Josh Shaffer

There is such a thing as a free lunch at this bakery. And it feeds more than the poor.

Free lunch for needy diners

Rachel K.’s Bakery in Washington, NC, began giving free meals to any patron who asked for the Rachel Special.
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Rachel K.’s Bakery in Washington, NC, began giving free meals to any patron who asked for the Rachel Special.

Even in this small Beaufort County town, the poor clustered around downtown sidewalks – enough that Rachel Midgette noticed homeless regulars at her bakery on Market Street, all asking for food.

One day about two years ago, a needy customer asked for a ride home – a request that made Midgette uncomfortable. But she drove the woman home and saw her empty kitchen.

“She didn’t even have a box of cereal,” said Midgette, 41.

So she hit on an idea, and she posted a sign in her bakery restrooms: If you’re hungry, ask for the “Rachel Special.” You’ll get a sandwich and a drink, no questions asked.

Two years later, Midgette sees six to 10 people a day take this deal at Rachel K’s on Market Street, often at breakfast and lunch.

And here’s what Midgette gets back.

One homeless man drops a dollar in the donation jar, the contents of his pockets. Another sweeps up the front stoop. This Christmas, several Rachel Special regulars hung lights around her back door – a gesture she appreciated but took down for safety’s sake.

So Midgette discovered truth in adages that get tossed around at Christmas time. Small kindnesses pay big dividends. The skinniest trees just need love.

“I can’t change what’s happening in Washington,” she said. “I can’t change what’s happening in North Carolina. But I can affect what happens here.”

About 100 miles east of Raleigh on the Pamlico River, Washington looks like a miniature Wilmington, its century-old brick buildings taking in pubs and steak restaurants. Inside its 1884 building, formerly Town Hall, Rachel K.’s Bakery doesn’t offer soup kitchen fare. Lemon almond twists. Tarts with Nutella. Roast beef sandwiches with caramelized onions and horseradish mayonnaise, available on Gruyere bread.

When Midgette started inviting the poor, she found some lukewarm praise. We like what you’re doing, people would say. But do you have to do it here?

Sometimes, people complained that a homeless customer smelled badly. So she added another layer to her charity. Inside the restrooms, she offered brown paper bags filled with toiletries: toothpaste, soap, tampons, razors ...

Now customers offer cash for the donation jar, sometimes a $20 bill.

Very few have attempted to abuse her hospitality, and a rough-edged Rachel Special customer only occasionally acts in a squirrelly way. It’s a comfortable space for coffee and pastry even after Midgette has announced that there definitely is room at the inn.

She looked for a way, excuse the cliche, to give back. And she found it.

It was easy. And it paid.