced the Raleigh cafe to the rest of America. Its board of directors is staffed with local business leaders, non-profit veterans and restaurant industry lifers, to whom Kane credits much of the cafe’s success.

The model works this way: diners can pay full price, pay as little as half of their meal, or volunteer for their meal with an hour of work in the restaurant. The restaurant collects donations from people who pay it forward, funding future meals. Diners can also purchase meal tokens to hand out to someone in need.

In its first year, the nonprofit restaurant took in $136,000 in those donations. Kane, herself, always has at least three tokens to distribute when she meets people on the street.

The most important detail, Kane said, is customers can order anything on the menu, regardless of how they’re paying, from avocado toast to Belgian waffles.

“At the end of every day, I take home how the model worked, how we were able to touch so many people, how we were able to create this authentic and real community that doesn’t exist in a lot of places,” Kane said.

“It’s the place where you don’t have to worry when you step up to the register,” Kane said. “I cannot imagine going into a restaurant and thinking ‘I only have 20 bucks and I might not be able to feed my family.’ You just wouldn’t go. You’d go to McDonald’s and get pretty crappy food or just not go at all. We’re a place that, seriously, no matter how much you pay we’re going to take you.”

On a recent Monday this month, A Place at the Table was closed, like it is every week. But it was the day before the cafe’s birthday, and Kane was there, letting in contractors to paint and do maintenance work, overseeing the installation of new menu boards and doing other odd jobs.

Even with the restaurant closed, people came. Downtown workers looking for lunch, regulars, first-timers, those who could pay and those who couldn’t. Kane had to turn them away disappointed, hugging those she knew, telling those she didn’t to come back tomorrow.

Suzette Tisdale, 61, who volunteers every day in exchange for her meal, stopped in and asked to use the bathroom.

“What we’re doing is building a relationship, a friendship, the ability for her to feel comfortable coming in and using the bathroom,” Kane said. “Because I can tell you right now, there’s nowhere else she can use the bathroom, at all.”

What might be remarkable to anyone walking in is how indistinguishable A Place at the Table is from any other restaurant serving coffee, soup, sandwiches, quiche and biscuits and gravy. It’s usually filled with downtown Raleigh workers having a morning meeting or lunch, but it’s hard to know anyone’s story just by looking at them.

“It’s such an education,” said Shelley Kane, Maggie’s mother. “I brought an older lady from the church with me, and she asked, ‘Now where are the homeless people?’”

Kane said the model doesn’t aim to take the place of area soup kitchens, and she knows it can’t end hunger on its own. Instead, she said, it tries to normalize feeding hungry people, giving diners dignity, a theme that’s often repeated by those involved with the cafe.

“The soup kitchen feeds 300 people a day,” Kane said. “That has to happen, people would go hungry without it. We’re not trying to be the soup kitchen, we’re not trying to give away food, we want you to become part of the community, become part of this restaurant, want you to be part of the team.”

A Place at the Table is at 300 W. Hargett St., in the bottom of the HUE apartment building, near the growing Warehouse District and a few seconds walk from ambitious development projects remaking downtown Raleigh. The food scene has contributed to the city’s decade-long resurgence, a movement that has ushered in two food halls and restaurants serving some of the most exciting food in the South.

Barely a year after A Place at the Table opened, with real estate skyrocketing and prime spaces becoming scarce, Kane isn’t sure the could open in its location now.

“We snuck in,” she said.

A Place at the Table almost didn’t happen.

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Maggie Kane, the founder of the pay-what-you-can cafe A Place at the Table in downtown Raleigh, chats with a customer, January 8, 2019, during the cafe’s one year anniversary. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The need at home

Feeding the hungry was never Kane’s plan. She saw herself going around the globe, maybe working in embassies, the sort of restless dreams that assume the world’s needs and adventures are larger than your home.

Kane, who has a twin sister and an older brother, was raised by retired accountant and college professor Shelley Kane, largely as a single mother. Maggie Kane calls her Raleigh upbringing sheltered and typically middle class, but said her mother exposed the family to the realities of those less fortunate through volunteer work, often through church.

When Kane was in the sixth grade she volunteered at a soup kitchen and remembers seeing a girl her age on the other side of the serving line, the table of food between them seeming a cruel and arbitrary divider.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow this person looks just like me, has nice clothes, they’re here,” Kane said. “Why are they here? What’s their story? ... Just because one person is living in poverty, low-income housing and I wasn’t doesn’t mean we’re any different, it just means we have different life experiences.”

After she graduated from Wakefield High School, she enrolled at NC State. That’s when she heard Hugh Hollowell, the founder of Love Wins Ministries, a non-profit organization helping people experiencing homelessness, give a talk on campus. Soon she was skipping class and volunteering as much as she could, eventually running Love Wins’ day shelter when she graduated.

This work also introduced Maggie Kane to the world via a 2013 viral photo posted on the Love Wins Ministry’s website. Her hands were on her hips, her face viewed in profile, looking directly at the Raleigh police officer allegedly threatening arrest if she and her Love Wins colleagues didn’t stop feeding the hungry in Moore Square. The city had started cracking down on the practice, citing littering and overcrowding.

