In the 11 years Roots Cafe has been in the neighborhood, it has gone through two rounds of owners, landing now on the third. Patricia Manwaring owns and operates the cafe with her husband and brother. Roots’ values, however, have always been the same— community, creativity, hospitality, and artistry. The small shop is home to a uniquely caring and generous group of regulars and patrons, who have helped to turn the restaurant into a food bank to help ease the weight of the pandemic in their neighborhood of South Slope.
When the new reality the virus has brought started fully taking form, Manwaring and her former regular customer, now food bank coordinator, Guinevere McMichael knew that they would have to enact some changes.
“In the beginning of March, it was just very scary. Nobody knew what was going on. It was so nerve wracking business-wise, watching the numbers and seeing a third of our normal business. As I would be making coffee for people, [I was] just seeing how afraid everyone was. [When we] realized as a restaurant we were going to stay open, being essential, we thought ‘wow, if we now have the opportunity to stay open, how can we redesign ourselves for this moment to be more helpful?’ It’s funny to be a small coffee shop and to be under the umbrella of essential,” Manwaring said.
So, they started a GoFundMe page, which now has raised over $15,000, surpassing its original goal. They decided to give away free soup and sandwiches to anyone who needed them, no questions asked, and turned their once-busy tables into stations for food, diapers, and other home necessities. The money they’ve raised goes towards helping keep these programs afloat, as well as providing assistance to the shop’s laid-off employees. The shop is still functioning as a cafe as well for now, offering their full menu for purchase in addition to their free offerings.
The pair says that it’s hard to know how many people they’ve served, due to their no questions asked plan, but they estimate that they give away between 150-200 free meals every week. Their delivery program, which was just added, currently delivers food to about 15 families three times a week, but the project is able and looking to add more.
“There are people who will come in and buy a coffee and then get the free food. I think we want it to be open to everyone, everybody’s a little panicky right now, and it’s a small thing. I was at a coffee shop and finding it really nice to chat with the barista, and she put an extra cookie in my bag. I just was so happy. I believe in the power of free cookies. When someone comes in just feeling really scared and there’s a free cookie or something, it’s such a small thing but it means a lot,” Manwaring said.
The stories of generosity that Manwaring and McMichael tell seem nearly too good to be true, but they are. Regulars who have just lost their jobs offering up the cash they have on hand to help with the project, customers donating art to sell in the shop to raise money for more food, and people overhearing the need for a driver and subsequently spending their day making home deliveries to needy families.
A young woman who came to buy a coffee brought back the cup that the barista had drawn a picture on a week later, wanting to share with them how it had brightened her day and made her smile. She told Manwaring and McMichael that she was able to live on the food from the pantry for a whole week.
“Roots already has such a strong community feeling, it’s just such a supportive network of people. The regulars are great. We weren’t really sure because it was such a small stretch of time how much help we would get or how many people were staying in the area. And then, as soon as we opened it up to the neighborhood, people really rose to the occasion and joined forces with us to actually distribute food to people who need it. It’s been really positive,” McMichael said.
The idea was originally to care for the shop’s group of devoted regulars, but once Manwaring and McMichael started actually running things, they realized that the need was much larger in housing-insecure and immigrant communities.
“My initial thought was that the food pantry and the free food will be for our regulars. They’ll come, get a cup of coffee and we’ll give them food. It was just a way to pull people up. But, in the midst of that, we realized that even though people have lost their jobs, a lot of people have a really strong support network, and we’re realizing more and more that the homeless community and a lot of immigrant communities are being really hard hit. A lot of people from the coffee shop are now volunteering to care for them. So, initially [we were] thinking we would care for [our] big family but now we as a family are beginning to care for Brooklyn in a cool way,” Manwaring said.
Roots currently has about seven volunteers keeping things running. With the money they’ve raised so far, the pair believes they’ll be able to keep the pantry, free food, and deliveries running for another few months at least, although they’re hesitant to put dates on it and are trying to take things one day at a time. Even when things begin to return to normal, this experience has changed the way the cafe will be run in the future.
“If we get to the point where we have to be a cafe and put some of our tables back, I think we will probably continue to do free soup and sandwiches moving forward. We’ve just fallen in love with all of these homeless people. We know these people now, and if they come in and ask for a sandwich I’m obviously going to give it to them for free, so I think it’s changed our practices moving forward as a cafe,” Manwaring said.
The act of serving and providing food comes from a very personal place for both Manwaring and McMichael.
“I’m Italian, which means whenever anything is wrong I just force feed people. It’s kind of my thing. I just feel like as people were starting to get more upset I was just wanting to feed them more,” Manwaring laughed. “We can choose not to live in [fear], we can choose to take what we have, to offer it up, to give it away. We can choose to try to make a change for loving people or kindness or hope. I can stand here and I can smile at people regardless of where I am. I’m not going to operate out of that fear, I’m going to create a space that still feels like home that can be a louder voice in this narrative of just everything and everyone being panicky.”
McMichael, who only started working at the shop once the pantry was introduced, has similar feelings.
“The reason I’m so involved in this is, partially, because I love Patricia, but also because when I was very small I remember going to shelters and food pantries with my family. To me, the most direct way that you can support people and express love and be a community is to give people food. It’s so important, it’s so personal to me, and I’m really happy to be involved with the project,” she said.
If you’re interested in helping Roots continue to do what they do, there are several ways to do so. You can donate to their GoFundMe, which provides funds for them to stock the pantry, covers the cost of the free hot food, and helps their laid-off employees. Donations for the pantry can also be brought directly to the shop. Those who are interested and able to volunteer can contact Guinevere McMichael, at email@example.com. You can also find them on Instagram @rootsbrooklyn.
If you or someone you know is in need, you’re welcome to stop by Roots for food or send an email for more information about their delivery program. The shop is located at 639 5th Avenue, between 18th and 19th streets, and is open Monday-Friday from 9:00am-3:30pm, Saturday-Sunday from 9:30am-4:30pm.