A New York Restaurant's Daily Special Is Dignity

One City Cafe opens its doors to food-stamp customers and cash-paying patrons who want a good, inexpensive meal

Settle back into the plush burgundy velvet banquettes, order a fresh-squeezed juice, and take in the modestly elegant surroundings. Welcome to One City Cafe, the first ''nonprofit'' restaurant in New York City. Serving ''cross-cultural comfort food'' at low prices, One City opens its doors to food-stamp customers -- as well as ordinary cash-paying ones.

New Yorkers of all backgrounds breaking bread together is the goal of the 90-seat cafe, owned and operated by the Food & Hunger Hotline.

''It feels good being there,'' says Valerie Smith, a One City regular who appreciates the classic combination of food, service, atmosphere, and value. The ad agency she works for is a few blocks from the restaurant.

But One City is also an oasis for those trying to make a transition out of poverty; it's a distinct alternative to soup kitchens and food pantries. It serves ''people who are at a different place in their lives,'' says Ellyn Rosenthal, executive director of the hotline. While Ms. Rosenthal's agency is the oldest in New York connecting people with emergency food sources, the cafe is testament to the belief that charity alone can't solve the problem of hunger.

Part of the Food & Hunger Hotline's comprehensive approach is a nine-month job-training program involving 40 percent of One City's staff. Most trainees are former shelter residents who hold a high school diploma or GED. Five months of the curriculum is real work experience, both in back-of-the-house culinary skills and front-of-the-house service and management.

Falling back on her own education as an anthropologist, Rosenthal led 200 hours of interviews with homeless women and children to generate ideas for the restaurant. She had originally envisioned a cafeteria.

''[The] feedback changed our whole concept,'' Rosenthal says. The interviewers heard repeatedly, ''We wait in line all the time. Please let us come and sit down and be served.''

Interviewees also wanted a place where they could be safe and comfortable. Thus, One City has standards like any other restaurant: It expects its patrons to be reasonably well-groomed and well-behaved. ''We spent many, many months wrestling with this issue,'' Rosenthal explains, in considering whether and how to exclude people if that became necessary. So far, however, One City has not had to ask any customers to leave.

The result of Rosenthal's research is a gathering place positioned at a cultural crossroads in Manhattan, convenient to mass transit and near several small shelters housing the poor. One City's food and atmosphere reflect a spirit of integration and the mixed-ethnic character of the neighborhood. Caribbean, Latin and South American tastes predominate. Executive chef Paul Markosian also prepares specials that include other cuisines.

The menu is a choosy eater's paradise. There's a handful of entrees and sandwiches, and a long list of side dishes. Order grilled chicken, for example, and the server will ask your preference for white or dark meat, barbecue or Caribbean jerk sauce. The dish includes your choice of two side dishes, say, fried plantains and sauteed kale. All this for $7. Lunch specials go for $3.95 and dinner specials for $4.95. Food-stamp customers pay half-price.

Karen Karp, a restaurant consultant and project developer for the cafe, says, ''We have our antennae up [about] the ratio of food-stamp to cash customers. In marketing to two distinct groups, we'll keep a balance that is comfortable to us,'' about 60 cash customers for every 40 or so food-stamp ones.

Cash customers help subsidize meals for food-stamp patrons. About one in 10 Americans receives food stamps. But only those food-stamp recipients who are unable to cook or who have no access to cooking facilities -- including the homeless, elderly, and disabled -- may carry identification for the US Agriculture Department's food-stamp restaurant program. They may patronize a small group of establishments that choose to provide the service. This group includes fewer than 200 restaurants and fast-food outlets in 17 states.

With the $25-billion food- stamp program remaining a target of Congress's efforts to curb welfare costs, one possible wrinkle for One City is the proposed electronic benefits transfer (EBT), in which food-stamp clients would pay using debit cards instead of paper coupons.

Regardless of changes in the food-stamp system, One City's survival will depend on a combination of goodwill and savvy management. Although $300,000 was invested in inventory, fixed assets, and training-program development for the start-up, Rosenthal estimates between $75,000 and $100,000 in labor was donated by architects, construction workers, and other professionals.

Greeting each other with hugs and handshakes at the beginning of a shift, it's clear that the warm atmosphere fostered by the staff is just as important as the original art on the walls, the white tablecloths, and fresh flowers. And the trainees are not the only people learning here.

Manager Yolanda Kelly, whose background is in corporate dining, says of her exposure to the plight of the truly hungry, ''It's been an education for me, too.'' Occasionally, she is asked in whispered tones which of her employees are the trainees. ''It's difficult to educate people in one eve-ning,'' Kelly says. ''But show and prove is the only thing you can do for New York City clientele. At the end of the night, they're delighted with the service, and I say, 'You tell me, who is the trainee and who is the employee.'''

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