Standing next to Hollowell and two other people, all the faces were stoney and expressionless, but it was clear Maggie Kane was angry.

Time magazine, the Huffington Post and a half-dozen other outlets beamed the picture into computer screens and turned a local story of littering and overcrowding into a larger one of where and when it’s okay to feed needy people.

“They were telling us we need to create more of a divide,” Kane said of the experience. “We’re handing out food in the cold and the rain. Now you’re saying you don’t want to see poor people at all? We are going to create a downtown Raleigh that is visible to everyone.”

At Love Wins, Kane became close to many of the people who depended on the shelter. She’d take them out to eat or deliver pizzas to their apartments or campsites if she was worried they didn’t have food. Her twin sister, Annah, sometimes went along.

“She would take people out for meals and try to make them feel like normal people, to be able to dine next to people and order what they wanted,” Annah Deters said.

Kane left Love Wins in 2015 with the idea for A Place at the Table, inspired by the pay-what-you-can model working in Boone’s F.A.R.M. Cafe and dozens of similar restaurants around the country. Many are part of the the One World Everybody Eats network, an organization that won the 2017 James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award.

“I thought, why not Raleigh?” Kane said.

Maggie Kane, executive director of A Place at the Table, describes how the nonprofit has found a permanent home in the former Cafe de los Muertos in downtown Raleigh. The new cafe will open in Fall 2017 and will let people pay or volunteer for the

A Place at the Table

For months it seemed like it was a great idea that never could get off the ground, dashed by lack of funding, stalled without a location. Kane worked restaurant jobs for the better part of two years, each month meeting with the non-profit’s board of directors and facing the question of whether to give up. Still, the group organized pop-up brunches at area restaurants to drum up support and awareness, and to give the hungry a meal, at least once a month.

Beginning to feel depressed and slightly defeated, Kane said she prayed on a family trip in 2017 to either land a location for A Place at the Table or find another non-profit job she cared about. That was on a Saturday. On Tuesday the board offered her a salary, and on Wednesday, York Properties offered her the cafe’s current location, previously occupied by Cafe de los Muertos coffee shop.

“A lot of times I wanted to give up,” said Kane, whose positivity is generally unwavering.

“When I would feel discouraged, some angel would come to me and say, ‘This is what we can do for you, we want to help,’” Kane said. “I could see God working in every little moment.”

Today, the cafe buzzes through breakfast and lunch, filled with sometimes as many volunteers as diners, a dance of sweeping and cleaning and food running Kane calls “beautiful controlled chaos.”

On a Thursday, Tisdale, the regular volunteer, rolled silverware and folded a stack of white, cloth napkins. First-time volunteers delivered espresso drinks topped with whipped cream and remove empty plates from tables. There’s an eight person full-time staff, but much of the work is done by volunteers, often washing dishes, chopping vegetables or sweeping up.

Tisdale considers the volunteer work her job, and she’s there every afternoon.

“I just feel like doing something,” Tisdale said. “Keep myself busy, I like doing something to keep myself busy.”

The day of the anniversary, longtime volunteer Pamela Lietr greeted diners at the door, asking if they had been before, and giving them the rundown if they hadn’t.

“This is a place where everyone’s welcome,” Lietr said. “Downtown is gentrifying so quickly, and this model allows us to take care of those who need a helping hand.”

Andrew Gravens is the chef at A Place at the Table, entering the restaurant business after his intended career in mental health ended after “too much red tape and too much heartache,” he said. Gravens had worked in restaurants and soup kitchens back home, remembering a burger place that had kicked a man out because he didn’t seem to fit in.

Working at a A Place at the Table combines his two passions, he said, and everyone can eat while retaining their dignity.

“Someone dealing with addiction, mental health issues, extreme poverty, what helps them most is acceptance, not being treated in a way that reminds them of their difference,” Gravens said.

Kane’s goal is to build A Place at the Table into something that can outlive her. She tries to work in the restaurant less, spending more time fundraising. But one day, she hopes to leave, to answer some other calling, while knowing A Place at the Table will always be there.

“I don’t want to be holding it back,” Kane said. “I know that one day someone new will come in and shape it differently for us to be successful and different. I just know I never want A Place at the Table to not be soaring.”

Tar Heel of the Month

Maggie Kane

Age: 28

Hometown: Raleigh

Family: Shelley Kane, mother, a twin sister and older brother.

Education: NC State University, 2013, majoring in International Studies

Accomplishments: Founded Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant, A Place at the Table, which just completed its first year in business. Received the NC State Outstanding Alumna Award in 2018.

Seeking Tar Heel of the Month nominations

Here is how you can nominate someone:

Fill out the nomination form at nando.com/tarheelidea, or email the following information to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

In your nomination:

Be detailed and specific about why you are nominating this person. Describe their impact, achievement or accomplishment. Please include your contact information and the nominee’s contact information, if you can.

Nominees do not have to be native North Carolinians but they must live here now.

Only one nomination per person is necessary. Multiple nominees from the same person won’t affect the decision.

Final selections will made by the N&O staff.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.
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