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Pay-What-You-Can Vegan Café in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park Neighborhood Thriving Despite Pandemic

Susan Bence
Executive director Christie Melby-Gibbons (left) and cook Yatesha Brown (right) preparing lunch at Tricklebee Cafe.

For months we’ve been hearing bleak stories of businesses struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. But one exception is a unique café in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood.

Tricklebee Café's mission is not about profit, but to create community. Customers pay what they can for made-from-scratch meals.

READ: Milwaukee Pay-What-You-Can Cafe Aims To Feed The Hungry

Since opening four years ago, donations of funds and food have kept Tricklebee afloat.

Now, the business seems not just to be surviving — but thriving.

With the aroma of roasted pumpkins and parsnip soup wafting from the café kitchen, executive director Christie Melby-Gibbons said when the café opened in 2016, it was Milwaukee’s first pay-what-you-can café.

“We wanted to be heavy on the plants and local produce and offer a healthy option,” explained Melby-Gibbons.

Within a year, Tricklebee went totally vegan. Melby-Gibbons said some people questioned the café’s location at 45th and North.

“People have said – why don't you go to like Madison where this is kinda trendy, or go to the east side of Milwaukee where this would really be the spot for the artsy people,” she said.

Melby-Gibbons answered, saying Tricklebee wasn’t conceived to make money. It was there to make a difference.

Credit Susan Bence
Christie Melby-Gibbons said 70 volunteers helped restore what they could and rebuild what they couldn't to bring Tricklebee Cafe to life.

“Places where there's true need for food, healthy food, affordable food, so we said let’s go right in the middle of it,” she said.

The café is in a building that was a bakery back in the 1910s. By the time Melby-Gibbons spotted it, it had been vacant for a decade. It took a full year to bring it back to life. Although she was new to town, Melby-Gibbons, a natural connector and ordained Moravian Church minister, found people to help.

“We're walking around the neighborhood and meeting people. So neighbors started to come in, youth started to get curious about what we were doing and would come and help paint the walls,” said Melby-Gibbons.

One neighbor she made a point of repeatedly running into was Yatesha Brown, who had started a soap making business. The two met at an artisans’ market, and Melby-Gibbons thought Brown was a great candidate for Tricklebee’s advisory board.

Brown wasn’t so sure.

Credit Susan Bence
As lunch simmers, Yatesha Brown and Christie Melby-Gibbons sit down to publish the day's menu featuring fresh and preserved produce.

“After seeing her like the second time she was like, I would like you to consider being a part of our board and I was like ‘lady I don’t know you’. She was like, why don’t you just look at the place,” recalled Brown.

Brown looked, liked what she saw, and joined the board. It was then Christie Melby-Gibbons learned Brown’s talents include being a gifted cook.

“She was like you're down the street, it’s so convenient, you should think about it, just be our cook,” said Brown. “I was like nah.”

Brown did succumb. Now, every day she comes up with a new lunch menu. Brown described her job as serving people love on a plate.

“The ability to be able to feed someone is a ministry of love. And I don’t think you really understand what that looks like, especially if you’ve never experienced food insecurity; They never get to experience the ‘oh my god this tastes good’ or ‘this fed my soul’,” she said.

"The ability to be able to feed someone is a ministry of love. And I don't think you really understand what that looks like, especially if you've never experienced food insecurity; They never get to experience the 'oh my god this tastes good' or 'this fed my soul'," - Yatesha Brown

Brown said that’s what happens at Tricklebee Café.

“I think, nah, I know for sure that this place being here has been a great help to this community,” she said.

Brown worried when the pandemic forced the café to shut down for two full months last spring, but to her surprise, customers have come back strong. 

“June 3rd was like our first day back and it was surprising that within like the first week we were serving like 50 to 60 people a day,” she said.

That’s twice the size of their lunch crowd pre-pandemic. Though Tricklebee, for now, is strictly curbside carryout, business has remained steady.

Still, Brown misses serving customers the way she believes they should be served. 

“When you get to plate someone’s food and you know them, right, and you know what they like and what they don’t like and how they would like something," she said. "You don’t really get to add that same touch when it’s ‘to go.’ And sometimes their food is not as hot as I would want it to be."

Maybe that loving attention is helping the café ride out the pandemic storm.

Up until this year, Tricklebee was sustained primarily by grants. Executive director Christie Melby-Gibbons said “something has shifted.”

“Like 60 percent of our income comes from individual contributors who just believe in what we’re doing, that was kind of mind-blowing for me because it used to be very different, we used to be 80 percent grant,” said Melby-Gibbons.

Credit Susan Bence
Tricklebee has enough tomatoes, thanks to a huge donation from a farmer, to take them through a winter of lunches.

And Melby-Gibbons said they’ve received food donations like never before.

“We had a farmer bring pallets and pallets of heirloom tomatoes, we sauced 30 quarts of sauce. I mean, that will last us through the winter,” she explained.

Melby-Gibbons said neighbors play an important role too.

“We find more families coming in and ordering for their entire families. So, we used to have one or two meals per person, but now people are coming in and saying six of everything,” she said.

Melby-Gibbons said neighbors have always paid what they can.

“But interestingly I think our average is up per meal, what people are giving right now, or they volunteer their time,” she said.

Credit Susan Bence
One day Tricklebee will be able to welcome customers to its expanded cafe area.

There’s lots more to this story.

Tricklebee recently purchased the building it’s been renting for four years and will be able to double its seating.

So one day when its doors open again, Melby-Gibbons said more people will have the chance to experience the community the café is striving to nurture.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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