How “good real food” builds community

Tracy Singleton and her daughter. (Courtesy Photo)

“Innumerable measures bring us this food, we should know how it comes to us.” This Zen meal prayer greets guests as they enter my business, the Birchwood Cafe.

It reminds us to be grateful for every farmer, distributor and partner we source from, to honor these relationships, and to share them with our staff and guests. It reminds us that we are connected to the land, the animals, the environment and, ultimately, to each other. More than a restaurant, the Birchwood is a community, a place where memories are made, ideas are grown, and friends and family connect over “Good Real Food.” 

In 2006, I faced a mounting concern: a community yearning to connect with their food and a bustling cafe bursting at the seams. While it was a good problem to have, I struggled to find the right solution. Our kitchen stretched into an offsite location, we had no storage, weekend brunch lines snaked out the door and the line for our single bathroom wasn’t much shorter. It was clear that this business built on sustainability was no longer sustainable itself. It was time for the Birchwood to grow. 

Having explored expansion for many years and ignoring advice to the contrary, I decided to rezone and grow the Birchwood onsite. We crafted a plan not just to grow bigger, but to thrive and grow better through increased energy efficiency, improved working conditions for staff, space conductive for groups to gather, and expanded capacity both to support our local farmers and to serve more Good Real Food – all while retaining our intimate, neighborhood feel. 

With traditional financing in the works, our budget was still short. So last fall, we launched a Kickstarter campaign to bridge the gap. Although the campaign was considered controversial by many, we embraced fear, vulnerability and excitement as we took the leap of faith into crowd-funding, hoping that after feeding our community for all these years, our community would respond and feed us back. I had no idea what we were in for. 

One 30-day rollercoaster ride and 980 Birchwood backers later, we exceeded our goal and subsequently became the third-highest-grossing restaurant Kickstarter campaign in the world. Clearly our community wanted to grow, too! I am still humbled and inspired by the outpouring of love, support and personal stories shared during our campaign. A regular customer wrote us a song, another credits our food for his cancer recovery, and many made sure to tell me about first dates at the cafe that led to weddings, kids and other milestones celebrated.

Even more meaningful than the funds raised, Kickstarter revealed the true meaning of community – an interdependence that had really been there all along. Food connects us all, and our community is one of the “innumerable measures” that bring it to us. 

Tracy Singleton has owned and operated the Birchwood Cafe in Minneapolis for over 19 years.www.birchwoodcafe.com

BookShelf: Tracy Singleton recommends these books by women authors on her favorite subject – food:
Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton 
Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America by Wenonah Hauter 
Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works by Atina Diffley 
Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé 
Bitter Harvest: A Chef’s Perspective on the Hidden Danger in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It by Ann Cooper 

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