Everybody eats: Taste Community Restaurant’s pay-what-you-can-afford model fills stomachs and souls in a hungry world

North Texas Catholic
(Mar 25, 2024) Feature

volunteer talks with a guest

Volunteer Allison Snyder, a Holy Family parishioner, chats with clients inside Taste Community Restaurant on February 2, 2024. Snyder has volunteered at Taste for two years. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

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At first glance, Taste Community Restaurant appears like any other trendy restaurant on nearby Magnolia Ave. in Fort Worth; a welcoming staff, inviting atmosphere, delicious food — it’s all there.

But something important is missing: the prices on the menu.

And that’s not an oversight — it’s the reason for the restaurant’s existence.

The restaurant, registered as a nonprofit, operates on a “pay what you can afford” model, and about 75 percent of its patrons receive a free or subsidized meal.

But it’s not just any meal. For four years running, Taste Community Project has made Yelp’s Top 100 Places to Eat in Texas.

To keep the doors open, the restaurant relies on fundraising, customers who pay extra, and more than 1,000 volunteers known as Taste Buds, who serve customers, assist with food preparation, wash dishes, and even grow herbs and vegetables in the garden behind the restaurant.

Diane Nguyen, a parishioner at Christ the King in Fort Worth, began volunteering in November 2017, a month before the restaurant welcomed its first customer. Her tasks have run the gamut between assembling tables and chairs in preparation for the opening to running the drink station. Now, she works at least two shifts each week, often at the sink.

“If Jesus can wash feet, I can wash dishes,” she said.

A refugee who resettled in the U.S., Nguyen remembers the hardship of economic insecurity. She said, “Fort Worth has helped my family, so I want to give back to help the community.”

chef in commercial kitchen
Pedro Benitez, sous chef, works on prepping smoked salmon inside Taste Community Restaurant on February 2, 2024. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

God’s hand has been evident in the restaurant right from the beginning, explained Nguyen. She started volunteering at the restaurant shortly after she was laid off from work. “I stumbled across this, and that’s what God wanted me to do, to work for Him.”

She soon found accounting work again, but she continues to serve, accumulating more than 2,400 hours. She counts many Taste Buds among her friends.

Working at Taste Community Restaurant “is a great feeling. I just love it because [every] family deserves the respect, the dignity of being served a meal. And that’s priceless,” Nguyen said.


The vision

Founder Jeff Williams said God asked him to start Taste Project.

Soup kitchens, nutrition assistance programs, and food pantries are vital to feeding the hungry, but Williams’ dream was to create a place where everyone could eat together.

Williams explained, “That's what we're called to do. A lot of times people, especially if they're in a situation where they're receiving [social] services on a regular basis, it can be refreshing for them to realize that there's someone who cares, and they're going to be treated exactly the same way as someone else who might be paying for their meal.”

His wife and most loyal volunteer, Julie Williams, added, “Knowing that God called us to do this is important. There’s plenty of runway for Him to work. … We get to see not only our faith grow, but the faith of some of our volunteers.”

After six years in operation, the restaurant exceeds its original mission.

The kitchen serves more than 1,000 meals each week, prepared with the help of chefs in its culinary job training program, and sometimes using ingredients from the community garden behind the building, located at 1200 S. Main St.

On Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, community agencies offer financial coaching, nutrition counseling, and health assessments. The nonprofit also added a Christian pastor to “embrace more of the ministry side of the calling,” said Jeff Williams.

Rick Heim in garden
Volunteer Richard Heim, a certified master gardener, oversees much of the garden at Taste Community Restaurant on February 2, 2024. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

He said, “I would've thought that going into this, that the biggest impact that we would have as an organization would be on the people who came in to eat. After six years, I think the biggest impact that we actually have is in getting people moving — from receiving to giving.

“People come here to eat because they need a meal, and they might be coming here two, three times a week, but then they'll start participating and volunteering and becoming part of giving back,” he continued.

The founder’s next God-given dream will soon be realized: plans are underway for the nonprofit to partner with the City of Arlington to open a second pay-what-you-can restaurant on N. Cooper Street.


Grace filled

Like a bee buzzing from flower to flower, Donna Heim, who attends St. Ann Parish in Burleson, flits in nonstop motion between tables, the drink station, and the register on her three-hour volunteer shift.

Heim’s six years at Taste have stretched her, she admitted, especially when serving someone who is “higher than a kite” or significantly malodorous, but “that is so beautiful here because there is no preferential treatment. [God’s] taught me to go beyond where I was comfortable.”

Three years ago, her husband, Rick, began volunteering. A master gardener, he has used his expertise to build the garden beds and serves as lead gardener for the community garden, which serves to feed and to educate locals.

Rick said his eyes have been opened to the “great needs” of a significant portion of the population, pointing out that the restaurant is located in the ZIP code with the lowest life expectancy in Texas.

Donna Heim and Diane Nguyen
Volunteers Donna Heim and Diane Nguyen are seen at Taste Community Restaurant on February 2, 2024. (NTC/Juan Guajardo)

Donna offers to pray with customers when she can sense fear, grief, or hopelessness. “There’s so many people just so hungry for someone to see them and ask and care,” she said.

The retired educator added, “I experience Jesus here every time. I love being able to serve people. I love the people I work with. God is in the midst all the time, every day — even on a hard, crazy day or when we have a difficult customer. There’s always a lot of grace in this place.”

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