A Delicious Library Collaboration
Running a restaurant is no easy task. And while libraries do a lot of things amazingly well, being a restaurant operator on top of all that is a tricky proposition. But when has a challenge ever stopped a library?
This is certainly the case for Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL). In November 2022, the country’s second SAME (So All May Eat) Café opened at the library. This restaurant has a simple mission: To preserve the dignity of those who may not be able to access healthy food due to financial barriers. Instead, the café allows all guests to pay for food by volunteering time, giving produce, or donating money.
Building community by offering delicious and healthy food regardless of someone’s ability to pay? I had to know more.
I recently connected with Jason Kucsma, TLCPL Executive Director and Fiscal Officer. He explained how the project went from idea to reality and what he’s learned about community partnerships and strategic collaborations along the way.
Lean in when opportunity knocks
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of Toledo community leaders (including a few area restaurateurs) were looking for ways to address food insecurity in the area. This group contacted SAME Café leaders who had already been scoping contender cities to scale their restaurant concept. SAME’s leaders believed that launching their next location at a downtown public library would align with their philosophy of accepting everyone through their doors.
Though Jason had been approached by SAME in the past, the timing hadn’t been right. “We revisited a conversation from July 2020 again in fall 2021 after our café closed,” he said. And from there, plans came together. This included everything from determining how to retrofit the library’s existing facility to responsibilities between the two entities.
Ensure mission alignment
“Bringing the SAME Café to TLCPL was a great fit,” Jason said. “They nourish bodies while the library does the same for minds and spirits.” And the restaurant’s model was proven, with well over a decade of experience to its credit, making the decision to partner even easier.
Jason was excited that SAME’s service philosophy was very much in tune with the library. “We open our doors every day to people, regardless of how they got to us. We deliver the best service, regardless of what they have. The restaurant does the same.”
Be clear about responsibilities
Jason emphasized how valuable the close partnership was from the very beginning. The partners wrote a Memorandum of Understanding outlining both the big responsibilities (like who’s involved in the design phase to retrofit the facility) and the small (like who takes out the trash at the restaurant). In the end, the SAME Café raised funds to retrofit TLCPL’s existing kitchen space and now runs independently from the library. Volunteers prep food, cook, and clean. They even have an amazing Cook to Work program that prepares students for entry-level positions in a restaurant or commercial kitchen.
Deliver something unexpected to your community
The element of surprise and delight really does matter. In many cases, members of underserved communities may feel that they lack choices, including what to eat. “Just like we give people content choices, the SAME Café offers two food options each day—two soups, two salads, two pizzas, etc.,” said Jason. I was really struck by the importance of choice; empowering people with choices really does support an individual’s sense of dignity.
The only downside to the partnership? The tempting scents wafting throughout the library. “We always know when there’s extra garlic in a recipe,” Jason said with a laugh.
I appreciate Jason’s openness in helping me learn more about the partnership with SAME Café. I’m inspired by how this incredible collaboration might inspire others, and I can’t wait to try the SAME Café deliciousness when I’m in town.
Photos provided courtesy of Toledo Lucas County Public Library.
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Like adding toppings on a pizza, strategic community partnerships offer exciting opportunities for #EngagedLibraries and their users. The possibilities for both are endless. After talking with Jason Kucsma at Toledo Lucas County Public Library, I wanted to highlight how one of their amazing community partnerships is bringing new flavor to their library.